For any art to flourish it is imperative that its roots be in the soil: Madeeha Gauhar
'Mad' Gauhar, as she is teasingly referred to by her friends, is saner than most. Her sobriquet, however, sums up her boundless energy, tremendous drive and the single-minded manner in which she conducts herself. Here is the original restless, tormented soul seeking new watering holes for her unquenchable artistic thirst.
"I've been active in amateur theatre, acting and direction since school," says Mudeeha. She played Viola in a British Council production of Twelfth Night and followed it up with Sarab (for Kinnaird College), Sarmad Sehnai's Phandey and Peter Schaffer's Black Comedy. In 1975, she directed To This Night a Dawn, a play on South Africa's apartheid policy and produced and acted in another play The House of Bernada Alba — a play very pertinent to the problems of women in Pakistan. But her most talked about play is, of course, the very hard-hitting and very contemporary Jaloos, staged recently by her newly formed Ajoka Theatre Workshop. It causes a lot of heartburning among the 'thekedars' of theatre.
But whether she is pitted against the 'thekedars' of theatre, or confronted by societal restraints, Madeeha is the rebel with a definite cause. She'll follow her taste for the exotic to China and India, and even convert her mother's lawn into a theatre to get around the restrictions of a platform (and perhaps the authorities?). Having successfully launched the Ajoka Theatre, Madeeha is off to London to study drama. But before she could take off, we got her sister FeryaI Gauhar to parry bon mots with her. The result ...
Feryal Gauhar. How were you introduced to television?
Madeeha Gauhar. MNH saw my performance in Sehbai's play (Phandey) and asked me to appear in a seven-episode serial with Qavi. I was still a first year student and the offer was unexpected. That appearance on TV was followed by others but I tended to be very selective. While preparing for my B.A. examinations, I was asked to play the lead in the serial Dastak Na Do. Unfortunately, I was not permitted to shoot at night, so I had to say no because of PTV's new recording timings.
Feryal. It was during this period (1976-78) that you went to China on a Chinese government scholarship. In a world where everyone is going West, what made you go East? Was the experience enriching?
Madeeha. In many ways, particularly the tremendous economic progress taking place, considering that China is as old or as young as Pakistan Yet a certain disillusionment was also apparent — the radical Jiang had been overthrown by the new moderate regime signifying the end of the cultural revolution. However, it was an unforgettable experience. By the time I returned, the TV scene had changed; so I decided to stay away from it. A few years later, at the insistance of MNH, I agreed to act in PTVs first feature film Noor Baaf. Ashfaque Ahmed's script was putrid. But I went ahead with it because of my regard for MNH.
Feryal. Things are no longer the same between you and MNH these days. You are no longer one of his favourites?
Madeeha. It's very difficult to play along in a certain set-up when one has a mind of one's own. Sycophancy is rampant and no one is immune to it.
Feryal. Is that why viewers don't see you on TV anymore?
Madeeha. The fact that I cannot be a chamcha is one of the reasons, but the more important factor in that I do not see eye to eye with PTV's policies. Any creative act needs freedom of expression. TV censorship policies stifle any such possibility. Besides, I believe I have been officially banned because of my participation in a women's procession protesting against the proposed Law of Evidence.
Feryal. So it is this suffocation which compelled you to come up with an alternative method of expression?
Madeeha. The Ajoka Theatre Workshop provides an alternative to TV as well as to the inanity of commercial stage productions.
Feryal. What is the motivating force behind a group such as Ajoka?
Madeeha. Commercial theatre has sunk to the lowest depths. Yet there was enough talent available which needed direction and mobilization. Sarmad Sehbai, Imran Aslam and Salman Shahid. I decided that in order to create more meaningful drama I would have to evolve an alternative to random amateur productions which needed consistency and sustained activity. Of course, there was some initial difficulty in the formation of the group.
Feryal. What sort of problems did you encounter?
Madeeha. It was difficult to mobilize students from various colleges. We often faced opposition, particularly in GC, which is unfortunate since GCDC has contributed a great deal to Lahore's theatre. But obscurantism prevails even there. We had asked one of the members of the Watermill Theatre (performing the Merchant of Venice in Pakistan those days) to work with our group while she was in town. However, we were asked to leave the GC premises without any cause, as a result of which I decided to hold the workshop at home to ensure maximum freedom and the least possible external interference.
Feryal. What is the concept behind Ajoka?
Madeeha. First of all, we wanted to form a group of young theatre enthusiasts. We planned to hold lectures and discussions on theatre, but were let down by the people who promised to help out in this regard. At this point I realised that we were totally on our own, completely isolated in a society hostile to meaningful creativity.
Feryal. Are you referring to people such as the Hashmi's and Company (Limited)?
Madeeha. You can say we no longer have any illusions...
Feryal. You are now on your own, and manage to run a successful workshop?
Madeeha. We were fortunate enough to have Kathy from the Watermill Theatre who introduced us to Trotowski's method. We held play-readings followed by discussions and by the end of the first month we decided to get down to production. The play chosen was Badal Sircar's Jaloos — done in experimental form as a montage of contemporary issues and contradictions.
Feryal. Why was this particular play selected?
Madeeha. Not only was the play relevant content-wise, but as the first production of our workshop, I felt we had to reach for a new form. Conventional theatre requires enormous funds, a proper stage, lighting facilities, costumes and other equipment to which we did not have access. For a long time had visualised a revitalisation of indigenous theatre in 'Raas' style, where the group of players would mark out an area by erecting a pole in the middle of our village squares and perform to the audience seated around them. Ever since the introduction of the Western concept of theatre these indigenous forms are now a dying art.
For any art to flourish it is imperative that its roots be in the soil. The sort of communication possible in such theatre does not find a parallel in the proscenium stage which alienates the audience and creates an illusion of unreality. Apart from the revitalisation of 'Raas' theatre in the pristine form, I had wanted to create a new content dealing with contemporary issues.
Furthermore, with our complete lack of resources, this was really an ideal form. I would at this point, like to clarify our so-called lack of access to a formal stage like the Alhamra; we had wanted to introduce a totally new concept — and will hopefully continue its development. On a visit to India. I was fortunate enough to meet Jaloos's playwright Badal Sircar and discuss his play with him. He himself was not only using the traditional form of Indian theatre but was aIso updating themes and issues.
Feryal. Much has been written about the success of your production. What would you say to the audience and media response?
Madeeha. Had I been able to, I would have preferred to have an audience from a cross-section of society, but as things stand, it was confined to intellectuals and students. The positive aspect lay in the student response, which was very encouraging. They understood what we were trying to put across and though at times their laughter was inappropriate, one overlooked it because of their lack of exposure to serious theatre.
The way theatre has evolved in Pakistan, one only goes to have a good laugh. In certain scenes, their total engrossment was signified by pin-drop silence. The general response was extremely enthusiastic and encouraging. One only wishes that the play could be taken out of the confines of a residential suburb into the heart of the city where people can see their own lives being acted out. Media response was also good — rather unbiased given the nature of the play.
Feryal. Has there been an increase in the workshop membership following Jaloos?
Madeeha. We started off with approximately 12 members, and received many inquiries but are limiting our membership to another 20 persons. Unfortunately, females face too many restrictions and are thus hesitant to join.
Feryal. What is the criterion used for selection to the group?
Madeeha. Through interviews and auditions.
Feryal. How is the workshop organised to maintain sustained activity?
Madeeha. The workshop has an executive committee elected from among the founding members who take on organisational responsibilities. Instead of taking everything into my own hands. I want our members to develop initiative and confidence in themselves so that we don't prove to be just another elitist theatre group like so many others in the past. I don't want to restrict participation and leadership to just a select few. Interestingly enough, after the unprecedented success of Jaloos, many of the big wigs of Lahore's elitist theatre have approached us saying that they'd like to "give us direction" as "we've always wanted to do the same thing."
I'm rather wary of these condescending offers, since they come from the same people who never turned up when we were still an unknown struggIing group. All I'd like to say to them is that by all means "go ahead" and do what you've "always wanted to do" — but somehow never managed to do. They have all the talent, funds, resources at their disposal ... Ajoka Theatre Workhop can survive without big names.
Feryal. Would this attitude not alienate you from people who have been recognised as the pundits of theatre locally? At one of your meetings. I witnessed what seemed to be the undercurrents of a conflict arising from certain attempts to sway the workshop in a different direction and under other wings ...
Madeeha. There was a proposal that commercial plays should also be produced under the aegis of Ajoka. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of members were against this proposal and each reiterated that the primary objective of our workshop was to create meaningful theatre. If, however, a meaningful play with a high aesthetic standard was commercially viable, there would be no objections to staging it.
Personally, I feel that we should not deviate from our originaI purpose and deteriorate into another moneymaking venture.
Feryal. What about conflicts arising from the close cooperation required of people coming from different backgrounds?
Madeeha. The group mostly comprises young people coming from a variety of backgrounds and social classes, with a smattering of the 'upper elite' with a certain intellectual enthusiasm for theatre. There is a natural tendency on the part of such people to try to manipulate such groups for their own purposes. I strongly feel that if this sort of theatre has to develop, it has to go into the right direction. If at this stage of its inception, attempts are made to steer things away, I'm afraid the effort will come to nothing.
Feryal. You are on your way to London to study drama on a British Council scholarship. What would you say about the future of the Ajoka Theatre Workshop?
Madeeha. I am quite optimistic that the young people will be able to run the workshop, working things out amongst themselves, writing and producing purposeful plays on con temporary issues. In fact, we are already on our way to the second production. What we can do without are patronising attitudes. Otherwise, all genuine help is welcome.
This article was originally published in the Herald's July 1984 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.