THE HINDU notes: In 25 years, the noted Pakistani theatre personality’s group, Ajoka, has engaged with issues ranging from the ‘military-mullah nexus’ and brutalisation of society, to the construction of post-Partition identities. Following Ajoka’s recent performances in India in stormy times, Madeeha Gauhar reiterates the need to recognise the subcontinent’s unique lifeline — a shared cultural heritage which crosses all borders.
With a dark shadow cast over bilateral ties following the Mumbai attack, and heightened by the high-decibel war on nerves unleashed on both sides, the stage had been set without their asking. But not only did acclaimed theatre director and actor Madeeha Gauhar’s Lahore-based group Ajoka, which turns 25 this year, perform thrice in India in the past month. The overwhelming response of audiences from Delhi to Kerala reaffirmed the feisty 52-year-old’s faith in people-to-people contact, sustained by the “legacy of the sub-continent’s shared cultural heritage that lives on in their hearts.”
Known for plays that have questioned Pakistan’s ‘military-mullah nexus’, Ajoka performed Hotel Mohenjodaro on January 16 at the National School of Drama’s festival in Delhi. The play is an adaptation of a prescient 1960s short story that predicted Pakistan’s troubled trajectory 30 years hence. Last month in Delhi and at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala in Thrissur, the group performed its most popular play, Bullah. It is based on the life of 17th century Punjabi Sufi poet Bulle Shah, whose powerful message of humanism, questioning all orthodoxies of his time, has gained a new relevance in the troubled present.
Madeeha Gauhar speaks to Chitra Padmanabhan about performing in times of crisis. Excerpts from the interview:
Hypothetically, say, war broke out while you were in India. Don’t you fear you will be dubbed a traitor?
Then nothing will matter. I was a child during the 1965 conflict and a teenager during the 1971 war. Recently, when Pakistani air force planes flew over Lahore, it brought back horrible memories. People were on their roofs watching. There is this element of tamasha in Punjab: in the 1965 war, people in Lahore watched aerial dogfights over the Ravi.
In earlier conflicts, the media was not everywhere. Today, it has gone crazy on both sides. I told my husband Shahid Nadeem, a senior Pakistan TV official as well as the writer of Bullah, to start airing footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki so people know what happens during a nuclear strike. India and Pakistan are not like Russia and America. But people on both sides are in complete denial.
You are one among the liberal voices in Pakistan. How has this liberal voice positioned itself within Pakistan and vis-a-vis India?
I will speak as a theatre activist. Ajoka began by questioning the military-mullah nexus during the Zia-ul-Haq years. Few realised what the build-up of this military-mullah nexus entailed, and whose impact we continue to suffer.
That’s an important facet of our work, whether it’s a play on Bullah, on the blasphemy law (Dekh Tamasha Chalta Ban), or on the discriminatory laws introduced by Zia’s Islamic legislation regarding women and minorities (Bari).
This work continues, whether it highlights society’s brutalisation — the Kalashnikov culture — or Pakistan’s Talibanisation. Our work has helped us understand the ideological manifestations imposed on us since Pakistan’s formation — the creation of a new identity as Pakistanis, looking towards the Middle East, and cutting the umbilical cord with South Asia.
This artificial manoeuvre has created a disjuncture with history and tradition, damaging us as a nation and as a people rooted in our geographical context. This manoeuvring culminated during Zia’s time into the Frankenstein monster we behold today. But the army was always there, lurking. The democratic process was derailed from the start. I feel if we understand this process and nexus, we know what to look for. As artists it has translated into our work.
Bullah, our most popular play with over 500 performances in seven years, gives me hope that this is the philosophy the common man adheres to unconsciously — Sufi humanism, which crosses all borders in South Asia and is unique to the region, though Sufism has been reduced somewhat to ritualism.
Seeing Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh families camping at the Ajmer dargah was amazing. On our first Punjab visit (2003) — first ever of a Pakistani group post-Partition — what astonished me were dargahs big and small, everywhere, in areas bereft of ethnic Muslims, except Malerkotla and Qadiyan. In Jalandhar cantonment, behind barbed wires was a dargah with a lamp and green chador!
In Malerkotla, I saw Hindu and Sikh women dance the dhamaal at dargahs for their mannat (wish). This, I imagined, would have been Punjab’s pre-Partition composite culture. The destruction of belief in syncretic culture in Pakistan and India has been a shame — we had something viable. It still is a living tradition but we must go beyond mere ritualism to claim the rich legacy of Sufism and Bhakti movement.
How does one claim this rich legacy?
It has been a dilemma for me. I am secular. I call myself a Muslim culturally. But we cannot talk of secularism per se in Pakistan or India, for people are deeply religious. Why speak about western secularism, why not talk about our rich legacy?
We try to capture the strong performative element in Sufism through poetry or dance. This directly clashes with Wahabi ideas brought to the subcontinent by Deoband and, recently, by the Taliban — the latter, an import from Saudi Arabia, constructed to create mayhem, and we won’t go into America’s promotion of the jihad concept when it suited them. There’s a definite clash between these two philosophies.
Musharraf spoke of enlightened moderation but was also supportive of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), was liberal in Islamabad but look what was happening in the north-west frontier. Today, we crucially need the clarity of vision of a Pervez Hoodbhoy or Najam Sethi.
Some sections in India maintain that all the liberal voices do in Pakistan is pull a curtain over ISI activities.
Take the north-west frontier. Given a chance, people exercise their will. This time they voted for the Awami National Party and Pakistan People’s Party — secular, liberal parties — saying no to Talibanisation. But the democratic process is fragile because of the army presence and its interests.
India, Pakistan and their civil societies must work together, for the spectre of a Talibanised Pakistan is not some distant reality. Consider the blasts during the recent international theatre festival in Lahore or the public bonfire of CDs as intimidation of mall owners. That is what is happening in the frontier areas. Next they could target Indian films.
I feel frustrated sometimes particularly as a Punjabi. The rest of India and Pakistan feel that when two Punjabis meet, it’s as if no one else matters. But apart from Bengal it was Punjab which really suffered due to Partition. That wound has not healed. To address the issue we host the Paanch Pani Theatre Festival, an Indo-Pakistan event, with most groups from Punjab. We also work with youngsters around issues of identity and shared culture.
Perhaps it’s time for yet another performance of Border Border, written by Shahid post-Kargil, and performed by children from, and in, both countries.
An Indian and a Pakistani family come to see the Wagah border ceremony. Two pairs of siblings, both called Guddu and Guddi and wearing identical clothes, are chaperoned by their mothers; the rigid fathers don’t want to see the ‘enemy.’ In the melee the children cross over to the other side to look for their grandmothers’ friends. Finally, responding to the mothers’ appeals, the BSF guards and Rangers close their eyes for a split second for the children to return to their sides! Except for one Sikh boy you couldn’t tell which actor was from where. The children still continue to email each other.
Has there been any attitudinal change in your troupe members?
Definitely. Most come from conservative backgrounds. Take Sarfraz, who plays Bullah. In Patiala, an old man wanted a reluctant Sarfraz, as Bullah’s avatar, to bless his sickly grandchildren. I asked the 30s something actor to go ahead. He went quiet, realising the healing power of Bullah’s message through his portrayal. A conservative Shia who would never perform during Muharram, Sarfraz played Bullah saying, “Yeh bhi ibadat hai” (This too constitutes worship).
You have a son named Nirvaan.
Yes. After all we are the inheritors of Gandhara, which ironically is in the Taliban’s hands now. People like us in our generation seem to be turning away from Arabic and Persian to Punjabi names, looking afresh at identity. My younger son is named Sarang, common in Punjab and Maharashtra. Nirvaan wanted to name him Rahul after a Shah Rukh Khan character! I named my niece Neha. Last year a Sikh friend from Delhi called us, “I want to name my grandson Nirvaan. Do I have your consent?”
There are many levels of connections.
Absolutely. One of our boys is engaged to a Delhi girl who participated in the Indo-Pakistan theatre festival. Going to Islamabad to process the group’s travel documents is tedious but he readily agrees, declaring, “Mujhe wahan India ki khushboo aati hai” (I can smell the fragrance of India there).
This is what happens when youngsters come together in any society. There has been an opening up in recent years. An Indian diplomat jokingly remarked that the emphasis should shift from people-to-people contact, to intimate people-to-people contact! Jokes aside, this is a natural culmination of contact between India and Pakistan.
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