Tributes to the unforgettable Madeeha!

By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal. Dated: 5/11/2018 12:20:07 AM

Madeeha Gauhar passed away last month. Those who knew her would find a little space in their hearts filled with a void. She was a towering and magnetic personality; and her impressive body of work and commitment to ideals of humanity and peace impacted people she had been associated with in big and small ways.
I first meet Madeeha Gauhar at the first SAFMA meeting in Islamabad in 2000, while waiting outside Marriot Hotel for a car to pick us up for some formal dinner. It was a brief chance encounter, and not a very significant one.
On that particular meeting, our husbands were accompanying us. Clad in a bright coloured silk saree with a border, she was instantly appealing with her wonderful Urdu accent and her throaty confident and mellifluous voice. Shahid Nadeem, her husband and veteran writer and director, was mostly quiet. Later, we learnt that he also had a Kashmir connection.
After introducing ourselves briefly, we discovered our similar passions for theatre and India-Pakistan friendship. My husband, Prabodh Jamwal, had acted on stage for productions of a Jammu based theatre group Natrang for years. To our joy, we learnt that she was the director of the much talked about and acclaimed play Ek Thi Naani, featuring the two illustrious sisters Zohra Sehgal and Uzra Butt who were separated by the borders and brought together to share the same stage in the nineties after a gap of 40 years. The play was in news for its remarkable attempt to effectively bring out the common cultural heritage of the two countries and challenged the distortions in history, while bringing out the hypocrisy of how both societies discriminated with the women, through the sufferings caused by the separation of two sisters and families divided by the borders. It was also in news for the controversy it had evoked as fundamentalists and ultra-nationalists in Pakistan accused the drama of being anti-Pakistan.
She spoke briefly about the idea behind the play and the theatre group, Ajoka, in which the couple had been involved for years. But much of our conversation inside the car, during that brief ride, was on India and Pakistan relations. Madeeha and I were both members of the Pakistan India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy but had never met (I was not very active in the PIPFPD those days). On that first and brief meeting, I was held in awe by her but she didn't quite come across as a warm, affectionate and sensitive person, a surprising discovery I made much later.
Several years later, I again met her in 2005 when she was staging her powerful play Bullah Shah, on the noted Sufi saint and his philosophy of humanity. I was spell bound by the immense power and boldness of her theatrical brilliance. 'Bullah', the play directed by Madeeha Gauhar and written by her husband Shahid Nadeem, was the first ever play from Pakistan to be staged in J&K state.
A year before that, a common friend had connected us on the e-mail after Madeeha showed interest in knowing the story of a Pakistani woman who had spent time in a jail in Jammu. This woman from Mirpur who inadvertently crossed the borders had landed in Jammu. Tired of regular rebukes and harassment by her in-laws in the mid-nineties, she jumped into the river to end her life but was drifted ashore on this side. She was thereafter lodged in Poonch jail where she was raped by a cop and subsequently gave birth to a baby girl, she doted on. After her detention was quashed, the tensions between India and Pakistan delayed her deportation and when that finally materialised, Pakistan was unwilling to accept her daughter. Women groups and individuals on both sides worked hard to press for her deportation along with her daughter and finally managed to send her across, where this woman continued to face harassment at the hands of her family. I sent her copies of reports that had been published by Kashmir Times and other papers as well as the contact of her lawyer.
When I met her in Jammu, she spoke about the work in progress on her drama based on the traumatised woman's story. Madeeha never met the woman, maintaining that any conversation would renew her trauma and that she did not want to be responsible for it. Her reluctance to turn the woman into some kind of a public spectacle showed and endearing sensitive side to her personality. Instead, she collected fragments of what was already in the public domain, interacted with people who had worked at various levels for her release and deportation to Pakistan and resurrected her story.
Coincidentally, when her drama based on the story 'Dukh Darya' had its debut performance in Lahore in March 2006, my father and I were there, along with my sister and daughter. She played the host for us several times during that visit and we also had the chance to see her play. The heart rending story of the woman and her daughter was beautifully blended with the India-Pakistan animosity. She cleverly used the feminist metaphor of mythological Sita and the arrows of her two sons, Luv and Kush, to portray the pathos of separation, longing and suffering.
In much of her work, she liberally used folk tales, legendary stories and traditional theatre forms in her works, strongly believing that these would connect to the South Asian audience and were thematically more suitable. Feminist themes, humanity and peace were an essential part of most of her productions, betraying her bold and extremely liberal views for which she had to bear brunt. But she was indomitably defiant and spirited, facing criticism both in Pakistan and sometimes India, too.
She had been very keen to stage Dukh Darya in Jammu, both in 2007 and 2008, but every time the organizers developed cold feet. They thought that the theme was too bold to be portrayed and may cause controversy. Finally she dropped the idea but kept visiting Jammu and Srinagar and often brought CDs of her productions for us every time she came.
The association with Madeeha was not only at an intellectual level. The bonding transcended our similar political and liberal views. It was also deeper and at a personal level, mostly because of my father, Ved Bhasin. Both shared a common commitment to several issues and both were irresistibly affectionate with amazing sense of humour. Both shared a special bonding. Madeeha and her family became our close family friends since 2005 when she came to Jammu. Till her younger son, Sarang, was 9 or 10, he always accompanied her and called himself 'Mamma's traveling partner'. She often stayed in our house in Jammu and we looked forward to the hours of discussions, our hopes, fears and laughter.
During these visits, I learnt about the many facets of her amazing life - her years of activism during the Zia regime when she courageously joined other Pakistani women in fighting for liberal values. And, then there was a child-like quality in her wit, her passion for good food and great clothes. With my sister, she shared a passion for shopping and sometimes, they would both disappear for hours which they'd spend in the markets.
Whenever she was in India, which was very frequent, she would atleast make a phone call. Once she called up and was upset. She'd learnt that the woman on whose life her play Dukh Darya was based had died. On another visit, she spoke about her play Burqa Braganza running into rough weather with the authorities in Pakistan.
About a couple of years ago, sometime in March, she requested if I could write an invitation letter (for visa purpose) to enable her sons to visit both Jammu and Srinagar for a holiday. They wanted to visit the following summer. I immediately sent her letters and invited them to stay with us. She promised they would. I didn't hear from her all of summer and then by late August, the CID sleuths started investigating whether I had sent the invitations and how we were related. Apparently, they weren't quite acquainted with the idea of 'friends' and made several visits to our house and my office as well as my sister's just to get a better sense of the 'friendship' across the borders. We thought the visa process was finally on rails. We were looking forward to see Madeeha and family but even after the CID sleuths disappeared from the scene, there was no news. It was impossible to connect to Pakistan on phone from Jammu and Kashmir and e-mails weren't quite Madeeha's strong point.
Then one fine day, perhaps in September or October, I got a surprise call from Madeeha. She was visiting Mumbai and was with Seema Sehgal, a famous Dogri and Ghaal singer. (The latter hails from Jammu and has a close association with our family). I enquired about her botched up trip and she explained that the Indian High Commission had rejected the visa application in July itself and so they had given up. We laughed satirically at the way things function in offices in the sub-continent and she promised to visit the following year.
I didn't hear from her for over a year. The autumn of 2015, when my sister was visiting Delhi, she heard about Madeeha's illness. She was in Delhi for her cancer treatment. My sister met her and was inspired by the manner in which she was courageously battling her disease and was responding very well to her treatment. She still seemed spirited. I spoke to her on phone and she spoke with as much gusto as she always did but sounded very upset about my father's illness and kept talking about him for a few minutes.
Some months later, she called after my father passed away and expressed her condolence. She said she was recovering and was continuing with her work. She sounded in high spirits. Nothing could chain her or break her. Her lifetime is a great achievement and I am proud to have been personally associated with her.
Her untimely death is both a personal loss and a loss for the causes that were so dear to her. Her work and legacy, however, live on. She will be missed. Adieu!
A scene from Bullah Shah
Madeeha Gauhar with husband Shahid Nadeem
A scene from Burqa Braganza
Zohra Sehgal and Uzra Butt in a scene from 'Ek Thi Naani'



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