The Madeeha Gauhar Theatre Festival
It was to packed crowds filled with the country’s artistic elite that the Madeeha Gauhar Theatre Festival opened at Lahore’s Al Hamra Arts Center on Thursday. A three day affair honouring the life, times and legacy of the theatre icon, the festival comes only a few months after Madeeha Gauhar passed away after a three year long battle with cancer.
In her storied life as a theatre director, artists and activist, Madeeha Gauhar’s crowning achievement was her founding of the renowned Lahore-based performing arts group Ajoka Theatre. Not only did she found Ajoka, but also served her entire life as its artistic director, a position through which she influenced and created many memorable moments on the stage, propelling Ajoka to the position of respect it now holds as a premiere arts and performing arts group, whose work is greatly looked forward to.
This festival was an ode by Ajoka to their founder and artistic director. Personally undertaken by her widower and Ajoka’s executive director, the three days were filled with events that celebrated the profound life and works of a woman par excellence.
Often when festivals are launched, the goal is to see them become a regular part of the social calendar. Whether annual or biannual, organisers are usually already picturing a sequel in the distance well before the first edition takes place. Inaugurals, after all, are often geared in a way to make room for the future. In this rush of overthinking, the event on that day may suffer. Every year there are festivals of art and culture. Every year there are promises to come back again before the zeal of the first time fizzles away, leaving the event a one time occurance.
As far as first time events go, the Madeeha Gauhar Theatre Festival ticks all the right boxes. It had a diverse range of events, from exhibitions to actual performance. The organisers took great pains to make sure that the three days rolled out smoothly. Inaugurated by renowned journalist and human rights activist Hussain Naqi and Lahore Arts Council executive director Captain (R) Atta Muhammad, it boasted other prominent attendees including Professors Sajida Vandal, Fauzia Afzal Khan, Shaista Sirajud Din, Ruksana David along with Pervez Vandal and chairperson National Commission on Status of Women Khawar Mumtaz. And most importantly, the festival seemed to get a lot of attention from the people of Lahore. Even on Thursday night, Hall 2 of Al Hamra was packed for the theatre performance. The weekends provided an even greater turnout.
Perhaps the greatest reason for the success of the festival was the great personal connection involved. For the Ajoka Theatre team, the loss of Madeeha Gauhar will be something they are still processing. For her husband and Ajoka’s executive editor, Shahid Mehmood Nadeem, it will have been a particularly bittersweet experience. On the one hand he honoured with great success the life of his late wife, on the other, he did not have her there with him to share in Ajoka’s achievement.
Despite everything, one factor that shone through was the festival’s focus on Madeeha Gauhar herself. A dedicatication is not the same thing as a theme, but this was by all means meant only to showcase one person. This makes one wonder whether the festival will be sustainable, but it also means that the three days we just had were top notch.
Starting with an exhibition in Al Hamra’s art gallery, pictures of Gauhar’s school, college and family life were put up at the exhibition. A collection of traditional craft, awards and accolades, and dresses worn by the late activist were also presented as the audience showed great interest in the items.
For the opening ceremony, a short documentary highlighting the personal and professional facets of Gauhar’s life was screened. Officialy opening the festival, Shahid Mehmood Nadeem welcomed the guests and dedicated the festival to Gauhar, saying she left behind a rich and vast legacy of socially meaningful theatre. Reminding the audience of Madeeha’s role not just as an artist but also an activist of peace, her husband focused on her belief in uniting her two passions by using art as a means to build lasting peace.
Of course the main attraction of the entire festival were the three plays that Ajoka put on. The three plays performed in hall 2 of Al Hamra are some of Ajoka Theatre’s most popular and well received plays. All three had originally been directed by Madeeha.
“Kala Meda Bhes” was performed on the opening night, a play about the search for water in South Punjab and the colourful Cholistani cultue, presented in a folk style. Set outside of a mazar, the play features a single well controlled by the head of the mazar.
A classic Punjabi play, it features the small town politics surrounding something as basic as water. While it may be a stretch, the play’s natural lyricism and moments of song make it almost a Punjabi musical.
With a beautiful set, the play had the audience in stitches, while managing with equal power to bring across serious social themes. The two female leads did an amazing job at portraying their characters, with the backdrop of the mazar a constant reminder of where the play was grounded. It managed to portray social issue while not demeaning Cholistani culture, but rather promoting it. Ther slew of flower sellers that surrounded the stage almost like humnawas also added a fascinating dynamic to the play. \
The performances of Friday and Saturday equally appealing, with the already packed hall filling to more than capacity, with theatre lovers lining the steps of the theatre.
“Lo Phir Basant Aee”, about the Basant festival in Lahore, a social satire on the changing lives of Lahoris, was performed on the second night to roaring approval from the crowds. On Saturday, team Ajoka performed the Ajoka Theater classic “Bullah” – Ajoka’s all time hit play on Sufi poet Bulleh Shah.
The cast belted out another mesmerising performance, not just in the festival but of the group’s landmark play. The event then ended with an eclectic live qawali performance that took the event out on a high.