Journey of Ajoka’s Executive director Shahid Mehmood Nadeem.

From Student Leader to Internationally acclaimed Playwright.

Shahid Mehmood Nadeem is a unique and powerful playwright in the world of theatre, penning impactful, socially relevant plays on the socio-political situation of the country. A former student activist, Mr Nadeem has a great contribution towards parallel theatre in the form of Ajoka, which he conceived and was brought to life by his late wife Madeeha Gauhar.

In this interview, we have tried to cover various aspects of his journey as a writer and activist equally popular across the border.

Question: Tell us about your initial life. Where u spent your childhood?

Answer: I was born in December 1947 in Sopore, India-held Kashmir – the hotbed of the freedom movement. My father, one of the first medical doctors of the valley, backed a merger with Pakistan and had to leave because of threats by pro-India Muslim Conference. “I became a refugee at the age of 1.”

After migrating to Lahore, i received primary education from Batapur Colony School. Soon my father left for Muscat, Oman, so i moved to Lahore city with my mother and siblings where most of his maternal relatives lived. Following my Matriculation from the Muslim Model High School in 1963, i got admission to the Government College.

In college, i got actively involved in extracurricular activities and students politics, dabbling in debating, the college literary society and later edited the Government College Gazette.

Question: How do you join the student politics?

Answer: “When I joined the Punjab University for masters in 1968, students world over were protesting for progressive causes. The PU Students Union was banned by Ayub Khan and vice chancellor Hameed Ahmad Khan, a learned man, was an authoritarian administrator. I initiated a movement for the restoration of the union, joined hands with other student organisations in the city and became spokesman for the intercollegiate union.

I was arrested for the first time in 1968, but released after the high court’s intervention. After Ayub Khan’s era, the university union was revived and I became a candidate for its president. However, I decided to withdraw in favour of Jahangir Badr for the sake of a left-liberal alliance against the Islami Jamiat Talba,” explained Nadeem.

Question: What were your major hobbies in the youth?

Answer: Besides activism, i was interested in writing and became secretary of the literary organisation, Halqa-i-Arbab-i-Zauq, where i presented my first short stories and received applause from leading writers. “My friend Sheharyar Rashid (the son of poet Noon Meem Rashid) suggested I adopt one of my stories into a play for the Kinnaird College theatre festival. That’s how my first play, Marya Hoya Kutta, was written and presented. In the audience at the festival was Madeeha Gauhar, who later became my wife.”

Question: How do you got associated with Ajoka theatre?

Answer: Talking about his association with Ajoka and Madeeha, Nadeem said in the early 1970s, a group of progressive cultural activists formed a theatre group and he suggested Ajoka (meaning contemporary in Punjabi) as its name. However, the group didn’t take off due to the post-1971 upheaval. “During Gen Zia’s rule, I was forced into exile. It was in the mid-80s that I read in a newspaper about a performance by a new group, called Ajoka, set up by Madeeha. She had heard of the unsuccessful venture and decided to make it a reality.

Shortly after, I met Madeeha in London and she asked me to write for the forthcoming International Women’s Day. That’s when I wrote my first play for Ajoka, Bari, which was performed in Lahore on March 8, 1987. There was no stopping after that. I started writing for Ajoka regularly during which my romance with the theatre group and Madeeha blossomed. I left my job at Amnesty International and returned to Pakistan and got married. I sometimes say in jest: I conceived Ajoka and Madeeha delivered it.”

Question: How do you see the journey of Ajoka theatre in promotion of meaningful theatre in Pakistan?

Answer: Established in 1984, Ajoka became a platform for defiance at a time when Gen Zia’s military rule was at its peak and all avenues of expression of dissent had been closed, galvanising political activists, progressive intellectuals and the rebellious youth. Madeeha Gauhar was an activist as well as a committed theatre practitioner and ensured that Ajoka did not become a propaganda tool for the opposition and presented socially meaningful, but quality theatre.

“It has been a tightrope ever since. All our plays gave a political or social context, but they are entertaining and enriching at the same time. We have focused on original plays in indigenous languages and always taken a pro-people position. Our stand on Indo-Pak peace, gender-based violence, intolerance and religious extremism has sometimes landed us in trouble with the authorities and extremist groups, but it has given us credibility among the masses,” he remembers.

The theatre group has toured India widely with its plays for decades and received acclaim every time. Talking about their association with the next-door neighbour, the writer said their theatre-based relations with India dated back to the beginning of the group; one of their first plays, Jaloos, was an adaptation of Bengali playwright Badal Sircar’s story.

“We were the first group to tour India after the Partition and have performed from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Amritsar to Kolkata and always received warm response from the audience and the theatre community. My plays are regularly performed by Indian Punjabi theatre groups and at school/college festivals. A collection of my plays was recently published in Gurmukhi and are part of university syllabus. We have organised hugely popular Indo-Pak theatre festivals in both countries and played a significant role in promoting peace and people-to-people friendship.”

Question: During Corona Pandemic Ajoka is quite busy in online activities. What are upcoming projects?

Answer: I am currently working on some history-based plays, including the story of Raja Porus, Lawrence of Arabia’s years in Lahore and a play around the key players of the Partition as well as some short films for the web. Newsupdates times wished best of luck to Shahid Nadeem for his future endeavors.