jaate hue kahte ho qayamat ko mileñge
kyaā khuub qayamat kaā hai goyaā koiī din aur
It was sometime in 1997 that I met Mahvash Faruqi as we waited for participants to arrive for a theatre workshop at the PNCA office in Karachi. It was the beginning of a twenty-one year friendship that ended on June 11, 2018, as Mahvash succumbed to the disease that took her away too soon, too early, from all of us.
Our friendship spanned across a career in theatre as we became integral members of the theatre group Tehrik e Niswan. Mahvash shone with her stellar performances in plays that are recognised as the group’s finest productions. Being part of the troupe longer than I was, she helped ease me into an alien environment, as she did for every new comer. From stage productions to community plays, theatre was Mahvash’s world, where she was in her element. She gave it all with her body and soul, her mind and spirit, and owned every production beyond the responsibilities of an actor. Whether it was composing songs, ensuring the actors sung in unison, supervising rehearsals, or collecting props at the end of a play, Mahvash was there to ensure that the job was done. Who can forget her extraordinary performances in plays like Ek Hazaar aur Ek theen Ratein, Jinnay Lahore nahin Vekhya, Zikr e Nashunida and Amar Bayl.
Few people perhaps know that Mahvash began her career in the performing arts in Lahore as a child, anchoring the first coloured TV show for children, directed by Moneeza Hashmi. Performance was in her blood, and she carried the legacy of her grand aunt Zohra Sehgal, and her mother Zara Mumtaz with grace and dignity. Mahvash moved to Karachi when she married the well-known artist Moeen Faruqi, and continued her association with theatre in a new city, which she very soon made her own.
When in 2011, Mahvash’s sister Maliha Ahmed requested us to read an Ismat Chughtai story for her college reunion event, we obligingly agreed. Moving with some trepidation into this unknown territory, we negotiated this art form, which required us to pare down all our familiar skills to create a focussed work that relied entirely on the voice as a performative medium. As a means to embellish the work, we imbued it with a musical score, inviting our friend and colleague Saife Hasan to man the sound cues. The reading, a short six-minute rendition of Ghoonghat, drew encouraging responses and we were invited to do the same for another event.
Adding Chughtai’s story Bachho Phuppi along with excerpts from Manto’s essay on Ismat, we created the first formal work, Ismat Chughtai kay Saath aik Shaam in February 2011 and presented it to a wider audience at The Second Floor (T2F) the same year. The production was received beyond our expectations, and as more invitations flowed in, we formally created Zambeel Dramatic Readings, with Mahvash, Saife and myself as the co founders.
Zambeel was the lifeline for us at a time when our creative energies needed a direction. Mahvash’s ownership of the initiative gave it the thrust the group needed to be recognised as a genre in its own capacity. As we put our heads together to research new material, we soon found our individual roles in the creative process. While I set about giving the work its creative shape, she honed in towards paying critical attention to details about presentation, and networking for the group. We spent long hours ensuring the demands of the language were met with accuracy. As friends pitched in with suggestions, the work grew in leaps and bounds.
It is impossible to disassociate the memory of any performance with Mahvash’s house, which became our “office” and place of rehearsal. As she opened her home and heart to us, we soon became permanent fixtures at her place. The three of us began as nervous novices and gradually found confidence as the years grew.
Mahvash and I were soon recognised as the quintessential duo, complimenting each other with our respective skill sets. Despite being a public figure, Mahvash shirked from being in the limelight, always finding means to escape the camera or the public eye. For her, Zambeel was of prime importance and she worked to thrust it for recognition and accolade.
It was Mahvash’s idea to initiate a children’s thread at Zambeel, which became the highlight of our work. Being a mother, she was drawn to children instinctively, more so after the birth of her youngest son. The culture of storytelling was alive in her home with her mother’s influence and her son’s rapt attention. For her, the inclusion of a young audience was vital in reviving the Urdu language for the younger generation. Very soon Mahvash’s entire family was involved in the making of these children’s stories. Her mother Zara Mumtaz penned the stories, her son Danish and her niece Zeerak composed and sung the songs to create what became our signature fantastical tales of mystery and awe.
During the last year, while debilitated with the disease, Mahvash was continuously connected with Zambeel and its progress. My archive of exchanged messages over minor details of every show reflects her angst at not being able to participate, and her pride for every production that shone. Despite her frailty, she planned Zambeel’s future and contributed meticulously for every new production. We collaborated at her place to create our last work together, a children’s story presented at a school in March this year.
In her short life, Mahvash contributed to theatre and Urdu literature in measures beyond compare. She stepped into her acting roles with what seemed like an enviable ease, but it was clear that she laboured over her work to bring it to fruition. Her last performance in Karachi is perhaps one of the most memorable ones for Zambeel. Playing Bari Bu in Intizar Hussain’s story Reserved Seat in the collection titled Rail Kahaani, Mahvash stole everyone’s hearts as the endearing and effusive old woman who is anxious to interpret her dreams. Steering the story effortlessly from its light-hearted introduction to its tragic ending, Mahvash stunned the audience with her rendition. My ears still ring with the prophetic lines of the story; Gaari aaee aur mein gaee.
In our years together, we laboured, cried, laughed endlessly, shared anxieties, resolved and disagreed on work and personal matters. I miss her infectious laughter that enfolded everyone within her orbit. We are left with her indelible presence in our lives. I say presence, because I refuse to believe that she has left us. She is with us in our hearts and in our spirits.