A TRIBUTE TO GURSHARAN SINGH:
A dramatist who had the courage to stand his ground in an era of terrorism in Punjab
NALIN K. RAI
Water bodies have an element of charisma associated with them; they invoke romance, passion, melancholy for individuals. But for Gursharan Singh, arguably one of the biggest signatures in Punjabi theatre, water was a source of inspiration and the catalytic factor that turned him into a dramatist. He was working on site at the Bhakra Nangal dam project on Sutlej River, and watching the fury of Sutlej being tamed by the human perseverance had remarked that if the human will could change the course of water, then it indeed had the potential to change the course of society as well.
From then on, his association with theatre began, and his intervention in the business of performance arts was with the sole objective of injecting change for betterment of the society by questioning the prevalent norms, dogmas and age old beliefs. He was probably the first person who deviated from the chaturmaas concept of theatre, or the aestheticism associated with theatre and injected raw energy into it by bringing in element of contemporariness into it. The journey began with a small initiation in Amritsar in 1954 with the play Lohri di Hartal. His theatre intervention was christened as Amritsar Natak Kala Kendra. Those who have been associated with Punjabi theatre hold the view that where it not for Gursharan Singh, Punjabi theatre would not have developed and prospered in the way it eventually did. After partition of the country there was a void as IPTA people moved to Bombay aka Mumbai and the gap was admirably filled up by Gursharan Singh.
Though he was a towering personality of Punjabi theatre very few people outside Punjab would be even aware about his existence. Gursharan Singh idolized Bhagat Singh and his thought processes, and in nearly all the performances of Gursharan Singh, Bhagat Singh’s ideology emerges as a start motif. Fittingly enough, when the whole country was celebrating the birth anniversary of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Gursharan Singh breathed his last on 28 September 2011 and left for the heavenly abode at the age of 82 years. Being inspired from ideology of Bhagat Singh, Gursharan Singh’s plays were shot through and through with national fervor and it was on account of national fervor, he was the only person associated with performing arts who had the guts to stand up to terrorism in Punjab in the eighties.
At the height of terrorism in Punjab, Gursharan Singh used to travel to the rural areas to stage his shows and strove to maintain the communal and social harmony of the societal fabric of Punjab. He was literally traveling around the year, as during a year he used to perform more than 200 shows, and factoring in the travel time, it indeed was a monumental effort towards the cause of Sikh-Hindu Unity. Had this effort been undertaken by a politician he would have been heaped with awards, but Gursharan Singh’s contribution was never recognized by the government. It could be owing to the fact that by his ideology he was a hard core communist, which translated means opposing policies and actions of the government and therefore government did not award him with recognition. But it was difficult to ignore his contribution to the social fabric of the society of Punjab when he passed away, manifest from the ground swell of opinion that emanated in the different forms of media and the Chief Minister of Punjab, Prakash Singh Badal also paid warm tributes to him after he passed away. It would be one of the rare occasions in the drama history of India that a dramatist received condolence from the Chief Minister of the State.
" Such was his conviction in his own theatrical performances, that at the height of militancy in Punjab, he had the guts to dare Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale outside Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar by staging a play against terrorism. Bhindrawale could not do anything against this audacity. The audacity would have happened probably owing to the fact that Gursharan Singh was immensely popular among the people in the villages and if some action would have been taken against him, there was a lurking fear that they could lose support of the people in rural areas.
He also deconstructed the business of staging drama in Punjab. This comment underlined the rebel nature, a characteristic feature of his trait. Indeed, his theatre performance was an ode to rebel streak, where he broke every rule associated with theatre performance, and removed the mask of elitism and snobbishness from theater to take it to the doorstep of the common man. His refrain was, that if the common man cannot reach theatre, let the theatre reach him, and he in his own way gave a new idiom of performance, characterized by informal setting of a background, shorn of gloss, and shot through and through with telltale signs of commonality like a road, a square, or a village yard, gate of a factory or a even in Dalit localities, and used bullock carts profusely as the stage to enact performance. Choice of bullock cart in particular for enacting a drama facilitated in developing an organic link with the audience as bullock carts were vibrant street furniture of rural life. In his theater career he wrote more than 200 plays and staged more than 1000 performances".
This comment underlined the rebel nature, a characteristic feature of his trait. Indeed, his theatre performance was an ode to rebel streak, therefore he broke every rule associated with theatre performance, and removed the mask of elitism and snobbishness from theater to take it to the doorstep of the common man. His refrain was, that if the common man cannot reach theatre, let the theatre reach him, and he in his own way gave a new idiom of performance, characterized by informal setting of a background, shorn of gloss, and shot through and through with telltale signs of commonality like a road, a square, or a village yard, gate of a factory or a even in Dalit localities, and used bullock carts profusely as the stage to enact performance. Choice of bullock cart in particular for enacting a drama facilitated in developing an organic link with the audience as bullock carts were vibrant street furniture of rural life. In his theater career he wrote more than 200 plays and staged more than 1000 performances.
Gursharan Singh was a dramatist in true sense of terms as he used it to question unjust nature of the society. It was in this sense that his drama was quite different from
the dramas that are staged on stages throughout the county side, as they seldom question the unjust nature of the society, and rather use the situations as a trigger to develop the idea of performance, while Gursharan Singh’s plays always questioned the norms of the society through each of his performances.
At times Gursharan Singh is compared with Ghadar of South as both of them epitomize the struggle of the common and rural masses against the hegemony of the state and both have tremendous fan following. Gursharan Singh was however different from Ghadar in the fact that he did not have any political inspirations, nor did he staged rebel against the state, besides he was an educated person who used his education to understand the dogmas and archaic rules of the society and waged a war against them through his theatrical performances to pave the way for an equitable society. It was owing to his intervention that Punjab government initiated the process of including mother’s name in a child’s birth certificate. But how many of us are even aware about this fact? For a state like Punjab, where there is a rampant female infanticide, it was a monumental step forward towards gender empowerment from the formative stage of education itself.
One wonders why when the Maruti car story was written Gursharan Singh did not get a reference in the work. Gursharan Singh used the Maruti car to travel around the countryside of Punjab to enact his plays. As a matter of fact his theatre troupe that used to roam around in Maruti car was called by the skeptics as “Maruti Manch”. One only hopes that when the success stories associated with Maruti 800 are written Gursharan Singh would feature with prominence as this middle class car was used by a middle class man along with his troupe to spread the message of social and communal equality around the country side.
As it is the wont in our country of not believing in documenting the efforts undertaken, work of Gursharan Singh also are inflicted by the same fate. Fortunately enough, his disciple, Kewal Dhaliwal, who had been associated with Gursharan Singh for more than 10 years, has documented all the plays written and staged by him, and has presented them as a series in seven volumes through his platform of drama Manch Rang Manch. Now that all his works have been chronicled in Punjabi at one place, one only hopes that an aficionado of drama would take up the herculean task of translating all the works in English so that fans of drama around the world could assuage what a wonderful dramatist Gursharan Singh was. It takes ages for a man like him to walk the earth, and when that monumental feat happens, the process needs to be documented, preserved and disseminated in as diversified form of communication idioms available as could be possible. It would be a befitting tribute to his memory; after all he was Shakespeare of Punjab. He evolved his own form of rural theatre akin to that developed by Brecht, Shakespeare, Habib Tanvir etc., and one only hopes that the political dispension after paying homage to his memory would also take initiatives to set up chairs in universities to undertake research on the monumental corpus of work that he has left behind.
Nalin Rai is a development professional who has written scores of articles in English and Hindi on contemporary issues. An M. Phil in History from Delhi University, he hails from the belt which has always been witness to migration in search of jobs and the elusive security for oneself and future generations.
The regional centre of the national school of drama (NSD RRC) is organizing a National theatre festival for Children at Municipal Town hall Palakkadu from 02nd 06th November 2011. Eight beautiful children’s plays from Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu will be performed in the fest. A theatre workshop for school teachers and a photo exhibition is also arranged along with the fest. The plays are scheduled at 6.30 in the evening.
The dates of Delhi International Arts Festival 2008 are 2nd December through 24th December. The format is multi-arts, multi-venue with the participation from about 15 Countries in various segments and a 2500 strong indigenous artistic component. Over 50 venues will come alive during the 23 day period with world class professionals performing alongside special segments created for the youth and children.
The Charles Wallace India Trust (CWIT) is an arts, heritage conservation and humanities scholarship fund. It enables Indians in the early or middle stages of their careers to spend time in the UK, helping to achieve their artistic, professional or academic ambitions and make wider international.