‘an artless slogan’
Leading Punjabi playwright and theatre personality Gursharan Singh died on Wednesday after prolonged illness in Chandigarh. He was 82.
His cremation took place in the afternoon. A large number of people, including leading theatre personalities of the region, were present on the occasion. The legendary Punjabi playwright and street play director, called “Gursharan Bhaji” fondly by people, had created the character of ‘Bhai Manna Singh’ through his plays.
Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal described the death of Gursharan Singh as an irreparable loss to Punjab and Punjabi theatre movement. He said that the genre of theatre developed by Gursharan Singh had come to be called as the rural theatre with modern sensibilities. Badal described the playwright as “revolutionary, missionary and a socialist”, who had worked hard to bring Punjabi folk and rural theatre to the forefront.
“Gursharan Bhaji”‘s street-theatre activity has inspired a generation of activists and impacted Punjabi rural communities in general.At the height of Sikh terrorism in the 1980s,he continued to perform,regardless of the threat to his life. Whether as actor,author or director,Singh aims at theatre for social change and for civil rights. He has written over fifty plays.
His wife Dr. Kailash Kaur and daughters Dr. Navsharan and Dr. Areet were by his side when he breathed his last around 11pm. He was on dialysis for the past six months. Noted octogenarian playwright spent all his life staging plays on social issues, With nearly 8,230 performances in 50 years.
This father of Punjabi rural theater, an engineer by profession and having worked in the Govt. job too, was known for his experimentation with the revolutionary ideas. He is credited for being the developer of a genre of theatre, now called rural theatre with modern sensibilities.
He raised a voiced against the social disparities and evils through the popular character of Manna Singh, which ultimately came to be associated with his name for a lifetime. “Dhamak Nagare Di” , “Chandni Chownk tu Sirhind Tak”, “Baba Bolda Hai”, “Kammiyan da Wehda” are a few of the uncountable famous social plays he staged.
Gursharan Bhaa ji ran more than 35 centres in various villages of Punjab, including a theatre group at the Pracheen Kala Kendra, Sector 35, Chandigarh, where he trained local talent. He was the recipient of the Revolutionary Dedication Award, Kalidas Samman and the State Language Department Award to name a few.
A Battleship Called Gursharan Singh
He was an engineer on a hydroelectric project. During dam construction the river Satluj, one of the five rivers of Punjab, India, had to be diverted. So, while standing on a hill, he thought that if the direction of a river can be changed, then why not our society? And this was the turning point in the late 1950s when the five-decade-long journey of Gursharan Singh career in the theater began.
The voice of the octogenarian thespian still thrills the hearts of many and inspires them to raise their voices against an oppressive social system. Gursharan Singh not only acts and crafts the tragic stories of the voiceless ones but also voices the silent cries of the millions of poor, the marginalized of society, the people who for centuries have not been allowed to speak.
Theater for him is a medium to liberate the people from oppression, so he charges only Rs 2000 to 2500 (US$44 to US$54) per performance. So far, he has penned 133 lays, and there have been about 8,500 performances all over the world. His life partner, Kailash Kaur, and two daughters for several years have also accompanied him on his mission. Out of his long journey a new genre of theater has been born, going under the name of “rural theater.”
He raised the voice against the “emergency,” when citizens were deprived of their democratic rights (declared between 1977 and 1980 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi), and was dismissed from his position. He was arrested under a trumped-up charge of “training the youth to blow up a bridge.” After going through the charge sheet the magistrate laughed and said to police officials, “it would have been better to implicate him in some theater activity case.”
After the “emergency,” a new government was formed, and Gursharan Singh was released with other political prisoners and reinstated. But once again in the early 1980s, police came to arrest him. He then resigned his job and became a full-time theater activist, which made him the most celebrated face and voice of the deprived people of Punjab. Even the threats of Sikh fundamentalists (in violence that took the life of more than 20,000 people) could not halt his journey.
Some “critics” have termed his theater “an artless slogan.” But always ready with a fitting reply, and, contrary to the theory of “art for art’s sake,” he used art as a mean for the betterment of society. His theater group produced some world classics by Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett, and he himself penned some of the most memorable dramas written in the Punjabi language. But he declared that “elite theater” is not suitable for the poor masses of India, and that the need of the time was to develop theater paying heed to the limitations of rural society.
“I chose theater as a medium to voice my concerns and have succeeded in, for example, challenging the practice of requiring only one’s father’s name in applying to schools. After a long struggle the state government now requires one’s mother’s name too on all official forms. The universities followed suit. Even today in India a pregnant woman covers her stomach as if ashamed, while in the West a pregnant woman gets the utmost respect. We still have to get that respect for our women,” his bright blue eyes beaming.
Among hundreds of other honors, in 1993 he also received the country’s highest award for artists ? the Theater and Music Academy Award. This January he was honored with the Revolutionary Commitment Award in a sleepy village in Punjab. While presenting him with the souvenir, braving the chilly winds, more than 20,000 laborers, peasants, students, and intellectuals echoed together “Long live Gursharan Singh.” Addressing the heartwarming reception, he said with wet eyes, “this award is close to my heart as it comes from my own intimacy with the very people I have interacted with throughout my life.”
As people watch the suffering of the oppressed in Gursharan Singh’s theater, they sob silently and their eyes fill with tears. Such is the power of his work. He voices people’s innermost feelings that they, out of fear, do not express. He moves them to take the road they fear to tread. This is precisely why he has inspired thousands of youth during his long journey.
If some time in the future the history of cultural activism in India were to be written, this brave soldier of the people would be regarded as of epochal importance.
On the query as to whether he is satisfied with what he has done in his life, after a long pause he simply says, “I have still a lot of work to do.”