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In quest of roots

Baba Haji Ratan, Dogar Chapparwala, Kikkar Singh, Gulam. These names do not ring a bell. Why would they? The Partition of India or, as a section of people would put it, of Punjab relegated these names to past. Bringing to life these and many more such names is a documentary Milange Babey Ratan De Mele (Let’s Meet at Baba Ratan’s Fair), directed by New Delhi-based filmmaker Ajay Bhardwaj, 48.

brunch Updated: Apr 22, 2013 09:42 IST
Sanjam Preet Singh

Baba Haji Ratan, Dogar Chapparwala, Kikkar Singh, Gulam. These names do not ring a bell. Why would they? The Partition of India or, as a section of people would put it, of Punjab relegated these names to past.


Bringing to life these and many more such names is a documentary Milange Babey Ratan De Mele (Let’s Meet at Baba Ratan’s Fair), directed by New Delhi-based filmmaker Ajay Bhardwaj, 48. His latest documentary talks of Punjab that once was; of Punjab that was “shaped by Islam”. “Islam cannot be taken out of Punjab. Our folktales, kissaa kaav, and language have their roots in Islam, pointing to undivided Punjab’s pluralist ethos,” says Bhardwaj, who was in Chandigarh on Sunday for the screening — organised by a group, People’s Initiative — of his two documentaries, the other being Rabba Hun Kee Kariye (Thus Departed Our Neighbours).

One glimpse into this region’s inclusive fabric was the Baba Ratan’s fair. Before Partition, people of no particular religion used to visit Baba Haji Ratan’s dargah in Bathinda district. Many qawwals, faqirs, and balladeers used to visit the fair that was one of the biggest of that time. People used to separate by saying milange Babey Ratan de mele. All that changed after 1947.

“The Partition forced people to relook at their identities. The self became the other. The common culture of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus stood divided. My three movies on Punjab [the third being Kitte Mil Ve Mahi (Where The Twain Shall Meet)] is an attempt to look at the absences,” he avers.

The “presence of absence”, as Bhardwaj puts it in one of his articles, in the culture, ethos, language drove him to the subject. “Behind my grandparents’ house in Ludhiana’s Akalgarh village is a narrow street. To this day, it is called Rajputaan di Gali (the street of the Rajputs). This is where the influential community of ‘Rajput Muslims,’ as they were addressed, lived before Partition. The villagers’ reference to the maseet wala gurdwara (mosque-turned-gurdwara) is yet another symbol of the once-powerful presence of Muslims in Akalgarh,” he writes.

Bhardwaj, who started making documentaries from 1997, is concerned about the shrinking cultural space of Punjab. “The logic of market has redefined the parameters of culture,” he rues. Seems true. The names of singer Dogar Chapparwala, and wrestlers Kikkar Singh and Gulam, whose images have been drawn on the walls on Gugga Marhi pir’s dargah at Chappar in Ludhiana, are no more part of east Punjab’s idiom. He wants people such as Macchander Khan Miskeen, a treasure trove of oral narrative of undivided Punjab and the ‘hero’ of Milange Babey Ratan De Mele, to be the medium for taking forward the common culture of the region.

About his future ventures, Bhardwaj has not finalised anything. Whatever he takes up next, the ‘filmmaker, artiste, free bird’, as he has been described on his website, will surely not fly far from his people, his language, his land. The quest to locate himself in the lost narrative will continue.