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A century on the stage…

…and counting. A peek into the 100 odd years of Punjabi theatre affirms the presence and dominance of the two factors that sustain any art form — socially-conscientious individuals and their indifference to material gains. By Navleen Kaur Lakhi

chandigarh Updated: Nov 24, 2013 09:14 IST
Navleen Kaur Lakhi

When we stepped into 2013, we knew it wasn’t going to be a regular year, at least not for those involved in acting. From the city of dreams — Mumbai, which celebrated 100 years of filmmaking this year — to Punjab, where theatre turned a glorious century, celebration was in the air. But, while Bollywood organised a grand and befittingly glamourous tribute, festivities at home, if any, have been rather damp.

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Refusing to let the milestone year go unnoticed, we take stock of Punjabi theatre’s arduous journey from nukkad nataks to modern day stage, noting achievements and taking another look at golden memories while introspecting.

Across the rural-urban divide

It all started on the street, where it matters most, and continues to be directed towards the significant audience — the aam aadmi. Ask any theatre veteran to recall his or her oldest memory of Punjabi theatre, and he or she is most likely to bring the name of Gursharan Singh, theatre activist, street play director and Punjabi playwright, known fondly in the theatre circle as Gursharan bhaji.

This Kranti da Kalakaar’s (another of his popular names) theatre has inspired many a generation’s thinking and impacted Punjabi rural communities by picking social issues.

Samuel John, one of Punjab’s most ardent theatre activists, considers theatre’s reach to villages as its most significant achievement. Born in Dhilwan Kalan, district Faridkot, Samuel, who has been dabbling in theatre for over two decades now, shuttles between Lehragaga and Chandigarh, his two adopted hometowns. “The biggest achievement of Punjabi theatre is that it continues to flourish in villages and remote areas. Over the years, there has not only been an increase in the number of performers but also in the audience,” says Samuel, whose themes for plays focus on Dalit emancipation.

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Early on, as a part of the repertory at Punjabi University, Patiala, Samuel had realised the need to take entertainment to the rural poor who were deprived of the various media available in the urban belt. And then, there were the social evils to address. “Many revolutionary and farmers’ organisations play a key role in helping theatre thrive in rural parts. While urban audience comprises literary personalities such as theatre artists and writers, it is the aam janta that makes up rural theatre’s viewers. If problems such as farmer suicides are the burning topics, the entire Punjab would be found doing plays revolving around these. Social issues always top most theatre groups’ agenda,” adds Samuel.

And all this, with no technical support and almost nil financial aid, says Ajmer Singh Aulakh, 71, noted Mansa-based playwright and theatre director whose plays played an essential role in bringing into focus the life in Malwa region, especially the pain of farmers with small land holdings. “The content of rural Punjabi theatre puts the people in centre stage. Theatre groups operating in the interiors of the state don’t have access to technical equipment or proper sound and lighting systems, but they manage to showcase plays owing to their passion and love for it,” says Aulakh, recipient of prestigious awards including those from the Punjabi Sahit Akademi and Punjabi Sangeet Natak Akademi. Some of his most loved plays are Chenabe Paani and Begane Bohar Di Chhaan.

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Spread over 175 acres, Preet Nagar in Amritsar was once the centre of a cultural renaissance and drew many leading intellectuals to live and work there. The annual Preet milnis held there attracted people such as the ‘great grandmother of Punjabi theatre’ Norah Richards, who is said to have brought theatre to Punjab in 1913.

Others such as Ishwar Chandar Nanda (based in Lahore), Dhani Ram Chatrik (founder of modern Punjabi poetry), Amrita Pritam (poet, novelist and essayist of Punjabi language), Mohan Singh Mahir (Punjabi poet), Balwant Gargi (dramatist, theatre director and novelist of Punjabi), Faiz Ahmed Faiz (revolutionary poet of Urdu and Punjabi language) and Sahir Ludhianvi (Urdu poet and lyricist) were also regulars at these milnis. Preet Nagar is also where Balwant Gargi wrote his famous play, Loha Kut, in 1944.

Driven by obsession

If arts are for paupers, a passion for the craft makes up for a lack in material gains. However, when Jatinder Brar brought Naatshala to Amritsar in 1998, it was evident that theatre was slated to see better days. A theatre director and playwright, Brar is an engineer by profession who returned from the US to invest in his love for theatre and homeland, expecting little dividend in return. Naatshala, today, is one of the most technologically sound theatres in Punjab, boasting of a modern multimedia system and equipment. “Our main agenda while starting Naatshala was to provide what others only imagine.

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From the revolving stage with multi-dimensional features to an entry system with both horizontal and vertical entries, air blowers with ducts opening in the hall so that the fragrance reaches every corner, water sprinklers fitted in the ceiling of the hall for creating artificial rain and a moveable platform-fitted trolley at a height of 10 feet above the main stage, there is hardly anything that a production company would demand and wouldn’t find here at Naatshala,” exclaims Brar.

The theatre veteran claims to have inspired Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal to waive off the 125% entertainment tax in 2008. “Badal sahab came to watch a play called Faasle in Naatshala in 2008. Though he was expected to stay for only 10 minutes, he ended up seeing the entire three-hour play. That day, he proceeded to remove the entertainment tax, a move that was later endorsed by the cabinet too,” says Brar.

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We ask him if it’s hard to look for audience. “Instead of looking for viewers, we face the problem of accommodating them. If we assume Amritsar’s population to be around 13 lakh and the youngsters to comprise 10 lakh of it, you can imagine how we cater to 200 viewers per performance, for 200 performances,” says Brar.

There are many others like Brar who have founded theatres by generating funds or using their own savings, such as the International Progressive Unique Theatre (INPUT) by Hansa Singh in Beas, Nat Place in Verka, Amritsar, by Balwinder Singh and Unique Open Air Theatre in Faridkot by Surdarshan Maini.

Then there is Mullanpur-based Harkesh Chaudhry’s Gursharan Kala Bhawan. “Whatever little we would earn from our performances, we would keep saving. Most of the members in the group were working elsewhere too. In 2007, when we founded Gursharan Kala Bhawan, many former members of the group who are now settled abroad also contributed,” informs Harkesh, 43, a part of the 25-year-old theatre group, Lok Kala Manch.

Money matters

Despite its many achievements, Punjabi theatre is nowhere close to being a revenue-generating source of livelihood. However, the scenario might change with some production companies beginning to charge tickets for their plays. This culture is said to have been started by theatre stalwart Harpal Tiwana, who returned to Patiala along with his wife Neena Tiwana after graduating from the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi.

Neena is currently the resident director and chairperson of Harpal Tiwana Centre for Performing Arts (HTCPA) in Patiala. “There aren’t many professional theatre groups in Punjab. When we talk about theatre, we talk about the audience too. My husband and I created an audience that was ready to pay to watch our play. A month before the performance, we would sit on three-wheelers wearing our costumes and tell people about the performance. And, they would come.

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Even today, we only cater to an audience that would buy tickets,” she asserts.

From a ticket costing Rs 100, HTCPA has graduated to pricing a ticket for as much as Rs 500. “Recently, when Om Puri and Divya Dutta came to stage the play Tumhari Amrita, people were ready to pay even Rs 1,000 for a ticket in the first row, and the hall was jam-packed,” says Neena, who believes that inviting people to watch plays for free doesn’t ensure a heavy turnout. “Only a technically sound performance will create audience, something that many theatre groups lack,” she adds.

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Manpal Tiwana, Neena and Harpal’s son, says, “We have turned theatre into a begging bowl. People think it’s easy for me to sell tickets because I am Harpal Tiwana’s son. But, everyone has to make an effort. I believe that all of Punjab’s theatre people should take a stand and vow to not perform without charging a basic minimal amount.”

This thought is echoed by well-known theatre director Kewal Dhaliwal, based in Amritsar, who formed Manch Rangmanch after graduating from NSD in 1991. "We began with charging `20 per ticket and offered the audience to redeem their money after the play was over if they didn’t like it. But nobody would take back the money since they loved the plays so much. This continued for three years, after which we put the ticket system permanently."



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It’s hardly the time to be smug, emphasises playwright Pali Bhupinder, for there is much to be done in the realm of theatre. Pali has written and directed almost 300 plays apart from doing a PhD on Poetics of Punjabi Drama.

“My observation is that the writing and direction of plays are not at par. In a span of 100 years, writers have done an admirable job as compared with directors. Our first professional director came in the ’60s when Harpal Tiwana returned from the NSD, followed by Tony Batish and Kewal Dhaliwal. The language of writing improved tremendously with noted playwright Balwant Gargi’s works,” he says.

Pali is currently preparing an encyclopedia of Punjabi drama sponsored by the UGC, called Punjabi Nat-Kosh (in four volumes) which will have more than 1,700 Punjabi play entries published between 1913-2013.

Dhaliwal, meanwhile, regrets that theatre is not a part of school curriculum, leading to many not viewing it as a viable career option. “The biggest tragedy is that theatre education isn’t a part of studies. A master’s degree in theatre is available at Punjabi University, Patiala and Panjab Univeristy, Chandigarh. But where do we find graduates in theatre?” he asks, adding, “I consider professional theatre as that which is done by trained people. Why should you indulge in theatre only if you are free in the evening? We should now focus on improving our skills by organising and attending workshops,” he says.

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