Spoken-word performer and alternate theatre practitioner Parnab Mukherjee held the audience spellbound as he cried out ‘Comrade, are you leftist?’ in the narrow space of a conference room. The replies to this question shouted out twice were: ‘No I am a leftover’ and ‘No I am left out’.
The venue was the People’s Convention Centre, a new building with a faded red flag in the city’s Sector 36, the occasion an interaction with singer-activist Bant Singh hosted by the Chandigarh Sahitya Akademi and Parnab was enacting a poem called ‘Diwali’ by Punjabi revolutionary Dalit poet Sant Ram Udasi (1939-86). Belonging to a Mazhabi Sikh landless labour family, Udasi was truly a people’s poet writing songs of poverty, pain, struggle and change.
Prophetically, Udasi had called out in one of his songs ‘Do not weep on my death, cherish my thoughts’ and cherishing his thoughts, singing his songs, Bant was able to rise above grave travails to emerge as the Dalit icon of Punjab also nicknamed ‘The singing torso’. Singing his songs to the audience, he recalled that he was but 11 or 12 when he first heard Udasi and became his ardent fan. Bant said when Udasi heard me sing as an adolescent he appreciated my resounding voice and blessed me.
“Udasi ne kiha tu chardi kala vich rahenga!” were Bant’s precise words. ‘Chardi Kala’ is the Sikh philosophic concept of a joyous state of mind.
Next came Parnab, a performer familiar to the city having presented performances based on the poetry by Kumar Vikal and Lal Singh Dil in the past, and won applause for his intense and charismatic performance based on ‘Diwali’, a poem in which Udasi says a happy Diwali would be one in which penury and debt did not chase workers. Parnab went onto link the thoughts of the poem to present times saying:
‘When penury does not chase us,
When Kalahandi’s belly bursts with food,
When 147 arrested Maruti workers receive just justice,
When we get to know the well-being of the enforced, disappeared, disenchanted is not looked with the idea of calling them damned,
When we shall apologise for the death of Shambuk,
Then it will be a happy Diwali!’
Using the minimum of innovative props and some improvisation here and there, like turning a half-empty mineral water bottle into a machine gun, he not only drew attention to Udasi’s words and thoughts but reinterpreted them in the present context. Thus moves forward the legacy of a people’s poet.