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Breaking ‘white’ silence on Komagata Maru: Canadian playwright stages play

punjab Updated: May 13, 2016 17:14 IST
Nirupama Dutt
Komagata Maru

Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock (left) with Vancouver-based poet and translator of the book into Punjabi Ajmer Rode (right).(HT Photo)

Some four decades before Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to offer an apology in the House of Commons for the 1914 Komagata Maru episode, Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock (80) had broken the ‘white’ silence on the denial of 376 people aboard the ship by writing and staging a play called ‘The Komagata Maru Incident’ that opened at Vancouver Playhouse in 1976 and in London in 1983.

The noted playwright, director and actor who took up the onus to put right a historical mistake calls the apology by Trudeau as an important and appropriate gesture “in symbolic acknowledgement of a great wrong done in the past”. However, Sharon said in an online interview to HT: “I would rather have the apology be accompanied by government total funding to erecting a public memorial, the nature of which would be determined by the Sikh community, or government funding of a number of annual significant educational scholarships to Sikh students.”

Read: Indo-Canadians welcome Trudeau’s decision to apologise for Komagata Maru

Racism exposed

Asked what inspired her to write this landmark play, Sharon said: “I am interested in social and political issues in historical events, their consequences, and the people who have played major and minor roles in those events. When I wrote the play, what happened to those on the Komagata Maru was a little-known event in Canadian history. I was inspired to write it because I was appalled by the actions of the Canadian government and the racism it exposed, as well as by the fact that this event with its consequences in Canada and in India had essentially been wiped out from our history books and national memory. I also wanted to honour in some way those who suffered on the ship, and those in the Canadian Sikh community, including Mewa Singh.”

Read: What you should know about Komagata Maru

Productions of the play have always received a most positive response from the Indian community. Sharon says: “Back in the 1970s, what happened to the Komagata Maru was relatively unknown outside the Sikh community. The publicity around the play and the Canadians’ growing awareness of the event was welcomed. I have received great support from community individuals across Canada and in the UK when the play has been read or performed there.”

(HT Photo)

The play is not chronological documentation of history and the audience sees one Indian Sikh woman, who represents the 376 passengers aboard the ship, chained to the edge of the vessel. However, the other actors are oblivious to her and only the audience can see her torment and hear her pleas. This works as a powerful theatrical device and Sharon says: “The play is not a documentary but a mix of facts, rumours of the time, my own imagination, and a theatrical style and structure.”

Punjabi translation

The play has just been translated into Punjabi by Vancouver-based poet Ajmer Rode. He said: “The play intrigued me because it is by a white writer who has transcended race and nationality to show injustice done by her people to their fellow British citizens, the passengers of the Komagata Maru. Also, I admire the way Sharon has constructed the plot. It brings out in a subtle, artistic and comic way the corruption hidden in the intentions and conducts of Canadian officials. I felt the Punjabi translation of Sharon’s play could show Punjabi drama writers, at least new ones, an alternative way of presenting historical events”.

Asked to comment on the official apology that came some 102 year after the incident, Ajmer said: “It is good and will make Indo-Canadians feel a bit more part of Canada, although it is not something I am overly enthusiastic about.”