Sahmat (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust), a Delhi based progressive cultural organisation which aims “to evaluate the life and work of those who were involved in the creative field in the cause of social transformation,” held a three-day symposium in Delhi in 2011. The monograph Balraj and Bhisham Sahni: Brothers in Political Theatre is the outcome of the symposium intended to celebrate the centenaries of two of the illustrious sons Balraj Sahni in 2013 and Bhisham Sahni in 2015. It is a concise biography of the two artists in two short sections, besides a foreword and a section carrying condensed biographical notes.
The first essay written by Kalpana Sahni, daughter of Bhisham Sahni, recalls the major incidents that took place in the lives of the two brothers while the second essay by P.C. Joshi, the first general secretary of the Communist Party of India, deals only with Balraj’s life. A distinct transformation took place in the life of Balraj when he was introduced to IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association). He was planning to plunge headlong into the national struggle, but now he saw that the best way open for him would be to get into active involvement with IPTA and thereby pursue his mission. IPTA was formed in 1942 as a cultural wing of the undivided Communist Party of India the objective of which was to endorse, support and encourage leftist consciousness.
The IPTA put up on improvised platforms in street corners, in by-lanes, public open grounds and areas where people congregated the plays which addressed current issues such as poverty of the have-nots, current events such as communal violence in sensitive areas, exploitation by the colonists, famine etc., with the intention of articulating social evils contaminating our country, thus encouraging social change. At a time when pubic performances ostensibly dealt with the world of fantasy, make-believe and mythology, IPTA was like a breath of fresh air. Hungry masses craved for this new-found art. “It was simple, direct, socially involved dramatic activity with the avowed aim of serving a social purpose.” In a sense it was the theatre of the people, by the people and for the people. In the case of Balraj political and artistic involvement became one and the same. In this journey he had many likeminded friends: K.A. Abbas, Mulk Raj Anand, Prithviraj Kapoor, Chetan Anand, Dev Anand. Balraj courted arrest while he participated in the communist party-led demonstration. With the change in the policy of the communist party which did not want its funds to be diverted to the theatre and also forced the theatre group to toe its party line, the IPTA lost its base. It was a blow for Balraj who could never recover for he never wished that the theatre should remain a platform to propagate a particular creed.
Balraj had a gurukul type of education. His English education later helped him acquire western liberal enlightenment. Later his life at Santiniketan under the guidance of Rabindranath Tagore helped him develop humanism and still later his work in Gandhiji’s Nai Tailim scheme and life at Sewagram, Wardha led him on to creative service for the people. He was highly talented both in the theatre and in writing and so he worked in the cultural field. In the three fields of literature, theatre and cinema he attained boundless fame. He always wished to go back to Punjab, his native roots but could not live there for long. He acted in 125 films in his career extending to 25 years and more. He passed away in 1973, the day after he finished dubbing for Garam Hawa acclaimed by critics as his best. His interest in theatre ran parallel to his career in films. He was a prolific writer in Hindi, Punjabi and English. P.C. Joshi’s words in 1974 are the most appropriate tribute that can be paid to Balraj: “Such is the glory and tragedy of the most honest and dedicated socialist intellectuals today. Balraj’s life and work are an inspiration, and his sad end a lesson for all progressive and socialist intellectuals, and much more for historically progressive organisations like the Communist Party of India as well as for the Indian National Congress.” Written in simple, forceful prose, the monograph is a factual record of the purposeful life of two of the renowned sons of India.
(M.S. Nagarajan, was formerly Head of Department of English, Madras University)