Theatre director Balwant Thakur talks about his life's passion

“Theatre and cultural activists are facing multiple challenges in our disturbed State. There is no encouragement, let alone patronage,” says Balwant Thakur, the front ranking theatre director of Jammu and Kashmir, who was in the Capital this past week. “But this has not dampened the creative fire in artists sensitive to the suffering of the people. We know that throughout human history, great works of art were produced in conditions of social and political turmoil. This inspires us to work with more dedication in our creative fields, ignoring frequent threats to our lives.”

Thakur formed Natrang, a theatre repertory, in 1983 and has since been a full-time professional theatre worker. He came to national prominence with his “Bawa Jitto” which was presented at Kamani, New Delhi, in 1986 as part of the Sangeet Natak Akademi's scheme to assist young theatre workers experimenting with traditional and folk forms with a view to assimilate them with modern sensibilities. Those were the days of great productions, experimentations and original ideas to create a truly Indian theatre idiom with its myriad colours and forms.

Recreating the ballad singing form of Jammu known as Karkan with an array of folk musical instruments to create a powerful dramatic impact, the play captures the audience with the heartrending tale of a farmer who was dispossessed of his land by his cruel and greedy cousins and cheated and robbed of his precious yields by a landlord and forced to commit suicide.

Critically acclaimed for its novelty and freshness, it was the first ever production in Dogri seen in Delhi by a large number of discerning viewers. He was then 26 and caught the attention of stalwarts of contemporary Indian theatre.

Set in the 15th Century, the play is enacted every year in October at a festival at Jhiri in remembrance of Jitto's tragic death. “Presenting the play before hundreds and thousands of people for two days is a kind of spiritual elevation for me as well as for the performers,” he says. Afterwards, he continued producing significant plays in Dogri one after another. He mostly himself writes the plays he has produced. Due to his eminence in the field of theatre, he was made secretary of the Jammu and Kashmir Academy for Art, Culture and Language in 1995. “While functioning as the secretary I was getting alienated from my artists and friends. So I left the job in 2007 and once again devoted myself to my work with renewed energy and motivation.”

Being a professional company, Natrang performs in various towns of Jammu and Kashmir besides other Indian cities and abroad. “So far we have presented our plays in more than a dozen foreign countries. Last year we gave eight shows of ‘Ghumayee' in Russia and one show of the play at Frankfurt International Theatre Festival. Performing in a huge auditorium before a capacity hall and the tremendous response of the audience in a foreign country is in itself a thrilling experience,” Thakur says.

With a passion to rediscover forgotten traditional forms in the remote hilly area of Jammu, Thakur has also emerged as a fine director of children's plays. Some of these are “Aap Hamare Hain Kaun” and “Mere Hisse Ki Dhoop Kahan Hai”.

“These plays are in Hindi because young people in Jammu prefer to watch Hindi plays,” he notes. Currently his priority is to construct a building on a plot of one acre that Natrang has already bought. “It would be an advanced training institute in all aspects of dramatic art.”

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Born in a remote hilly village called Bakkal in Jammu, Balwant Thakur showed great promise during his school and college days as a talented theatre artiste. He has been honoured with several prominent awards, among them the Sanskriti Award, the Jammu and Kashmir Academy Award and the Abhinay Samman. The Sangeet Natak Akademi Award was given to him in 2001 for his contribution to Indian theatre as a director. Austerity, exploration of the actor's body as a means of expression, rich rare folk tunes, beautiful, elegant imagery are the hallmarks of his art.

One of his ingenious and widely acclaimed productions is Mannu Bhandari's “Mahabhoj”, which he adapted in Dogri from Hindi in 1989. A highly stylised theatrical work, the narrative unfolds in the form of ballad singing, the performers (14 males and two females) with bamboo sticks giving visual expression to the haunting musical melody, bringing alive with telling effect, as in the novel, the inhumanity and violence perpetrated on the innocents by unscrupulous men in power. This production is also notable in terms of Thakur's quest to evolve a theatrical language with universal implication. “Ghumayee” is yet another piece remarkable for its visual expressive power, transcending language barriers. Rooted in the soil of Jammu, the play deals with the profundity of the man-woman relationship.