Madeeha Gauhar and her theatre group to stage play on him in November

For the first time since his execution, the primary school in which Bhagat Singh studied as a child witnessed his songs being sung. Madeeha Gauhar, the director of the play Mera Rang De Basanti Chola, staged a few songs from the production in Bangay village, Jaranwala (Faisalabad district), Bhagat’s Singh birthplace, last Saturday.

Even now a few classes are held on the grounds outside of this one-room government primary school as a mark of respect to Bangay’s most famous son.

Ms. Gauhar and her theatre group Ajoka plan to stage the full play in November. The songs are part of the Bhagat Singh narrative and celebrate his heroic life. After the songs, the group visited his old home in the village.

The school is kept in its original condition but another one has been built elsewhere. There are some very old trees, Ms. Gauhar says and one of them is said to be planted by Bhagat Singh. Every November, a free eye camp is held in the village in his memory. While the play, written by Shahid Nadeem, has been performed in India from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and in Pakistan, Ms. Gauhar says this is the first time that anything on the lines of a commemoration took place in Bangay village, about two hours from Lahore. It was a historical event in that sense as it has never happened before.

“It’s a small attempt on our part to pay a tribute but the significance of taking it to his village is to reclaim some of the lost historical connections and narrative denied by India and Pakistan. Also the play was an attempt to connect with the peace movement,” she says. “My mother is from Gujarat and father from Peshawar and as an artist I felt the need for this connection. History in a sense stopped in 1947 and it was important to rediscover your identity and sense of belonging and continuity which is totally broken in Pakistan in ’47 in the way a new discourse/identity was created by the establishment. I wanted to link up all these strands — personal, political cultural through my theatre which connects us to a deeper underlying truth,” she says.

It was also important to bring back the importance of Bhagat Singh. “Many younger people don’t even know who he is — my son Nirvan plays Singh in the play and a student of filmmaking he has made a film on how he approached the role.

While doing so he asked students who was Bhagat Singh and the answers he got were varied — that he was a dacoit, that he killed Muslims and one of them said that Bollywood actor Ajay Devgan had something to do with it,” she laments.

Shocking

These were students of a premier institution the National School of Arts and it was shocking, she points out.

She strongly felt the need to bring out the story of how relevant Bhagat Singh is still to all of us — he was an atheist and had nothing to do with religion though he is being reconstructed differently in some sections.

This March 23, the day of his hanging, where annual demonstrations are held at Shadman Chowk in Lahore which the government had agreed to rename after Bhagat Singh, (though it backed out later), the Jamat ud Dawa (JUD) had come to staged a protest.

“We were in for a big shock and the JUD guys defaced our posters. When I asked the man if he was doing this because Bhagat Singh was a Sikh, he said no it’s because he was an atheist,” Ms. Gauhar said.

On his birth anniversary on September 28, a small crowd cut a cake in quiet commemoration. “It is more about reclaiming a secular narrative and that space is shrinking rapidly,” she added

Ajoka is a theatre group which believes in the ideals of secularism, humanism, democracy and tolerance and it has been performing plays for the last 30 years all over the world. The play is based on the exemplary life of Bhagat Singh who was executed by the British in Lahore Central Jail on March 23, 1931.