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Theatre is their way of life

This is a participatory kind of theatre where there are no fixed scripts; the plays evolve at workshops and with audience participation. CHITRA MAHESH meets Channi and Harleen, couple who wish to change society by interacting with community.

Channi and Harleen... united in their endeavour.

THE MOON hung low with the branches of trees weaving magic patterns on stone floors and garden grass. A slight breeze carried his voice through nooks and corners creating an ambience of a land far away. Something austere yet filled with colourful imagery. It was a poem born out of pain, strife, but with hope eventually enduring.

There was a semi circle of people rapt in this unfolding tale of lives — and as G. S. Channi stopped reciting his ode to his motherland he was greeted by applause and noisy appreciation. They were moved undoubtedly — it was their way of being part of the mood so softly created by this extremely gifted playwright, actor and theatre personality from Chandigarh.

Meeting him the next day in his sunny house in one of the quiet by lanes of the planned city, with his children and his wife who are so much a part of his life and work, time flew as he enacted bits of prose, poetry and drama, in between snatches of conversation.

His wife Harleen Kohli is equally involved in what they call community theatre. They go to venues with no fixed script. The themes and plays emerge based on the mood of the gathering. They work with all kinds of audiences but their favourite is children. Who they feel make the best suggestions and are great fun to work with. Most of their plays deal with the problems of Punjab since the time of the militant movement and the consequences. Problems faced by women through marriage, dowry and other social issues are also part of their repertoire. Harleen is a lawyer by education and was also actively involved with the communist movement. An activist who believes in the empowerment of women and understanding young people, Harleen is an intense woman with a great capacity to enjoy life as well. As you interact with both of them you realise that they are one soul in two bodies — such is their synergy in life and in their vocation.

Channi, a Fullbright scholar, Sangeet Natak Academy award winner for community theatre, a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, College of Communication and Department of Theatre, Boston University among others, Director, Community Theatre Workshop, Children's Ensemble, Director, Centre for Education and Voluntary Action (CEVA), Chandigarh, is a graduate from the National School Of Drama, New Delhi. He was also a lecturer for eight years at the Poona Film Institute. When he met Harleen he was already into community theatre.

This is a participatory kind of theatre where there are no fixed scripts; the plays evolve at workshops and with audience participation. Emphasis is on the process. And according to them this plays to a much larger, broader plane than the ones one may see on stage.

Primarily it is up to the community to decide the theme, the script, in fact everything. Besides it is most convenient to perform at street corners, gardens, compounds, and hostels in fact any open space they say. And they have been most successful working with women, children, teachers, young people, rural people, and voluntary workers. In a nutshell what they seek to do is to provide a forum for people to break free from convention. However, it is their work with children that has been particularly rewarding. Their interaction with underprivileged schools has yielded very good results especially on one occasion when they touched upon relationships with teachers and alcoholic parentsEvery year they are given a grant from the government to do six theatre workshops in schools. Each workshop produces interesting results. They reach resolutions, gain insights, and even have people especially the young ones breaking down and changing. Almost therapeutic.

They have been in Chandigarh for many years now. They first came here in 1976 during the emergency, which was when they started doing their kind of theatre. And how did they manage with so many political restrictions? "If you have a community base, support, nobody touches you. Besides, says Harleen, Channi never had any political agenda. All he did was to provide a forum for people to voice their concerns.

Their first play dealt with, what else? Politics. Daffa 144 was a protest play against the emergency. The second was based on contemporary Hindi poetry and the V. M. Tarkundey committee report, "Encounters are Murders" — on naxalities extermination. ``All these undoubtedly were volatile, thought provoking and at times hitting below the belt,'" chuckles Channi.

What kind of response did they get? "Tremendous. And it has been so for all that we do even now."

Campus... favourite venue.

Was Harleen into theatre when she married him? "No" says she. ``I was a communist in the party that I belonged to. Channi adds, "She was tough. She thought I was a comrade too."

Harleen recounts an occasion when they did a play about women. "I was part of that group and Punjab was a raging problem. There was something that bothered the Khalistani types. They started disturbing us, picking up a fight — wanting to stop the play. But we kept on, we did the whole play and after that they wanted to come and talk to us. It was scary."

Again it was the support of the community, especially students, that helped them overcome the crisis. Would they see themselves as maybe vehicles of social change?

Or is it just love for theatre?

"We are activists. We want to change society certainly and have to be intensely involved with what we believe in and in what we are doing. In that sense you could also say we are political people. The fact that we perform at street corners and interact with the community is according to us political acts."

But how did they decide to live in a place like Chandigarh instead of maybe the more troubled areas of Punjab?

Channi answers: "I wasn't very comfortable in Pune where I was teaching at the Film Institute. One day I decided to leave. We had no jobs, no prospects, but we knew that we wanted to be in Punjab particularly Chandigarh. Harleen's parents lived here and the children (one boy and one girl) were small. Besides we are primarily urban people.

Can they specify the plays that were especially approved by the community?

"Mein Jala Di Jaoongi ... (I will be burnt) — dealt with women being burnt. The play that went on to do 450 shows. "Akh Di Dehleez," based on contemporary Punjabi poetry on the theme of violence, did about 300 shows. This was even taken to Pakistan. We had a standing ovation there with many even crying.

Most of the work they do evolves out of poetry and poem renditions. Channi and Harleen have been exposed to groups such as the Koothupattarai in Chennai when they made a documentary on the folk theatre of the south. They also do serials but they are rather reticent about the ventures saying, "Our passion is theatre. Serials are our bread and butter."

They have done three serials, six TV films, and close to 26 television documentaries — one of which is on Mohiniattam with Bharati Shivaji. Would they consider doing feature films also at some point? ``Maybe. The only thing is that a film or serial takes charge of our lives — we prefer to do this community work, which is really what our life is all about. Their entire family is involved, the immediate as well as the extended family. It is a way of life. "Otherwise our lives would be a lie. This is where our happiness and joy comes."

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