It was the decade before Independence - the most poignant years in recent Indian history. While the majority of the freedom fighters threw themselves behind Gandhiji and his peaceful resistance, there was a minor group of radicals that saw Subhash Chandra Bose as its messiah and there was a third group that subscribed wholeheartedly to the Communist doctrine - Mohan Upreti belonged to this Marxist group. Upreti's birthplace (1928), Almora, Uttarakhand, had a very rich folk tradition that was relatively untouched by centuries of British rule, because the colonialists did not attempt to develop this hilly terrain as they did Shimla and Nainital. The place considered itself blessed by the visits of Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore and of course found itself on the Indian cultural map after Uday Shankar started his famous school of dance here in 1937.At the same time, strangely enough, Almora also attracted trade union leaders, the best known amongst them being professor P.C. Joshi, who went on to become one of the most outstanding leaders of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and Upreti's mentor.As part of the great social awakening at the end of the Second World War two major associations came into being - the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) and the Progressive Writer's Forum. Upreti, while a student at the Allahabad University, threw himself behind the theatre movement; he then started his own group, Lok Kalakar Sangh (earlier United Artists). Artistic expression apart, theatre was to serve a purpose. He believed that culture and art should not be treated as different aspects of society but as the manifestation of man's very struggle to better his conditions. A heightened social consciousness was essential to carry forward the work with the masses.He identified fully with Paul Robeson, the celebrated all-American black singer-actor who, on visiting the Soviet Union in 1934 made strong Left-wing commitments. During the McCarthy era in 1950 he had to pay for his Left predilection when the U.S. withdrew his passport.
Despite all his trailblazing efforts to showcase and popularise the Kumaoni folk tradition, especially his music compositions for theatre productions, Upreti had to suffer the consequences of his Communist leanings during the Chinese aggression in 1960. Upreti, the darling of theatregoers, was suddenly seen as a Chinese sympathiser and taken into custody. While languishing behind bars for 10 months, Upreti became involved in a jail production along with some of his earlier comrades. After the ceasefire Upreti was let out of the prison, but he was not allowed to enter Almora. He slowly began to pick up his threads in Delhi with the support of patrons like Sumitra Charatram.
Pioneer folk artist
He formed the Parvatiya Kala Kendra and composed enduring music for stage performances like Mudra Rakhshas, Alibaba and Uttar Ramcharit. His legendary folk song, 'Bedu Pako Bara Masa' was publicly performed first in the presence of visiting dignitaries, Khrushchev and Bulganin. In fact Nehru was so moved by the performance that he dubbed Upreti the 'Bedu Pako boy'. In 1955 thanks to comrade Joshi, the song became a rage in the Soviet Union and the East European countries (perhaps next only to Raj Kapoor's Awaara!) Musical theatre came to be associated with Mohan Upreti and he continued to provide unforgettable music till he breathed his last in 1997. Diwan Singh Bajeli, theatre critic and artist, described in the foreword as a "hill man", has made a sincere attempt to paint a portrait of a revolutionary artist, a product of his times and the vicissitudes he faced. Only half of the book deals with the biography. The rest, apart from notes, are a compilation of Upreti's own writings, appraisals of his work and some of his verses in original Devanagiri. However, the book leaves an aftertaste - as something hastily put together (where was the hurry?) the language, the editing, the proofing - should all have passed through professional hands - surely the National School of Drama owed that much to a pioneer?