In conversation Playwright-director Atamjit on the state of Punjabi theatre. DIWAN SINGH BAJELI
“With no subsidy offered by the State and no strong theatrical tradition, contemporary Punjabi theatre is vibrantly alive, reflecting the dichotomy of a society mainly divided by two classes — the landless Dalits and the landowning. With the assertion of Dalit identity and economic power, social contradictions at multiple-levels have become sharp. Punjabi theatre is trying to provide an insight into these contradictions but our theatre is not sectarian, not vulgar and does not aim at pleasing the establishment,” says Atamjit, an eminent playwright-director who was in Delhi to present his much acclaimed play “Panch Nad Da Paani” recently at the Punjabi Theatre Festival organised by Punjabi Academy of the Delhi Government “Our theatre speaks of farmers, the youth, women, immigrants, Dalits and against religious bigotry.”
Born in Amritsar in 1950, Atamjit holds a Ph.D. from Guru Nanak Dev University. He has been trying to evolve a complex structure for his plays. “My plays are operative at multiple levels to create a dialogue in a dialectical manner to analyse diverse forces at work. In the process my plays at times become abstract. I do not prefer a linear plot. Without complexity and intricacy you cannot create a powerful theatrical art,” says Atamjit.
Atamjit says he used folk elements for the first time in “Panch Nad…” by incorporating two folk characters, Tulla Bhand and Thulla Bhand. He has used these characters in a highly creative way. They are not a mere source of humour but raise the eternal debate on sin and virtue, divine and profane by narrating incidents from mythology about the rendezvous of a priest's wife with her lover and a queen's secret meetings with a man she is passionately involved with. Both the queen and the priest's wife use the temple at night. This minor thematic strand is woven into the main theme about the war between Turks and Mongols with local Rajput rulers as mere spectators. The play is set in 13th Century Punjab entangled in the quagmire of suppression of women, exploitation of Dalits and superstitions.
Among his other significant plays, which are widely performed, published and translated, are “Kabrastaan”, “Kamloops Deean Machhiaan”, “Rishtian da ki Rakhiye Na”, “Main tan Ik Sarangi Han” and “Ghadar Express”. For his outstanding contribution to Indian theatre and drama, he has been honoured by a number of organisations, including the Punjabi Academy, Delhi, which declared him as the playwright of the decade (1982-92), the Sahitya Kala Parishad, Delhi, the Punjabi Sahitya Academy, the Sahitya Akademy and the Sangeet Natak Akademy.
Outlining the history of Punjabi theatre, he says that I.C. Nanda was the pioneer. He was a student of Richard (who came from Scotland) in Lahore in 1913. Nanda worked as a theatre artiste with Richard's wife, Norah Richard. It was Balwant Gargi who gave real vitality to contemporary Punjabi theatre and established the department of Indian theatre in Punjab University. Gursharan Singh was a relentless crusader to create a socially relevant theatre, transforming it into a vehicle of peace, democracy, secularism and economic justice.
“Today we have several playwrights who have produced a significant body of dramatic works and are also stage directors of eminence. Swarajbir is the only playwright who does not direct plays. He writes for Kewal Dhaliwal, a graduate from the National School of Drama who is passionately involved in theatre in Punjab.”
Atamjit speaks of the new theatre wave in Punjab, ensuring participation of women in the field. “Today we have several eminent women directors including Neelam Mansingh Chaudhary, Rani Balbir Kaur, Sangeeta Gupta and Anita. Even in the villages plays are being presented on makeshift stages with girls participating.” He is happy that Jitender Brar, an industrialist, has built an auditorium at a cost of about Rs.80 crores with a seating capacity of 1000. The auditorium is named after legendary theatre activist Gursharan Singh. It is located in Banur near Rajpur, 30 from Chandigarh. “Shanta Serbjeet Singh, Vice Chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, was impressed to see the auditorium equipped with modern technology and assured us that SNA will organise a national theatre festival at this auditorium,” he says.
There are two universities in Punjab with strong theatre departments. What role are these departments playing for the growth of theatre in Punjab? “We have theatre departments in Punjab University and Punjabi University in Patiala. At one time these departments contributed a lot to enriching Punjabi theatre because they were headed by important theatre personalities like Balwant Gargi and Surjit Singh. Now these departments are being run by men with no artistic vision. Their contributions are insignificant.”
Atamjit is one of the few directors to have staged his plays in Canadian and American cities. “In fact, it is not possible to take the group from India to perform there. I go there and select a cast from amongst the immigrants who have a strong sense of kinship and nostalgic feelings for their roots. In several Canadian cities there are Punjabi radio stations, newspapers. The new generation does not identify itself with our plays but they connect with Punjabi music.”
Talking about his play “Ghadar Express” he says a reading was held in Sacramento, a city where the Indian Ghadar Party was formed. “Mungu Comrade” is his latest play based on the life and work of revolutionary fighter and trade union organiser Makhan Singh who settled in Kanyan and remained 17 years in the Kanyan jails for his revolutionary work to over throw the colonial rule and liberate the people of Kanyan. In the words of Professor Harish Puri the remarkable strength of the play “Mungu Comrade” lay in a high degree of authenticity of detail that required extensive exploration and research. He has already done the readings of this latest play in Delhi, Ludhiana, Amritsar, Jalandhar, London, Nottingham and Toronto. “The history of Makhan Singh, an unsung hero of the people, is very dear to my heart. Mungu in Kanyan means god. Makhan Singh was god to the suppressed people of Kanyan during the British Raj but he was essentially a comrade — that is why I have named the play ‘Mungu Comrade'. Inspired by the feedback I received from my readings I am encouraged to stage it soon.”