Had he not passed away on July 11, 2003, Bhisham Sahni would have turned 100 today. Officially, that is.
As he mentions in his autobiography “Aaj ke Ateet” (Today’s Past), his parents disagreed on his date of birth. His mother insisted that he was one year and eleven months younger to his elder brother Balraj but his father got his date of birth entered in the school records as August 8, 1915, thus making him younger by a few months.
It’s a measure of his stature as a political and cultural activist, short story writer, novelist, playwright and actor that even the Narendra Modi government at the Centre is celebrating his birth centenary through Sahitya Akademi although he was opposed to the political ideology of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Even those who are not familiar with Hindi literature know about his novel “Tamas” (Darkness) and the tele-serial of the same name made by Govind Nihalani, who later turned it into a film as well.
As a child, Bhisham Sahni had witnessed communal riots in his native Rawalpindi. As a young Congress worker, he campaigned against communal politics of the mid-1940s and experienced the horrors, forced displacement and unprecedented violence that preceded and followed the cataclysmic event of the Partition. His family too had to migrate to this side of the newly created border and had to wage a struggle to survive and settle down.
After Yashpal’s “Jhootha Sach” (False Truth) and Rahi Masoom Raza’s “Aadha Gaon” (Half-a-Village), “Tamas” is the third significant novel through which a creative writer tries to understand as well as explain as to what went had gone wrong to bring such a monumental tragedy upon the Indian sub-continent.
The novel remained dormant for many years and the memories of the Partition were brought to the surface by a visit to the riot-hit Bhiwandi in 1971 in the company of his elder brother Balraj Sahni and some other colleagues. “Tamas” was published in 1974 by Rajkamal Prakashan and received the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award the very next year.
At the moment, it has got inextricably attached with its writer’s name. It has been translated into many languages, including English, French, German, Japanese, Gujarati, Malayalam, Kashmiri and Manipuri.
Such phenomenal popularity of a work often overshadows its writer’s other creations as had happened in the case of Shrilal Shukla who was known by his novel “Raag Darbari”. I became aware of this fact when recently, Ramesh Upadhyaya, a well-known fiction writer in Hindi, remarked that when he started reading Bhisham Sahni’s novel “Mayadas ki Madi”, he enjoyed it even more than reading “Tamas” and felt that from the point of view of the art of fiction writing, it was perhaps a better novel than “Tamas”.
Although Bhisham Sahni wrote a number of excellent short stories, “Chief ki Dawat” remains the most admired of them. As a writer, what distinguished him was his humanism, compassion and an ability to bring into sharp relief the human essence of even a palpably inhuman situation. In his life as well as literature, he was a most unassuming person whose humility at times embarrassed others.
His plays such as “Hanush”, “Madhavi” and “Kabira Khada Bazar Mein” proved to be great theatrical successes and he is perhaps one of the very few writers who have been awarded by both Sahitya Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi. He was also honoured with Padma Bhushan and Fellowship of the Sahitya Akademi.
Like his elder brother Balraj Sahni, Bhisham Sahni too was very closely associated with Indian People’s Theatre Association that played a historic role in creating a pan-Indian progressive cultural movement and bringing artistes such as Ravi Shankar, Balraj Sahni, K.A. Abbas, Salil Chaudhary, Shailendra, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and many others on one platform. This experience stood him in good stead when he acted in tele-serial “Tamas” and Saeed Mirza’s film “Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho”, Bernardo Bertolucci’s film “Little Buddha” and Aparna Sen’s film “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer”. He also wrote the screenplay for Kumar Shahani’s film “Kasba”.
A Punjabi to the core, he chose to become a Hindi writer and managed to retain both the identities in a unique manner. He spelt his name as Bhisham (as Punjabis would pronounce it) in English and as Bhishma (the correct Sanskrit pronunciation) in Hindi.
His other works included “Mayadas ki Madi”, “Kadiyan”, “Basanti” and “Neeloo, Neelima, Nilofar”. Most of his books were published by Rajkamal Prakashan whose literary journal “Nai Kahani” he had edited for some time in the early 1960s.