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Posted at: Apr 17, 2018, 1:55 AM; last updated: Apr 17, 2018, 1:55 AM (IST)

Channelise youth energy in theatre: Kewal Dhaliwal

Channelise youth energy in theatre: Kewal Dhaliwal
Kewal Dhaliwal

Aparna Banerji

Tribune News Service

Jalandhar, April 17

“One of the things about Punjab is it saw 1947, then 1965 and 1971 wars and then 84. We have still not forgotten the pangs of those. Asi sochde han halle 47 vale ger ton nai nikle 84 vich fer vaddhe javange? (We think we haven’t healed from the wounds of 47 yet and will 84 sting us again?) These issues still crop up in theatre. The growth of theatre is also concomitant with the healing of our war wounds.”

Veteran playwright Kewal Dhaliwal, who was in Jalandhar during the KL Saigal Punjabi Rang Utsav, shed light on the necessity of the political discourse in play, on how 84 impacted his theatrical journey and the need for theatre in the curriculum as well as the need for better, perfect and professional theatre in the state.

Excerpts from an interview:

You started your journey in theatre with Bhai Manna Singh, is there any change after him?

Things have changed since then. We are quick to adopt other things and leave our own influences and absorb others. But a theatrical commitment which Gursharan Singh has given is unsurpassed in the Punjabi theatre. His theatre was for commitment, social relevance and change. It has deeply influenced Punjab. I started theatre in 1976, joining Gursharan Singh’s group in 1978 – for 10 years up till 1988. It was the peak of terrorism – a difficult period which taught us a lot. Due to the scare, even Punjabi singers took off their nameplates from outside their homes. Par os vele jekar koi jeenda si, jagda si, o theatre si (if something was living and awake in those trying times, it was theatre). And it is a historical fact that no Hindu-Sikh riots happened during that time because of theatre. Theatre went to homes and villages. Despite threats, it didn’t stop.

What were the threats and challenges playwrights faced in that era?

We faced many threats. Many terrorists believed theatre groups were working against them. So, we were prevented from entering villages sometimes to protect us from attacks. But there were some young men, even among terrorists, who respected Gursharan Singh a lot. Oh jaande si Gal tan sacchi kehnda par kehnda sade khilaf hai. (they knew he talked the truth even if it was against them). We would go hanging behind buses carrying 20 kg satchels of props (since there were no buses after 5-6 pm), but while walking to villages - police would pick us, take us to thanas. This happened at Jharike village near Moga, in Amritsar as well. At a play staged in Anandpur Sahib, we were even lathi charged. In 1984, we were arrested in Bombay and kept at the Andheri police station for recording the song “Ai Lal Farere Teri Kasam Is Khoon Ka Badla Hum Lenge” at a recording studio. Indira Gandhi had just been assassinated. The next morning, we were greeted at the studio by the police, since they got the idea that we were planning something. Rohini Hatangdi got us free – she told them we were anti-terrorism people.

There was this movement of anti-establishment theatre at that time? Hasn’t that momentum weakened now?

The staging of political theatre is a big thing. Only committed people can pull it off. In the present scenario, there is certainly a dearth of political theatre. With the current Indian politics, political theatre is certainly required. However, it is missing. On the flip side, the amount of theatre happening in Punjab villages is phenomenal. About a 100 theatre groups are tirelessly working. The Red Arts Group has done 1,800 village plays a year. Many groups work in Majha and Malwa, but the village play momentum is yet to pick up in Doaba.

You are an independent playwright and the president of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Does this dual role limit you from being critical of the powers that be?

Since my background is with Gurshran Singh – like him, I can’t keep quiet. I make a noise on unaddressed issues during meetings. The young generation is going to the dogs. Campuses are becoming breeding grounds for gangsters. I believe if theatre is made a subject in colleges and universities, these children who are presently attacking each other with knives will get a medium to channelise their energies. They will become part of theatre. Of the 3-4 lakh theatre actors in the country doing theatre for 30,000 groups, you will find no addicts. In Punjab at least 10,000 people are dedicatedly pursuing theatre. More can be added if theatre is made part of the curriculum.

What are the works you have undertaken under the Punjab Sangeet Natak Akademi?

When I joined the Akademi, I had declared to take theatre across Punjab and not just Chandigarh. In the past four years, we have covered 400 villages, have held theatre festivals in many cities. We publish books and have made documentaries on the first woman on the Punjab stage Uma Ji as well as veteran Jatinder Kaur. We are making documentaries on the IPTA movement and Punjabi theatre history.

Are you satisfied with the funding for theatre?

Annually, there is no dedicated budget. Sometimes, we are allocated Rs 5 lakh after three months. Sometimes, 10 lakh. Independent funds should be given to the three academies of Punjab the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Punjab Sahit Akademi and the Lalit Kala Akademi. Funds are routed through the Punjba Arts Council presently. But at least Rs 1 crore annually should reach the academy annually. Ironically, while the Chandigarh Sangeet Natak Akademi gets Rs 90 lakh annually, for the Punjab Sangeet Natak Akademi, they have only Rs 15 lakh. There are 12,500 villages in Punjab which we have to work for. These funds are very meagre.

You walked into the NSD with Punjabi theatre being looked down upon. Has it found its ground on the national scene?

In the 80s, when I joined the NSD, many people said Punjab theatre isn’t on the level of the rest of the states. This was a ‘mehna’ (a taunt) for me. I thought I will bring it to that level. Technically, theatre is stronger than what it was 30 years ago. BN Shah and Ratan Thiyam told me I would not go back. But I did and also called them to a festival here. I can say today Punjabi theatre is better than many other states, but there is still a long way to go. The pessimistic and the business-minded can’t pursue theatre. I believe chasing perfection and professionalism will make Punjab theatre attain new heights.

Your upcoming projects.

I am fascinated with Waris Shah’s – Heer Ranjha and have done it three times in different styles – one from the perspective of Qaidon. This year, I want to attempt it in the Dastan Goi style with strong music. I am also working on a script involving Faiz Ahmed Faiz for which I have prepared script. We will do it in both the nations – India and Pakistan.

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