‘Brothers in Political Theatre’ revisits India’s Socialist stage, culture

April 13th, 2012 - 6:27 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, April 13 (IANS) Noted cinema and stage personalities, brothers Balraj and Bhisham Sahni were committed to the art of change in the late 1930s and 1940s that tried to the create a new social order to tide over human sufferings - and bring culture to the masses with a message.

A new book, “Balraj & Bhisham Sahni: Brothers in Political Theatre”, published by Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) and released by historian Romila Thapar Thursday evening, has compiled the creative lives of the two progressive brothers in the context of the social events and cultural morphing post World Wars and the Bengal famine for Generation Y.

The volume, assembled by Kalpana Sahni, the daughter of Bhisham Sahni, has reproduced an essay, “Balraj Sahni: A Dedicated and Creative Life”, by P.C. Joshi, the founder of the Left progressive movement in India several decades after it was first published.

The book is also an account of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), that changed the script for the stage with its protest plays against colonialism and freedom ditties.

The group was formed in Kolkata 1942 with several heavyweights from Mumbai.

The movement was not only confined on the stage, but spilled over to cinema as well.

The Sahni Brothers, along with Joshi, were active members of IPTA.

“IPTA had a profound and lasting effect on my family,” said Kalpana Sahni.

Balraj Sahni’s full-time association with IPTA began with the play “Zubeida”, the writer said.

According to writer, stage actor and director Bhisham Sahni, “Balraj was like a man possessed” after joining the IPTA movement.

“A change had come over Balraj. Earlier, he had only emotionally been involved in the national struggle. Now he was an active participant in it, as a theatre artist. And he had begun to believe that the two activities - art and political - were to be fused together. The IPTA was a dramatic movement of social commitment,” Bhisham Sahni recounts in the book.

Balraj Sahni carried his Socialist working class philosophy to the “Tamasha” - folk performance - stage of Maharashtra to reach out to the common people.

The theatre of IPTA should not be mistaken for street theatre, said historian Romila Thapar.

“It was straight theatre on a stage that picked up themes of the anti-colonial - objecting to the whole of the colonial experience and how a Socialist society should be. They are still relevant with their emphasis on just societies because in our consciousness what is colonial is our colonial heritage,” Romila Thapar told IANS.

“We are still colonial in our attitude and we are fighting for a just society,” Thapar said.

She narrated personal reminiscences of her encounters with the heroes of IPTA like Chetan Anand and Prithviraj Kapoor as a child in Pune and said while the “theatre aspect of IPTA movement fizzled out by the late 1940s, many talents like Chetan Anand, Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Balraj Sahni went to the film industry”.

Romila’s brother Romesh Thapar was also a member of IPTA.

“Contemporary theatre was a mix of both - message and art. We want to see more of common theatre. Many theatre groups in India are aware of the fact that they need to express themselves,” Thapar said.

Photographer, artist and progressive intellectual Ram Rahman, a senior office-bearer of SAHMAT, said “the book was born out of a symposium, “Awaaz Do” last year.”

Rahman said, “The account by Kalpana Sahni was personalised - in the perspective of the times that and the relevance of theatre has a means of change.”

“Most of the IPTA plays were carefully scripted and not agitprop (propaganda) like in the street theatre,” Rahman told IANS.

Rahman said, “He wanted the younger generation to know about IPTA through the book (Priced Rs.100).”

The launch of the book was accompanied by a soiree of IPTA songs and visual display of the artistic legacy of IPTA, with panels of photographs and posters on the Sahmat premises in the capital.

The programme coincide with the National Street Theatre Day April 12.

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