“We writers must come together and speak against religious and creative intolerance; it is our responsibility to give people hope, a voice and something to think about. We have to speak without fear and make sure the unity of our country is never compromised; no one has the right to do this. And I return the award as a mark of solidarity with other writers,’’ noted theatre personality Ajmer Singh Aulakh had said in 2015 while returning the National Sahitya Akademi Award which he got in 2006 for his play ‘Ishaka Bajha Namaza Da Haja Nahi’ based on the issue of honour killings in Punjab.
Aulakh (75) passed away early Thursday morning in Mansa after a battle with cancer, leaving behind a body of work filled with stories of Punjab and its marginalised farmers and their economic and social plight. Born in 1942, Aulakh grew up in village Kishangarh Pharwahi. As a young boy, he wrote poetry which reflected the ideology of the Left. It was at Nehru Memorial College Mansa, where Aulakh taught Punjabi, that he began writing short plays, which were staged as part of youth festivals, winning both accolades and prizes. Driven by this recognition, Aulakh formed his theatre group, Lok Kala Manch, in Mansa in 1976. The group performed thousands of shows across Punjab, without any financial or technical support.
Aulakh’s plays are known to depict the real picture of rural life of Punjab, especially the Malwa region, under the stress of capitalism. His plays also raised a voice against the ills that plague society, be it honour killings, domestic violence, female foeticide, militancy, etc.
Many of Aulkah’s plays, some of which are also part of university syllabi, bring on centre stage the pain of farmers with small land holdings, as he promoted rural theatre in authentic ‘Malwai’ dialect. “Aulakh was a playwright and director who had a deep and strong perception of his roots. He found the idiom of rural theatre, which did not need much paraphernalia. It was simply done, exploring various mediums, expressing stark realism of rural life, the trials and tribulation of small farmers marginalised by market forces, issues connected with poverty, deprivation. He gave rural theatre a new dimension and reach, with his entire family in Mansa involved in the act,” said theatre director GS Chani as he remembered Aulakh and some of his productions like ‘Toorhi Wala Kotha’, ‘Ik Ramayan Hor’.
Aulakh was honoured with the Shiromani Natakkaar Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.
Playwright and director Atamjit Singh, who had a close personal and professional relationship with Aulakh for more than three decades, said, “Though our theatre was very different, we began our journey together and I feel alone with his departure.” Singh said Aulakh focused on farmers of Punjab who looked like landlords, but had nothing. “Along with their economic suffering, he weaved their psychological problems, hidden desires, their isolation, hunger. While his earlier plays were focused on the feudal men folk of the rural areas, with women silent spectators and on the receiving end, his plays after 1997 projected woman as protagonists and their rise in this society. His strong language, juicy and rustic and dialogues which were impactful, made his theatre appeal to both the classes and masses. He was the only one who could connect economic plight of people and how it affected their psyche,” Singh said.
Widely staged, the structure of Aulakh’s plays were simple and the language, Singh says, could capture a lot, be it ‘Begane Boharh Di Chhaan’, which depicts the plight of a tenant farmer, ‘Anhe Nishanchi’, a play on violence as the last resort of the deprived, ‘Bhajian Bahin’ on how terrorism played havoc on the rural people.
“Aulakh was a playwright of the people and his work will live on in their hearts and lands,” sums up Singh.