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Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Final Act: Theatre actor, director, clown Chani takes a bow

Born in Punjab in 1951, Chani would often recount how he was a mediocre student at school.

Written by Parul | Chandigarh |
Updated: May 21, 2021 7:50:22 am
Theatre artiste GS Chani entertains a kid at GMSH-16 in Chandigarh. (Express Photo)

“You people call me to parties to get free entertainment, after all, I am a bhaans,” Gurcharan Singh Chani would quip, as he took centerstage to perform a Russian and Chinese ‘Ramayana’, with all the theatrics, voice modulations and his patented gibberish in place. He loved the audience attention, the applause, the egging on, the laughter and the adulation. His wife Harleen would pitch in quietly, “Well, now that you have got him started, there will be no stopping him.”

Evenings with Chani were about poetry, Pash, Kabir, Nanak, music, unbridled joy and also deep reflections on life, art, theatre, giving back and the mysteries of this universe. A man ahead of his times, who chose the road less travelled, defied conventions and cliches, Chani followed his heart and lived life on his own terms. This morning, he passed away  in Chandigarh, after a long battle with Covid-19, leaving behind a legacy of love that he shared with countless people, touching innumerable lives along the way and spreading happiness.

As his wife and companion of decades Harleen expressed gently, “So, he chose to leave.”

Theatre artiste GS Channi entertains a kid. (Express Photo)

Born in Punjab in 1951, Chani would often recount how he was a mediocre student at school. It was a long and winding road that he took to find myself, a journey he described as, “cherished.”

After a B.Sc. from Patiala, he joined a technical college, only to quit after a year, for this was not what his heart wanted. It was after deep reflection that Chani joined the Department of Indian Theatre, Panjab University, Chandigarh in 1972. It was here he realised his gift, and topped his class in a year. He went on to pursue his passion for theatre at the National School of (NSD), Delhi and later at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune.

“For someone who had not read much, I finished the complete works of great authors, discovering a new world in books. I had the privilege to have a teacher like Balwant Gargi, who started the Department, opened new possibilities and vistas for us, introducing us to the world of art, music, poetry, politics and changing our perspectives. That is the work of a great teacher,” he had shared, as our paths crossed often for work, and later, blossomed into friendship and deep affection.  In fact, as part of  the Balwant Gargi Centenary Celebrations by Panjab University, Chani, in November 2016, presented Gargi’s Mirza Sahiban , A Musical Love Qissa of Punjab. Chani, who had directed and produced the play said that it was an ode and tribute to lovers and also an apology to those who dare to love and are pushed to make choices like Sahiban.

When Chani passed out from the National School of Drama in 1976, the Emergency was imposed, and he recalled how the youth was restless because of unemployment, and many joined the revolutionaries.  This, he said, was a tremendous opportunity for political theatre to provoke masses to participate in protests. It resulted in a theatre of provocation, revolt and protest, the philosophy of the Community Theatre of CEVA Drama Repertory Company, which Chani, his wife Harleen and many theatre people established in Chandigarh. It was physical theatre, sans any frills, the intent being to raise a voice against high-handedness of powerful.

Improvisation was the key, as Chani, the recipient of the National Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Community Theatre, and his team challenged themselves to move forward, without any baggage of life, ideologies, mind sets. As Chairperson of the Chandigarh Sangeet Natak Akademi for several years, Chani took forward this philosophy by establishing an organic bond between artists and audiences of Chandigarh’s villages by organising theatre and puppetry workshops, staging street plays, and screening films.

As Chairperson of the Akademi and as a theatre faculty at various prestigious institutes in India and abroad, Chani initiated several artistic projects to give local theatre people, musicians, artistes, a platform to showcase their art, and also invited leading directors, singers, musicians, dancers…to perform here, as he believed that we need to view the best in the world, to move forward and hone our art. Dejected with the attitude of the government during the lockdown last year, Chani raised a voice against the establishment and the Akademies for not supporting local artists during these testing times.

With his trademark colourful pagdis, a smile that reached his eyes, a peace on his face that comes from living each day on your terms, Chani, a Fullbright scholar, firmly believed that living a full life means never being comfortable and complacent, and constantly moving ahead, with faith, hope and courage. In the last decade, Chani created a 26-part documentary series titled, ‘Forts of India: The Resplendent Heritage’.  The series, Chani had recounted, was inspired by his conviction that forts are akin to a mirror that reflects, perhaps more clearly than any sheet of glass the attainments of a people – technological as well as artistic, and bear eloquent witness to their struggles, sorrows and joys. His latest work, ‘The North East Verve’, a documentary series of four films, focuses on the ethnic diversity of cultures and sub-cultures spirit of North East India. Chani’s dream project was a documentary on the 1984 Sikh genocide, as he wanted to revisit the footage and look at it with new eyes.

Since the last couple of years, Chani, members of CEVA and volunteers have presented the art of clowning in various hospitals of the city, including PGI and GMSH-16 and also schools and institutes for special children. Initiated into clowning by his wife Harleen, clowning, Chani said, came naturally to him, for he had been a clown since childhood.  “After the outer noise, there came a time for introspection and I let the inner voices take over, for after humongous noise we need silence.  Clowning was an expression for inner silence.  Although it is a privilege to be an artist, I felt the need to permeate deep down into the lives of people and be myself. Clowning helps bring out the most honest and pure part of me in front of people and be transparently visible to myself,” he had shared on January 1, 2016, in a ward in GMSH-16, after a session of clowning.  “When a clown goes to heal, he\she gets healed.”

There were many new adventures that Chani wanted to embark on, as he always said that life was a magical journey, each moment precious, pious and to be lived to the fullest.  So long, Chani.

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