The theatre community in Delhi knew Joginder Singh Pahwa as the sardar who watched plays. Few knew that Pahwa did more than watch, he collected every scrap of paper related to the arts that he could find. At the National School of Drama (NSD), where the 17th national theatre festival called Bharat Rang Mahotsav is underway, a team is sifting through Pahwa’s collection and unearthing archival gems that will be showcased in an exhibition from February 10. Pahwa, a Chartered Accountant, passed away in 2013 and this is the first time that NSD is holding an event to highlight, not the achievements of a playwright or a performer, but the passion of a common man.
“Brochures, leaflets, tickets, passes, invitation cards, newsletters, newspaper clippings…” reels off Amitabh Srivastava, a senior theatre person and Head of Publication at NSD, who is involved with the exhibition. “He started collecting around 1954 and continued for 60 years,” adds Srivastava. The collection fills 14 bags and one large sack, and trawling through it is like turning the pages of Delhi’s theatre history. In 1963, when the British High Commission presented A Rose without a Thorn, audiences watched Henry VIII romance his fifth wife Katherine Howard, whom he lovingly called “a rose without a thorn”, for Rs 2 at a prominent venue of the time — Fine Arts Theatre on Rafi Marg.
A different way of life — on and off the stage — also comes through in a brochure from the early 1970s of Yatrik’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While the credits list the indefatigable theatre personality Joy Michael as costume designer, the brochure is also packed with advertisements, indicating a more prosperous time for the stage. One of these is for Band Box dry cleaners, “the symbol of extra smartness for diplomats and debonairs” and lists shark skin and “any other material” in their list of expertise.
“We got married in 1964 and I found it strange that my husband would watch so much theatre, sometimes three plays a day. I was a school teacher, I had to leave for work early and theatre would get over very late. He would not let me tear or throw away any paper on theatre,” says Surjit Pahwa, Pahwa’s wife, who still lives in their East Patel Nagar house. Pahwa, who was 83 when he died, tried to catch as many plays as possible, including in regional and foreign languages. “He would come home after a Tamil play and say, ‘I was the only sardar in the hall’,” recalls Surjit.
In those early years, the stars of today were still young guns. A playbill of Vijay Tendulkar’s classic Khamosh Adalat Jaari Hai from September 1979 mentions Anupam Kher in the cast while the brochure for the First National Festival of Drama, organised by Shri Ram Centre, in 1977 features Dr Shreeram Lagoo as the director and actor of Uddhawaste Dharmashala. A list of plays that Pahwa had planned to watch at the BRM in January 2014 — two months after he died — will also be on display.