“An artiste has a very long life. If I am an artiste, I am a different category. I have to do something that has to remain for centuries,” says Shekhar Sen. A singer, actor and writer and director, Sen is also the chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. He rose to prominence as a singer in the 1980s and 90s and had released 200 musical albums before beginning a series of solo theatre performances that brought alive Tulsidas, Kabir, Vivekananda and Soordas on stage. These plays have been presented across the world, as well as in Parliament and Rashtrapati Bhavan multiple times. “When I started performing these plays, my aim was to represent the best of my culture. The best personalities of our culture are painters, saints and thinkers,” he adds. Sen is bringing three of his famous plays, Kabir, Tulsidas and Vivekananda to Pune on May 31, June 1 and June 2 respectively. Excerpts from a conversation:
As chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, what is your definition of an artiste?
An artiste should keep learning. A good artiste is always in the process of learning and has humility. I always believe in taking good things from everyone. Every artiste… has been made by God. There is something inside her or him that is not inside others. I am against competition in art. If you go to to music competitions as a judge and one candidate is Lata Mangeshkar and the other is Asha Bhonsle, who will you judge as better? I believe that pehlwans throw one another to the ground, not artistes. As an artiste, I have to defeat myself everyday. I should do better than my last performance. An artiste cannot think that he or she has performed very well. One has to be very careful about that.
What’s your opinion about the role of culture in society?
If you study the map of the world and keep marking the countries where terrorism, drugs and heinous crime such as trafficking have risen, you will realise that these are the countries where there was a ban on musicians and dancers or historians, writers and playwrights were jailed. This is true of one of our neighbouring countries as well as Latin America. In India, if you go to a temple, you will find a space called the rangshala — the abode of art. In my country, the musician or actor has a different meaning. Artists have sung for God or the king. Times have changed, today we have to do both.
You are rehearsing for three plays — Tulsidas, Kabir and Vivekananda. How do you tackle these characters?
I rehearse while travelling by plane, while lying down and whenever I have 30 minutes by myself. I don’t carry scripts with myself. What is challenging is that each has a different dialect. Tulsi speaks in Hindi and Avadhi, Kabir in Hindi and Bhojpuri and Vivekananda in Hindi, Bangla and English. Each play also has a different scale for singing: Kabir, we know, had not studied. People who don’t study talk a little loudly. He sings at a higher pitch. Vivekananda, on the other hand, has learnt singing so why should he shout? There are many such little details in my plays.
What drew you to making Tulsidas in 1998?
What are the four bestselling books in the world? The Holy Bible, the Holy Quran, the Bhagvad Gita and the Ramcharitmanas. It is believed that the first three books were granted by God. But the fourth? Ramcharitmanas was written by a mere human being 500 years ago. What I find fascinating is that in the 16th century, Tulsi thought of the concept of swayamsevaks or volunteers, who would come to help when there was a disaster such as drought or a poor man’s cottage catching fire. Think about one play that has been performed in every village or town every year for almost 500 years? That play is the Ramlila. When I was writing Tulsi, I was told, ‘He was a fanatic’. Mazey ki baat yeh hai that there were six assassination attempts on him. He had translated Valmiki Ramayana from Sanskrit to Awadhi, the language of the common man. We know that whenever you change the status quo, there will be resistance. The society of that day wanted to kill him.
How did Kabir inspire you?
Kabir is very simple to understand and equally difficult to follow. He said, “Bura jo dekhan main chala, Bura naa milya koye jo mann khoja apnaa, to mujhse bura naa koye”. Can we ever look at ourselves as being wrong and bad? We are always justifying our actions. The doha of Kabir have changed my life.
You often say that Tulsidas is like your mother while Kabir was like your father. What about Vivekananda?
He is like my brother. I can fight with Swami ji. The fun fact is that Swami ji stayed in Raipur, where I am from, and it is a great thing for us Raipurians. We are very proud of this. It is most difficult to play Vivekananda. People don’t know Tulsi or Kabir, so if a word or phrase is mispronounced, they will give me the benefit of doubt. But Vivekananda is well known as he has written a lot and people have written on him. Vivekananda has to speak the best of Bangla, English, Hindi and Sanskrit. If there is a mistake, I could not forgive myself.
Vivekananda is also familiar through photographs. How do you depict him?
I started playing Swami ji when I was 44. He died when he was 39. He was a very handsome person with straight shoulders. My shoulders droop so I have used padding on the shoulders of my costume. I have used make-up to create a cleft on my chin. When I had the turban made, it weighed five and a half kg initially. At my first performance, I thought I would die from the weight of the turban. The posture and body language are very important. Remember that I want to make you interested in Swami ji. You will not know everything about Swami ji from my plays but I want to stoke your curiosity. I want to make you hungry about your own culture.