Every inch of theatre activist Gursharan Singh’s home resonates with his memories — photographs, books, awards, personal belongings, revolutionary speeches, and scripts of plays that he took to people’s homes in the interiors of rural Punjab, among others.
The playwright, director and actor lives on in the hearts of thousands whose lives he touched. Now his home in Chandigarh’s Sector 43 has been transformed into the Gursharan Singh Memorial Gallery, which opened its doors to theatre practitioners, students, researchers and theatre lovers across the country on June 4.
It is a befitting tribute to “bhaaji” as he was affectionately called and to a fearless and committed man considered to be a pillar of revolutionary theatre movement in Punjab. Singh’s wife Kailash, his two daughters Arit and Navsharan, and his students theatre actor and director Anita Shabdeesh Singh and playwright Shabdeesh, have worked tirelessly for over a year to create the gallery.
Anita’s theatre group, Suchetak Rangmanch, for years has been staging the annual Gursharan Singh Naat Utsav in the memory of her mentor and teacher, who passed way in 2011. The group has been instrumental in giving the gallery its soul. She was instrumental in collecting things from his family, friends, theatre people from all over Punjab. In the gallery, Singh’s bedroom houses photographs with his family, rare books, his own books and writings, his wheelchair, bed and a beautiful velvet gown he wore for a play, his walking stick, and a kettle, among others.
The first room has a special glass case, which displays memorabilia from Singh’s group and numerous awards he received, including the National Sahitya Akademi award, an embroidered rumaala (piece of cloth used to cover the Guru Granth Sahib) gifted by his students, two records — Splash of Light amd Revolutionary Songs from India with commentary by Singh, and numerous pictures which include him and his wife on stage and with actor Balraj Sahni, who would often travel with Singh to villages and act in plays. “We want the future generations to know his work, philosophy, beliefs and this gallery is a step towards it. Also, it will be a space where artistes can meet, connect and take his work forward,” shares Anita, adding how the space is work in progress, and will grow with time.
Singh worked tirelessly for the cause of the working class, farmers, labourers, women, Dalits, and anyone who was oppressed, through his courageous plays, and was afraid to speak against power and authority. Alongside, he groomed a new generation of theatre directors and actors, who are now spread all over India. From the Emergency (Eh Lahoo Kisda Hai), to the dark days of terrorism and militancy in Punjab (Dastaan-E-Punjab, Bhai Mana Singh), the condition of women, class discrimination, poverty (Mitti Da Mul), corruption among others, are some of the issues Singh wrote about.Singh was known to wait for women in the villages to finish their chores and be in the audience. With his theatre, he wanted to give common people a voice and bring about change. “His focus was the script and actors and his mission was to give the downtrodden a voice and strive for change. He, through his art and progressive ideologies, fought for equality and justice for the people. He showcased his work just about anywhere, without sets, music, costumes, so that people could connect to the power of simplicity and not be intimidated by the artform. In Virsa Vihar in Amritsar, to get people involved in theatre, he would charge Rs 10 a year as membership and then every three months, stage a new play,” recalls Shabdeesh.
Singh was arrested during the Emergency for the plays he staged and lost his job, and Shabdeesh remembers how when he came out of jail, he decided to take his theatre to villages. “During the days of militancy in Punjab, he staged a play, Hit List, a direct attack on terrorists who had him on their hit list. Many thought he presented short plays only, but he staged Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s Loona as soon as it was released, and it was a 90-minute, beautiful production. He also staged most of Balwant Gargi’s plays, never limiting himself,” says AnitaAs Anita gives finishing touches to the elements in the gallery, she describes it as the most important thing in her life. “What I am today is because of him and this is our way of keeping his memory alive and taking his work places,” she says.