In assist of farmers, theatre of protest

Sarika Sharma

In the last three weeks, Ludhiana-based Harkesh Chaudhary has taken his play to 25 locations across Punjab. From Jagraon railway station to Sudhar toll plaza, from Romana Albel Singh near Jaito to Mehal Kalan in Barnala, Rampura Phul and Lehra Bega in Bathinda, Bareta in Mansa, Ferozepur Cantt, among others. His hour-long play Utthan da Vela, which translates as ‘Time to Rise’, is his way of showing solidarity with Punjab farmers, protesting against Centre’s farm laws. And not just him, there are several theatre groups, big and small, which have come up with productions on farmers’ issues.

The venues are the least ideal — railway stations, petrol pumps and toll plazas. The stage is as basic as it could get. But that doesn’t deter these theatre actors and directors who know their art is not, and cannot be, for art’s sake alone today. The idea is to entertain the protesters, often running into several thousands, but never entertainment alone. They identify with the cause of their audience — colourful and spirited.

Amritsar-based Kewal Dhaliwal’s Manch Rangmanch has revived Joginder Baharla’s Punjabi opera Harian Saunnian and has been performing it at toll plazas and petrol pumps across Bathinda, Barnala, Sangrur and Mansa districts. A member of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), Bahrala had written the play in 1950. Seventy years later, it is as relevant. Based on a conversation between the crops and the farmers, where the crops wonder why does the farmer, who works so hard to make them grow and fruit, remain poor. The message of the half-an-hour show is simple: “Our fields. Our crop. Our soil. We sow. Our right.” An opera, the production has been appreciated by the audience, says Dhaliwal. “It is a colourful play, full of dance and song. It makes an immediate connect with people who feel so happy their lives are being understood that they shower Rs10 notes on us.”

The energy at the protest sites is the greatest reward, says Satpal Banga from Patiala-based People’s Art. “People cry, raise slogans, applaud,” he says. Banga has revived Gursharan Singh’s 1980 play Eh Zameen Saaddi Hai. Originally written against the Punjab government’s decision to take away the barren land small farmers had been cultivating for years, it has now been tweaked as per the present times. However, a play isn’t where their activism ends. Banga’s team has been going to villages, speaking to people and telling them why the farmers and farm organisations are opposing the laws.

Activism in theatre is what the late thespian Gursharan Singh, the man who inspires various theatrepersons spread across Punjab today, practised. This is why it isn’t surprising that he is often evoked at the protest sites.

Amolak Singh, president of Punjab Lok Sabhyacharak (PULS) Manch, says this is the ideal coming together of theatre, people and farming community. “Artistes are performing at around 120 protest sites and each is alive with art and activism. This is something that has happened after a long time,” he says.

Play list

  • Rangkarmi ka Bachcha | Sahib Singh’s Adakar Manch, Mohali
  • Madaari | Natyam Abhineta Da Rangmanch, Bathinda
  • Eh Lahu Kisda Hai | Puls Manch
  • Assi Anndata Hunde Haan & Tain Ki Dard Na Aaya | Awaam Rang Manch, Seora, Khanna
  • Lockdown | Azad Rangmanch, Barnala
  • Mitti De Jaaye | Adakar Manch Sirjana, Raikot
  • Laare, Muaavza, Khu De Daddu | Amritsar Natak Kala Kendra, Chandigarh

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