Sunday, January 25, 2004

Meet the author
"Successful writers in India do not love their language"
C. D. Verma

...says Charan Dass Sidhu who was recently given the Sahitya Akademi Award for Punjabi literature. His play Shaheed Bhagat Singh, a trilogy, was chosen for the coveted award. 

Illustration by Sandeep JoshiCHARAN DASS SIDHU is a doyen of Punjabi literature, and a prolific playwright. He has scripted 33 plays in Punjabi. He wrote Bhajno, believed to be autobiographical, which brought him immediate fame, in 1976.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Sidhu:

Would you like to comment on the contemporary literary atmosphere in India in general, and Punjabi literature in particular?

Punjabi literature now is making a lot of progress. It is catching up with Bengali, Marathi and Kannada literature. Punjabi now is flourishing because of education and a network of roads. People write and share each others’ writing. They publish and discuss. There is a great future for Punjabi literature.

The only regrettable thing is that successful and prosperous writers in India do not love their language, their own milieu. They are keen on reporting to the English speaking world on the poverty and backwardness that afflict India. Ideal literature is a communication between men speaking the same language. Though I have made my living by teaching English language and literature for 43 years, I chose to write in my mother tongue, because I did not want to talk to the Americans about the untouchable Baba Bantu, his sons and daughters.

What place do you think your plays have carved out for you? Are you satisfied with the reception you have received?

I am no Bhavbhuti. I don’t have to wait for centuries for recognition. My very first play Bhajno made a mark. The Bhagat Singh trilogy for the last nine years has earned me the gratitude and affection of thousands of my audiences and rationalist thinkers. I am more than satisfied. I often ask myself, after a successful show, especially the show of Naastak Shaheed, what better could I have done with my life on this planet.

What is unique about the Shaheed Bhagat Singh trilogy that brought you the Sahitya Akademi Award? Does the trilogy present some new vision and philosophy?

There have been a number of books on Bhagat Singh. But most of them distort historical evidence to project a biased view. It is for the first time that I have highlighted some aspects of Bhagat Singh’s thinking which were either distorted or deliberately ignored by most historians and biographers. While the fanatics claim that he was either a Sikh or a Hindu, I present him as a dedicated Marxist revolutionary, who was opposed to superstition. In Naastak Shaheed (the third part), there is a constant reminder to the audience that among the hypocrites and the fanatics, Bhagat Singh is a real bhagat, a theist. The paradox is that he is the only theist among the pseudo-believers. He would not mind eating food cooked by the lowliest, a sweeper.

I have used evidence — Bhagat Singh’s essays, Why I am an Athiest, Introduction to the Dreamland, his jail notebook, records in the National Archives and newspaper clippings of that period to substantiate my point of view. This internal evidence lends thematic authenticity to the trilogy, Bhaaganwala Potra, Inkalabi Puttar and Naastak Shaheed.

Is Bhajno autobiographical?

Most of my good plays are autobiographical. The travails of Chhinda to complete his education tell the story of every village boy.

What philosophy of life do you profess, and to what extent has it influenced you?

I am only partly aware of what I have been trying convey through my plays. A critic may look objectively at my plays and discover ideas and patterns of thought.

Sage Bharata of the Natyashastra advised the theatre people to give courage to the depressed, and strength to the weak. I am a die-hard optimist. I want every boy and girl to discover his or her talent, develop it, and live a confident fruitful life. This may be the common thread in all my 33 plays.

The incidents and characters in your plays, starting from Bhajno, seem to be true to life.

I consider character to be the backbone of the play script, not the dialogue, not the theme, and not even the plot. Only Hamlets, King Lears, Othellos survive, not the twists and turns in the play. I based my plays on real-life persons, whom I have known for half a lifetime. The first set of notes I made as a playwright were lists of real-life persons from my own village. Anybody from my village can identify several of them, as my wife, throughout rehearsals, always did. Baba Bantu, Khushia of the mango grove, Fattoo, the water carrier, or Jeeta the barber boy, are all part of my life. I have taken pains to universalise their experiences.

Most of your plays are named after their characters. Why so?

For a thematic focus it is always good to name your play after the protagonist. Channo Bazigarni is a brave girl for the acrobatic community. Bhajno is a mother, and a struggling peasant woman. Kirpa Bona (the weaver) goes through the ordeals that allweavers have gone through in India.

Unlike other Punjabi playwrights, the language of your plays is that of the common man, and not literary. How have you evolved this language, a mix of Punjabi and Urdu?

Evolving your distinct style is half the trick of becoming a good writer. It took me years to arrive at my style. The method was very simple. The Irish playwright, J.M. Synge, had shown me the way in his Playboy of the Western World. He went to his people and listened to them. I have walked hundreds of miles throughout Punjab, Haryana, western UP, and northern Rajasthan, in various disguises, selling trinkets, donning a sadhu’s garb, or that of a palmist. But I kept my ears open. To create my people as they are, I must make use of everyday life. Incidentally, much of the so-called literary drama in Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu, is a failure. The writers have created an artificial idiom which never sat on the tongue of any real person.

How and when did your literary career start?

Learning to make a play was a conscious decision. I am not a born playwright. I think that with doggedness and perseverance, one can learn anything. When I returned from America in 1970, I wondered I should accept an administrative job, become a principal of a college, or do my creative work? I rejected the former and chose the latter. I decided to write and stage plays. Since 1970 onwards I have been devoting myself to writing plays.

Any regrets?

Only two. First, the day is too short. Had it been longer, I could have worked more, enjoyed more. And second, I could not marry Hema Malini.