Saturday, April 26, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Playwright who created drama in real life
Aruti Nayar

Balwant GargiLEGENDS are often created in the past tense, not in the present tense. Balwant Gargi had this rare distinction of having acquired legendary status during his lifetime. He was intelligent, he was dynamic; he was controversial. It’s difficult to say whether it was the man who courted controversies, or controversies that dogged him. Often, it was difficult to separate the myth of Gargi from his reality. He transformed a laid- back small town into a hub of theatrical activity and exposed the audiences to international theatre and spawned a revolutionary movement that is being carried forward by students who loved the man as much as they idealised the teacher.

Amidst all the tributes and recaps of his life and work the fact that stands out is his contribution to theatre and the ability to shock the sanctimonious, hypocritical society into an awareness of the turbulence of relationships. He chose to document with authenticity his own life experiences and did not spare anyone, not even himself, so ruthless was he.


Born in Bhatinda in 1916, he took to writing at the age of 21. Called "Bhatinde da bania", his first autobiographical book was Kekka Reta, followed by Kesro and Loha Kutt, originally written as a radio play in Lahore, where it was banned.

He was credited with setting up of the Department of Indian Theatre, Panjab University, in 1974. Gargi’s effort was a pioneering one, says Mohan Maharishi, former Chairman of the department. It was the then VC, Suraj Bhan, whom Gargi called "Lalaji", who had invited him to come to the City Beautiful. Once he came here, he energised the whole town with theatrical activity and increased the level of exposure of the students as well as the audience. The Sahitya Akademi award came early on in 1962 for his Theatre in India. Not only did Gargi do theatre, he lived a theatrical life. Countering charges of obscenity, peddling pornography and being labelled as the ‘playboy of Punjabi literature’, he was convinced that the very same people who reviled writers as obscene, would flaunt their association with him after he died.

Neelam Mansingh, who was doing History of Fine Arts before she joined the NSD, remembers how Gargi energised the students and created a celebratory atmosphere. For the first time, a playwright gave an inner life to the characters. Before that drama mainly focused on social evils. With Gargi it entered the life of the mind. So, Elia Kazan (whom Gargi identified with), Brecht, Eugene Ionescoe, O Neill, Chekhov and Strindberg were all brought to sleepy Chandigarh with panache.

"Perhaps it was the fact that Gargi was well-read, widely travelled and possessed such a magnanimity of spirit that made him cultivate the spark within others and was so sure of his own self that he did not hesitate to invite the very best from other places to the department," says Mahendra Kumar, Chairman, Department of Indian Theatre, who directed Gargi’s Loha Kutt.

While it is often that life puts an individual on hold, with Gargi it was the other way around—he measured his life in spans of five years at a time—packing it with intensity and action. "I live for five years at a stretch before renewing my lease of life with God," he had once said with his characteristic wry humour. A vivid and engaging speaker, he spoke the way he wrote, with passion,conviction and a boundless energy. In an interview to The Tribune, he had given a graphic account of his life and taken a walk down memory lane without nostalgia or longing. Close friend, N.K. Oberoi, former Professor, Department of English, Panjab University, describes how Gargi would take him and his friends to the Indian Coffee House, treat them and have engaging conversation with them, despite the fact they were just freshers. He says : "An image of Gargi walking in a crowd on Janpath is a sight that I treasure. It was so symbolic of his life. It seemed the momentum of the crowd was making him walk...this is what he wanted to do, lose himself in a stream of people." But merge he did not. He stood up for his work as well as his life. "To earn a living by his writings and to live by his wits is something that was so difficult, yet he did it with tremendous elan. He was a rare writer who lived by his writings."

Candid to the point of making himself vulnerable, if Gargi was unsparing of his friends and family while he wrote about them, he was as honest and ruthless about himself. He compared his writing to painting self-nudes. While speaking, he waded through meaningless statements and often came up with comments that revealed his freshness of thought and originality of expression. On being asked about what he thought about the Indian writers writing in English, the man who had never got a single rejection slip ever had shot back: "Has anyone asked those in the West if they have read Iqbal, Manto or Ghalib? Western critics like to build up mediocre Indian writers. I never knew anyone and was still published in the USA." As an Indian who wrote good prose in English, when he was complimented on his writing ability, he said he felt akin to "a monkey who has started talking".

Sedate and domesticated women did not interest him, but evil and demonic beauty that was destructive captivated him. If his mother, who was abusive and volatile, instilled in him a fascination for the raw vigour of Punjabis, it was a teacher who taught him to write with precision and economy, without using too many adjectives. A meeting with Gurudev drove home the point that Punjabi was his mother tongue, because earlier he used to write poems in English.

A strange dichotomy was that Gargi remained steeped in the soil, despite being global in the days before globalisation became the part of an average Indian’s vocabulary. As Rani Balbir, theatre person, recounts, "Gargi was a brilliant teacher, who never had a book by his side but the level of his knowledge and exposure was tremendous. He met eminent international celebrities but was so steeped in Bathinda’s soil that a petiwala singer from his village inspired him as much as a prima donna did." To the question whether it was ethical of Gargi to publicise his private life, Rani says:"Tujhe hum Wali samjhte jo na bada khwar hota."

He infused his students with an energy and excitement that spurred them on to attain heights. Mahendra adds: "There are many who are brilliant but to share your intelligence with others and to kindle as well as nurture the spark within others is something only few can do. He was warm-hearted and generous and extremely open to suggestions." Not only did Gargi wear his erudition and learning lightly but in a country where even a little knowledge makes one pompous, he showcased the vast range of his knowledge in an affable, self-mocking demeanour. However transient and shifting his passions, he was consistent in cultivating them.

Meeting Gargi was like coming into contract with a dynamo of energy and creativity. He drew flak for his penchant for kissing and telling and talking openly about things the sedate sixties’ crowd only clicked their tongues at or whispered about in muffled tones. For the post-invasion-from-the-skies scenario, exposed to explicit rapid-splice images, books like The Naked Triangle and The Purple Moonlight might seem tame and without much shock value but for those fed on the prudish, often surreptitious Victorian ways, Gargi’s manner was like a gust that ruffled the feathers of propriety and morality.

Oberoi is of the view that what was commendable is the way Gargi lived by his writing, something few writers can boast of.

For Neelam Mansingh, being exposed to theatre and a bohemian way of life for students who came from a bourgeois set-up was a life-changing experience as much as the way in which he took care of all the students in an avuncular fashion was endearing. "To see the posters of the Berlin Theatre festival on his walls. To listen to accounts of his interaction with Elia Kazan and Bertolt as well as the Moscow Art Theatre was an unparalleled experience as it was to meet celebrities such as Sheila Bhatia, Ebrahim Alkazi in his house. To be told how tradition and history should be re-examined was an exhilarating experience", says Neelam.

It was this defining energy and the ability to generate excitement that transformed the sleepy town of Chandigarh into a cultural hub. He created an awareness about good theatre in the city by producing Sanskrit classics like The little clay cart, Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Ionescoe’s Lesson and Chairs, Anouilh’s Antigone, O’ Neil’s Desire Under The Elms brought artistic vigour and creative energy to the slumbering city and honed the talent of Kiran Thakur, Anupam Kher, Rani Balbir, Mangal Dhillon, Amrik Gill and Baldev Gill.

A character in Purple Moonlight says:"You can’t put life in a bank locker and live on it’s interest... I want to burn the candle at both the ends." Almost, as if it were epitomising Gargi’s own life.

In an interview he had said: "Women have the edge in any relationship because they can talk and cry. A man also might feel hurt and betrayed but he can never communicate that sense of loss." When asked if he too had felt this way, his answer had been that the feelings were "too deep for words". And a spasm of loneliness had remained despite living life to the hilt.

But the patriarch of Punjabi theatre had no regrets, as he wrote: "I tracked back the images of my life...a long film strip running backward...watching these lived-in images was soothing. If god had told me that this life was a rough sketch, and granted me another, would I have avoided the pitfalls—never. I would not barter it for any other life. I would want to live exactly the same life I had lived."