Painting for the theatre

Theatre curtains and sets, which were in vogue nearly a century ago, have inspired
many an artist, writes B. N. Goswamy

Temple in the City. Painting by Hari Singh. 1931
Temple in the City. Painting by Hari Singh. 1931

Intriguingly, some themes suddenly start claiming one’s attention sometimes. Not long ago, I wrote a short piece on the ‘Golden Era of Indian Theatre’, drawing attention to a recently held large theatre festival in Bangalore where the past, with all its romance and technical limitations, was celebrated. Close on its heels, there was news of an exciting show on "Painted Sceneries", curated by Nissar Allana, coming to town. (It is another matter that just as one was looking forward to seeing through Nissar’s eyes old painted theatre curtains, once used as backdrops in Marathi Sangeet Mandali shows, the event got cancelled) But the other day I met a gentleman here, a retired engineer, who told me that he was the son of Sardar Hari Singh, the painter from Punjab, who had spent years of his life painting theatre curtains for a once famous theatre company in Calcutta. I was back in the world of theatre, so to speak.

The story of painted theatre curtains, which came in vogue close to a century ago, has a fascination of its own, for in it figure, apart from entrepreneurs, performers and writers, painters whom one knows from their other work. There was the famous Raja Ravi Verma, who in his work drew freely upon theatrical models and sets; for the pioneers of Marathi theatre — the likes of the Kirloskar Natak Mandali, the Gandharva Mandali, for instance — painted backdrops were as important as declamatory acting techniques and operatic singing and ‘special effects’; at Nathdwara in Rajasthan, a whole generation of pichhwai painters, many of them inspired by the legendary Ghasi Ram, soon engaged themselves in painting ‘sinris’ (as they came to be called) for travelling dramatic companies that staged Krishnalila: idealised pastoral scenes complete with waterfalls and lush greenery, the imposing walls of the prison at Mathura where Krishna was born, the Govardhan hill with grazing cows drenched in rain, and so on. There is an evocative description by Shanta Gokhale of the sets created for Bal Gandharva, the ‘jewel in the crown of Marathi theatre’: "his setting had to be designed to offset every facet of his personality and performance: his movements, expressions, his music, his clothes. There was satin, velvet and gold aplenty in his furnishings. Arches were constructed to frame him, steps for him to climb down in the full majesty of a trailing sari." The painted backdrops were a natural part of the illusion being created on the stage.

But, to get back nearer home: to Sardar Hari Singh, the Punjab painter, in fact. The name was familiar to me from an early stay in Amritsar, but mostly in the context of portraits and works on religious, especially Sikh, themes. His close association with other artists of the region, including S. G. Thakur Singh and Sobha Singh, was also known. But I had little idea — till I learnt about it from his son — that long ago, and for long years, he had worked as a painter of sceneries. Born at Amritsar in 1894, and interested in the art of painting from his young years, Hari Singh attached himself for training early on to Bhai Ram Singh, the greatly gifted but now nearly forgotten architect: builder of such striking edifices as the Senate Hall of Panjab University and the Aitchison College at Lahore, and the Khalsa College at Amritsar. But soon he was hired by one of those grand Parsi theatre companies that took pride in naming themselves after Imperial figures: this one was called the Alfred Theatrical Company. The group enjoyed a high reputation then in the world of theatre, and to work with them was a great opportunity. Recruited in the course of one of the company’s performing visits to Amritsar, Hari Singh began travelling with them, painting and learning, learning and painting. There were challenges in designing backdrops and sets for the kind of plays that the Parsi groups performed: "Shahzada Siyawush", "Jahanbaksh and Gulrukhsar", "Bholi Gul", "Neelam Pari", and the like. For there was melodrama in them, and ‘spectacular effects’: fairy visions, descent from clouds, miraculous appearances, wondrous transformations. But Hari Singh was apparently up to the task. His place established, he had the opportunity to move in circles that included theatre celebrities such as Master Hussain Baksh, Muhammad Din Lahorewale, and Dinshaw Irani. He also had the honour of meeting, in the course of his long stay at Calcutta, Rabindranath Tagore who is said to have had words of praise for his painting of the Golden Temple. The world of theatre remained his first love, however. When the time came to move from Alfred, Hari Singh took up work with Madan Theatres and stayed with them for 14 long years, travelling to distant places such as Bombay, Benares, Madras, even Colombo, and working on productions ranging from "Turki Hoor" to "Krishna Sudama".

But the glitter of that kind of theatre was beginning to fade, for tastes had started changing, and the cinema had come in. Consequently, Hari Singh returned to his native city of Amritsar and set up a studio there, producing (till his end in 1970) portraits and landscapes and, yet again, paintings of religious themes. Recognition and honours came his way. He was even seen as a local celebrity. But one wonders if in his heart he did not keep missing the carefree days of his youth when he travelled the land and was such an integral part of the world of theatre. For to that world belonged drama and excitement. As in the Vyakul Bharat production of Buddhadeva: "Scene change. Storm. Lightning and Thunder. Stars dislodged from the sky. Huge demons seen. Some are spouting fire and some smoke. The sky is riddled with arrows in the background ... "