A man of roots
Nonika Singh

WHEN a man decides to pen his autobiography, it would seem as if he is trying to seal his greatness. However, the Mansa-based noted theatreperson Ajmer Singh Aulakh, rooted to terra firma, nurses no such delusions of grandeur. So, even though his life story that has spanned several milestones is awe-inspiring, he doesnít think his achievements by themselves deserve to be remembered by posterity. The rationale behind writing an autobiography, he states simply is, "For this would help others, especially students doing research on my work to understand my plays better. For my plays are a reflection of my experiences."

Indeed, the man, whose plays are known as much for their rustic flavour and authentic ĎMalwaií dialect as for the complexity of rural issues, does agree with the presumption that one can write from imagination alone. "There are men born with such rare felicity, perhaps, but I draw inspiration from what I have experienced and seen." So, time and again his pen has moved to bare the predicament and the anguish of marginal farmers or the rural working class. Interestingly, even as a small boy growing up in Kishangarh Pharwahi village he wrote poems that brimmed with Leftist ideology and sang them with full gusto at many platforms of communist parties. In between, he even churned out a "totally forgettable" novel and some short stories.

Ajmer Singh Aulakh
Ajmer Singh Aulakh

For years, he didnít realise his muse lay in play writing and direction. It was only when he began teaching Punjabi at Nehru Memorial College, Mansa, and was made in charge of co-curricular activities that his latent talent came to the fore.

Says he, "As I observed the reaction of the audiences, I realised that people responded more to my skit items or mono acts." Soon, he began to write small plays for his college students. Presto, wherever the play was staged `BE at youth festivals or other inter-college competitions `BE it won a first prize. Spurred by encouraging words from men like the eminent novelist Gurdial Singh and Punjabi critic Dr T. R. Vinod, his theatre group, Lok Kala Manch, Mansa, was born in 1976 and has over 1,000 theatre performances to its credit. Having written over 35 plays, many of which are part of the university syllabi, Aulakh has always voiced the concerns of the dispossessed and challenged obscurantist beliefs. Often, he has taken a cue from the lines of Gurbani or Sufi wisdom and championed the true essence of Sikhism. Rues he, "Sikhism is first and foremost a proponent of equality. Unfortunately, feudal elements try to project it differently." 

Thus, his play Ishak Bajhh Nwaj Da Hajj Nahi conveys how deeds and not rituals take one closer to the intrinsic philosophy of Sikhism. While some of his plays have revolved around fake encounters (Yaarne Da Sathar), militancy (Anhe Nishanchi), the most outstanding leitmotif of his work has been the manner in which he establishes the link between economic compulsions and social and family relationships. And what is remarkable is that his plays like Bagane Boharh Di Chhaan have received both critical acclaim from thick-skinned theatre critics and the adulation of rural masses. Of course, the man, who has received many honours like the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Shiromani Natakkaar Award by the Language Department, Punjab, Sahitya Akademi Award, International Pash Memorial Award by the International Pash Memorial Trust America-Canada, has not been spared the barbs either.

On the charge that his plays are deeply entrenched in the Malwa belt and, thus, lack universal appeal, he quips, "I donít think there is anything called universal truth. Truth is always relative, and has to be viewed from a particular perspective. Even to understand Shakespeare you need to understand the background of the times he lived in."

Not that he is comparing himself to Shakespeare. On the contrary, he feels that one must understand oneís limitations and work within that ambit. And his chosen circle is the farming community. He asserts, "Some detractors might think I am repeating myself but even today I feel there are many aspects of farmersí problems which have not been dwelt upon." Land acquisition, he agrees, has opened up a Pandoraís box and thrown up concerns which are weighing on his mind. Yes, he does intend to write a play on it.

But Aulakh doesnít believe in knee-jerk response to incidents or situations. Though extremely perturbed by the Maoist problem he would rather sit and watch before drawing any parallel with Punjab. In fact, it is this trait of deliberation and contemplation that distinguishes him from theatre titan Gursharan Singh, who has pioneered theatre of and for the masses. Aulakh deems, " Theatre cannot be sheer slogan. It has to be a literary endeavour and rural people do understand complexities and subtle allusions, too. Often, after the play, the feedback I receive from simple villagers, particularly women, is a revelation." Yet, he does admit that he has to tread the path carefully, especially while tackling ticklish issues. Take his bold and controversial play Ek Ramayan Hor in which the link between economic deprivation and social problems is laid bare in a rather morally incorrect way. He says, "If not treated with caution this play could offend some sensibilities and in the hands of some immature directors, it did." But by and large, he shares, "People are open and respond effusively." Itís this love of real Punjab that lives in the villages which is his biggest reward and itís their generosity that has seen him battle the deadly cancer. Any wonder, his ultimate dream is to keep articulating their concerns. A man of roots, dedicated to the same.