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On Chicago stage, a slice of Punjab

With actors and audiences from diverse backgrounds, playwright Atamjit has been successfully staging his plays in America

On Chicago stage,  a slice of Punjab

‘Rishteyan Da Ki Rakhiye Naa’ is a scathing commentary on the havoc Partition wreaked.



Nonika Singh

Where Punjabis go, Punjab follows. Only, in the case of eminent playwright and theatreperson Atamjit, make it Punjabi rangmanch. Thus, when in 2022, this prolific writer, with 36 plays to his credit, made Chicago his second home, how could the theatre director in him remain dormant for long? Exposure to a wide variety of mainstream plays in this international hub of finance and culture, where theatre too beats strong, further ignited the artistic impulses.

Stills from ‘Main Taan Ik Sarangi Haan’

What began as a reading session of his much-acclaimed play ‘Main Taan Ik Sarangi Haan’ in Hindi soon led to the opening of new doors. A chance encounter with Ranjit Singh, then Consul General of India, Chicago — a spirited man obsessed with spreading the fragrance of Punjabi culture in foreign lands — transformed into the new play ‘Sahni Theek Kehnda Si’. In sync with the sentiments of Bhasha Divas organised in Chicago, the play was not a screeching cry for propagating Punjabi alone, but one that celebrated maa boli in general. Taking Nobel laureates from the Indian subcontinent and their love for the mother tongue as the base, it also impressed upon how at the insistence of Rabindranath Tagore, actor Balraj Sahni turned towards writing in Punjabi. Subconsciously and subtly, it also knocked down misconceptions and established how Punjabi is not an exclusive preserve of the Sikhs, but all Punjabis. Atamjit’s raison de etre to do theatre on alien soils is not to divide on religious or linguistic lines, but to unite. Not just all Indians but Pakistanis, too, especially those who hail from Lehnda (West) Punjab.

‘Sahni Theek Kehnda Si’.

Incidentally, the seed for Punjabi plays in Chicago was sown by a Pakistani theatre group some 12 years ago. Whether those plays bridged the India-Pakistan divide is not known, but at Bhasha Divas this year, when Atamjit once again staged yet another celebrated play of his, ‘Rishteyan Da Ki Rakhiye Naa’, few could have questioned its humanistic tenor transcending borders and barriers. “Religion,” believes Atamjit, “is a part of culture. Yet, when it becomes an all-encompassing and divisive tool, it can cause irreparable damage.” Harking back to Partition, inspired by Saadat Hasan Manto’s heartrending story ‘Toba Tek Singh’, ‘Rishteyan Da…’ is a scathing commentary on the havoc that the Radcliffe Line wreaked on the common man.

Of course, bringing plays to life in Chicago is a Herculean task. Atamjit didn’t just rediscover his actor Pawan Kumar, who stays in Cincinnati, but also made more than one non-Punjabi speak the language fluently. He counts Marathi kathak dancer Madhura Sane as the finest among them. From Zoom rehearsals to finding a physical rehearsal space, the going has been tough but worthwhile. The response has been overwhelming and the Hindi adaptation of ‘Main Taan Ik Sarangi Haan’ went full house. Widely staged by Atamjit himself, besides other theatre groups, it is a complex, bold and challenging play that breaks the linear narrative. With a strong feminist core, it looks at women through the prism of societal perceptions and defies these at the same time.

The obvious query, why not create a play around the contemporary problems of the diaspora, is met with credible reasoning. For one, the Sangeet Natak Akademi recipient gave us ‘Kamloops Dian Machhian’, some three decades ago. It draws a parallel between the salmon fish, which traverses thousands of miles and returns to its place of birth as it nears completion of its life cycle, and first-generation migrants, who want to reclaim their motherland in twilight years. He reminds us, “I staged this play in Canada way back in the 1990s. Ideally, a play can be written on any issue, but unless it involves our polity, economy, psychology or society, it has no meaning. Besides, plays don’t come out in a jiffy, at the slightest trigger. I have to internalise the concern before I let my pen do the talking.”

He feels that today the cause for consternation is not the predicament of migrants, who have to learn to navigate their way through with the new social reality of their choice. What bothers him more is the future of Punjab. Clearly, there are no easy answers to this ticklish inquiry.

Where theatre in Punjab is headed is also a debate for another time. But in distant lands, can he sustain what he has started, that too in a place where the Indian population is rather scattered? The reply is cryptic and honest, “Yes, if I have men like Ranjit Singh behind me and, more importantly, if I could get my youth back.” But, he hopes: “If I have set the ball rolling, others will pick up the gauntlet.” Of course, like the quintessential Punjabi, his attitude always will be ‘never say die’, and aimed in a direction where Punjabiyat, and not religiosity, stays alive.

#United States of America USA


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