India was at war with China in 1962 and, along with several other Leftist leaders, Tera Singh Chan was jailed over the suspicion that his sympathies lay with the Communist neighbour. At the same time, ironically enough, inspiring the masses on radio was his song “Eh pyaari Bharat maa”. Punjab newspapers took note of the dichotomy and the government was forced to release Chan. As we celebrate the poet-playwright’s birth centenary this year, his writings are still inspiring — like his poem “Desh de kisaan, aa gaye vich maidan” reverberating at the Delhi borders that are witnessing an unprecedented farmers’ movement.
Born at Campbellpur (now Attock) in west Punjab on January 6, 1921, Chan is credited with taking Punjabi theatre to the masses with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and starting the literary organisation, Kendri Punjabi Lekhak Sabha.
IPTA was formed across various parts of India in 1943, but a committee wasn’t formed in the culturally strong state until 1952 when Chan organised its Punjab chapter along with a host of like-minded people. Playwright Atamjit says, “Since IPTA was formed with the basic idea of people’s theatre, it connected masses with theatre in Punjab.”
Atamjit says Chan wasn’t primarily a director. “In those days, there were no theatre directors. It was always an actor or writer who had to don the mantle of director. Being a poet and prose writer, he brought strong scripts to theatre, closely working with Jagdish Fariyadi and Joginder Singh Baharla.”
The most famous of his works is the opera (geet naat) ‘Lakadd di Latt’, a poignant story of an Armyman who comes back from World War II with a wooden leg. His other important plays included ‘Phoolan da Saneha’, ‘Sanjha Veda’ and ‘Saazish’.
Thespian Sanjeevan, who heads IPTA Punjab, says that while Gursharan Singh is remembered for taking his plays to rural areas of Punjab, he was actually contributing to what IPTA had begun under Chan. The major names who worked with him included singer Surinder Kaur, Niranjan Singh Mann, Preet Maan, Gurcharan Boparai and Kanwaljit Suri.
Punjabi critic Raghubir Singh Sirjana, who is also Chan’s son-in-law, says he was the first one to hold ticketed theatre shows at Preetnagar in Amritsar. He also took Punjabi plays to Hyderabad, Calcutta and Patna. However, Chan didn’t write much towards the later part of his life, nor did he direct theatre plays, says Sirjana. “He was more into organisational stuff, first as secretary of Kendri Punjabi Lekhak Sabha and then as its general secretary.” He remained general secretary of IPTA till 2003.
Atamjit still remembers how Chan kept the literary and theatre scene in Chandigarh abuzz in his organisational role. “Once, he was to be hospitalised on a day that he had organised an event in the city. So, before getting admitted, he arrived at Tagore Theatre, checked the arrangements and only then headed for the hospital. Such was his dedication,” he shares.
Sirjana says Chan’s own life was an ideal example of secularism. “He sported a beard but lived and died an atheist. His family was truly cosmopolitan — I was a son-in-law from another caste, a daughter-in-law is Muslim, another is Jat. The sons and daughters married into different castes and different regions of Punjab and India.”
This progressive nature was typical to his work too. A song from ‘Kaag Samay da Boleya’, his anthology of poems, says the times are changing and the widow is once again wearing her jewellery. It was a radical idea, and his works were brimming with them.
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