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Essay

Freedom is another word for… Zohra Sehgal

Ratnottama Sengupta gives a glimpse of the life of a woman impacted by the Partition, spirited enough to be a celebrated performer and to have a compelling saga written on her life posthumously, Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon, published by Speaking Tiger Books. This feature is based on the book and Sengupta’s own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal.

Zohra Sehgal. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

Zohra Sehgal[1] mirrors, in a strange kind of way, the story of the Indian subcontinent.

Born a Khan in 1912, raised in purdah by the Nawabs of Rampur in palaces and mansions in Lucknow and Dehradun, educated in Queen Mary’s College of Lahore; trained in Western  dance in pre-Hitler Germany; whirling through the globe and basking in limelight as the dancing partner of the phenomenal Uday Shankar; setting up her own dance school with husband Kameshwar Segal in pre-Partition Lahore; rising to carve a niche for herself as a member of Prithvi Theatres; dominating the screen as a nonagenarian cast against the legendary Amitabh Bachchan… Sahibzadi bestowed with an impulse to find her way in the world, made of her life what she would.

So, was it all sunshine and moonlight in the life of the lady who, when she turned 100, had the wit to say, “You are looking at me now, when I am old and ugly… You should have seen me when I was young and ugly…”? No. She had seen the failure of Uday Shankar Cultural Centre in Almora; the closure of her own dance school in Lahore. She’d relocated to Bombay and be a less appreciated ‘side-kick’ to her ‘prettier’ younger sister in Prithvi Theatres. She performed in makeshift stages more often than in the Opera House; traveled in third class compartments with the troupe, slept on trunks, washed her own clothes. She had to worry about providing for her children and their father. She had to cope with the whimsicality, alcoholism, depression and finally, the suicide of her husband… But the caravan of misfortunes never dampened her spirit. “If I were to be reborn, I’ll be back as a blue-eyed, five feet five, 36-24-36,” she could repartee with humorist Khushwant Singh.

But then, much of the tragedy unfolded around the Independence cum Partition at Midnight. And I thank Ritu Menon’s ‘A Biography in Four Acts’ for lifting the curtain on this side of Zohra Segal – the phenomenon I had the good fortune to know through the years we spent in Delhi’s Alaknanda area.

Zohra’s father, Mohammed Mumtazullah Khan had descended from Maulvi Ghulam Jilani Khan, the warrior chieftain of a clan of the Yusufzai tribe[2] and a religious scholar of repute who came to the Mughal court in Delhi possibly in 1754. Along with infantry and cavalry and the title of Khan Saheb he was given Chitargaon Pargana in Bihar, but since the British rulers were taking over Bengal and Bihar, he fled to Rohilkhand and joined the Rohilla chieftains who survived the battle against the Nawab of Awadh and rose to become Nawab of Rampur.

Zohra’s mother, on the other hand, descended from Najibuddaulah, another Rohilla Pathan[3]  in the service of Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Mughals, who founded Najibabad in 1740 and received the hereditary title of Nawab. By 1760, the tract of land he ruled included Dehradun, Najibabad, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Badayun, Bijnor and Bulandshahar. After 1887 his descendents, being incharge of the Regency Council that looked after the affairs of the Nawabs, set up schools to teach English, impart western education, encourage education of girls…

So, like many of India’s Muslim royalty and landed gentry, the Mumtazullahs were largely liberal, often westernised, and mostly secular. Their daughters, educated in English medium schools, went on to become hightly qualified professionals, including as ophthalmologist or Montessori teacher. Their sons went abroad for further studies, as did Zohra’s betrothed Mahmud — her maternal uncle’s son who went to school in England, graduated from Oxford, became a Communist, married a comrade and distributed all his inherited land in Moradabad to the peasants. Her elder sister Hajra married Z A Ahmed, an alumni of the London School of Economics who, as a committed communist, organised railway coolies, press workers, farmers and underground members of the then CPI[4].

Yet, even for such a family it was unusual to send the daughter to a boarding school — Queen Mary College, founded in 1908 — in a distant city like the cosmopolitan Lahore. It was a purdah school for girls from aristocratic families from where Zohra matriculated in 1929. By then she had imbibed the secular, broadminded values of her mostly-British teachers, and of an education that placed equal emphasis on physical activities – sports, to be precise. Here Zohra was initiated into both, art and acting – two passions of Uday Shankar who proved providential in her life.

It wasn’t so surprising then, that after matriculating, she set out on an arduous, even hazardous, overland trip across Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and Middle East, with a kindred spirit: her strong willed maternal uncle Memphis who, being a maverick much like Zohra herself, endorsed all her unconventional choices. He enrolled her in Mary Wigman Tanz Schule in Dresden; he financed her stay as too her owning a teeny-weeny car so she wouldn’t have to travel by train! None of this, however, ruled out her performing Namaz five times a day or reading the Koran. Years later, it was he who unreservedly stood by her decision to marry Kameshwar Sehgal when her own family was wary of the choice. And they spent their honeymoon in his house ‘Nasreen’ – now well-known as Welham Girls’ School. Built by an Irishman on five acres of land, it had pointed roofs, gables and half-timbering with extensive lawns, gravel pathways and exotic trees…

Young Zohra. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

‘Can you dance?’ Mary Wigman had asked Zohra. It wasn’t to her disadvantage that her sheltered childhood did not have the scope for that. A radical artiste herself, Wigman had rejected formal technique in favour of improvisation although Zohra had to master theories, alongside choreography and dramatic pieces that entailed limbering up exercises for the whole body, from fingertips and wrists to arms and shoulder, neck, head, back, chest, hips, knees, legs, toes… There were no mirrors: the training did not allow them to look at themselves while composing since, Wigman held, “consciousness and awareness should proceed from within rather than from an external image.”

All this was different from the grammar of classical Indian dancing – and by the end of her third year, when Hitler was hovering on the horizon, she was nimble on her toes dancing foxtrot, waltz, polka and tango. When she returned to Dehradun, she enjoyed a newfound freedom that expressed itself in cutting all her silk burqas to make petticoats and blouses!

Zohra delighted in the adventure of travel, in discovering new places and people. She sought out travel agents, pored over brochures, spotted packages to travel with groups, by trains or buses, walked with friends, rucksacks on their back and sandwiches in their pocket, to Norway, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, France. This was the time when Uday Shankar and Simkie – Simone Barbier[5] – were crisscrossing Europe. These stars of the Uday Shankar Dance Company were rapturously received by audiences who were mesmerised by the oriental exotica that had little to do with classical or folk dances of India. Instead, it offered romance and sensuousness wrapped in myth and mysticism. The blithe Adonis and his graceful energy cast a spell with his ‘physical beauty,’ ‘transcendental expression,’ ‘grandness’ and ‘command of muscles’. The ‘deep charm of the indescribable nobility’ of his dance became the face of ‘the rare yet mysterious personality of Modern India.”

When she joined Shankar in Calcutta as he prepared to tour Rangoon, Singapore, Moulmein and Kuala Lumpur, Zohra not only learnt to apply western make-up on an Indian face. She had to adapt if not unlearn her training at Wigman’s, to discipline her body and rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. For, at Shankar’s, there was no rule or theory. Instead, there were parties and dinners, meetings with the Viceroy and the Governor of Bengal, driving fast cars and boating, ballroom dances and cabarets too! If Zohra reveled in this, she also soon imbibed the almost religious atmosphere of Shankar’s performances that required them to travel regardless of the time of day or night and be in the theatre well before the hour in order to shed every thought other than the dance — one in which movements radiated from a concept and merged back into it.  

Most of all, Shankar’s physical beauty and creative iconoclasm proved irresistible, and Zohra happily succumbed to the dancer and his stage lights. She saw how his unorthodox dance imagination reveled in sensuality and she marveled at its potential. None in India then was experimenting with form and movement nor choreographing for an ensemble. And then, Shankar was using a unique orchestra of violin, sitar, piano, sarod, gongs, drums and cymbals. The musicians composed for the dance, the dancers in glittering costumes moved on dazzling sets to their music. This transported audiences to unexplored aesthetic heights and conquered the world.

With Shankar, Zohra performed in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Greece, the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Switzerland. Belgium, Holland, Poland, Italy, France. By now, the company included Allauddin Khan[6], Ravi Shankar, Kathakali artiste Madhavan Nair, and Zohra’s younger sister Uzra. Names, all, that would go on to shine long after Shankar set up the Almora Dance Centre – modeled after Dartington Hall, a country estate in Devon, UK that promoted forestry, agriculture and education too, besides the arts. Before that, however, Zohra toured America performing love duets with Shankar, in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia. Wherever they went, they were greeted by applause and bouquets, photographs, reviews and receptions. Besotted audiences treated them like rockstars and on one occasion Pearl S Buck presented ‘the princess’ an autographed copy of The Good Earth.

On a subsequent visit to Bali with Shankar, she had the heady experience of romance and passionate discovery – of the splendours of dance and music on the island as much as her very being. The magnetic field that was Shankar aroused her senses thrilling awareness of her body. And on her return to India, she met Rabindranath in Santiniketan…

*

When the Uday Shankar Cultural Centre opened in 1940 at Almora, there were only ten students. As its repertoire kept growing, so did its popularity. Soon they were joined by Nehru’s nieces, Nayantara[7] and Chandralekha[8]; Guru Dutt who would one day become a celluloid maestro; Shanta Kirnan — later Gandhi — who’d shine on stage; Sundari Bhavnani who’d become Shridharani, the founder of Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam; and Shiela Bharat Ram, of the industrial family, who gained stardom as Baba Allauddin Khan’s disciple. Classes in technique combined with training under gurus of Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and Manipuri — Sankaran Namboodiri, Kandappa Pillai, Amoebi Singh — and to music by Shankar’s brother Ravi, and Baba’s son, Ali Akbar.

Zohra, besides assisting Shankar just like Simkie, also prepared a five-year course for the learners to improvise intricate movements. If theories of Shankar’s art gave form to his dreams, Zohra also learnt the importance of walking elegantly, suppleness of facial expression, and relaxation of mood, prior to dancing. The training evoked in his dancers the consciousness of the body as a whole. A body that moved in space to form patterns of intrinsic beauty.

Kameshwar Segal, a Rossetti-like boy, slim and fair with curly locks, slender hands and feet, fitted right into the scenario. The great grandson of one of the dewans – prime ministers – of the then princely state of Indore, he was well versed in Urdu and Hindustani besides his mother tongue, Punjabi. Soon he was a painter, set designer, light designer, mask-maker, handyman. Though Zohra, being involved with Shankar, had decided never to marry, she admired Kameshwar’s ingenuity, loved his humour and responded to his banter. Soon he proposed to his teacher. Zohra, senior to him by eight years, was aware of the odds against them. Yet she responded, perhaps because by now, the air in Almora was thick with romance and its byproduct, jealousy. Besides Simkie, so far recognised as his prime dance partner, there was Amala Nandi, whom Shankar would garland as his life partner. Simkie herself settled down with Prabhat Ganguly; Rajendra Shankar married Lakshmi Shankar, and Ravi Shankar married Baba’s daughter, Annapurna.

Uzra, who had met Hameed Butt in Calcutta, also married the same year – 1942 – as Zohra. But, unlike Uzra she had to reconcile with a vegetarian, orthodox Hindu family of Radha Soami sect. Surprisingly, her uneducated mother-in-law welcomed the alliance more readily than Zohra’s own father who was used to the interfaith marriages of his own communist sons but didn’t wish for either Zohra or Kameshwar to convert. Jawaharlal Nehru was to attend the civil wedding which took place on 14 August 1942, in Feroze Gandhi[9]’s mother’s house in Allahabad, Zohra had learnt from his secretary. Her brother-in-law being Nehru’s secretary, the future prime minister of India had even shared that he would gift them Persian rugs. But two days before that the Quit India Movement[10] started, and Jawaharlal Nehru was jailed.  Zohra, ever her sprightly self, had revealed her own story to me: “My brother received him on his release, and the first thing he asked was ‘Where is the young couple?’ I asked my brother, ‘Why didn’t you ask him where are the Persian rugs?’”

*

However, the dream wedding may have been the peak moment of happiness in the life of Kameshwar and Zohra. There on the WW2 gained in intensity, transportation became difficult, food and money too got scarce. In a couple of years, Shankar downed the shutters at Almora and went on to film his dream project, Kalpana. Simkie soon left India never to return. Sachin Shankar set up his ballet unit in Bombay. But before that, when Zohra put her all into starting Zoresh Dance School in Lahore of 1943, Kameshwar staked his claim as director.

Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

When the school was inundated with students, she was forced into motherhood. When she returned to the stage, they went on a national tour with boxes and curtains from Lahore to Amritsar, Bareilly, Dehradun, Meerut, Lucknow, Allahabad, Patna, Asansol and Calcutta. Artistically a huge success, the school, however, left the coffers dry. More importantly, at the end of the Big War in 1945, Britain didn’t rule the waves and India was restive. The Muslim League was at loggerheads with the Congress, equations between the Hindus and Muslims had soured, their Muslim friends were looking at them with misgivings. Lahore clearly was not an ideal place for a couple like them. Kameshwar and Zohra relocated to Bombay, where Uzra and Hameed had set up home.

But in the city of celluloid dreams Zohra did not stand a chance in cinema. Not only was she short, somewhat plump, not quite a beauty; in cinema, a nachnewali was merely a nautch girl. In fact, she did not ever dance on stage again. She re-invented her fluidity of movement and expression to make her mark as a choreographer in Prithvi Theatres where her sister was already a leading lady. Eventually, in mid-1950s she choreographed for a few films such as Navketan’s Nau Do Gyarah and Guru Dutt’s CID.

Their bungalow on Pali Hill – a neighbourhood that was home to British, Catholic and Parsi families — was surrounded with Uma and Chetan Anand, his brothers Dev and Goldie, Balraj and Damayanti Sahni, Meena Kumari, Dilip Kumar, the Kapoors… Frequent visitors included Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla, Mohan Segal, Geeta Dutt, Nasir Khan[11], writers Sahir Ludhianvi, Sardar Jafri, Vishwamitra Adil, Amita Malik, composers S D Burman, and Ravi Shankar … Names that would in the next decade become Bollywood royalty.

Cinema was of course the big thing in Bombay of 1940s. Bombay Talkies had already heralded glory days with titles like Achhut Kanya (1936, untouchable maiden), Kangan(1939, Bangles), Bandhan (Ties, 1940), Jhoola(Swing, 1941), Sikandar(Alexander the Great, 1941). Devika Rani, Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis, Sohrab Modi, Prithviraj Kapoor were stars who would soon be joined by Punjabis from Lahore such as K L Saigal, Jagdish Sethi, B R Chopra, F C Mehra. Partition wasn’t a certainty yet, in the city of the political beliefs of Right and Left, mixed with industrialists and progressive writers and struggling artistes, the cry for freedom had created a ferment of ideas and the house resounded with scripts, arguments, reading, dancing, painting. K A Abbas, Sajjad Zaheer, Sadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Shahid Lateef[12] – they would associate with Utpal Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chowdhury, Hamid Sayani, Ebrahim Alkazi, Balraj Sahni and Prithviraj Kapoor[13], to pledge that they would present the crisis of the times through the medium of theatre.

*

Prithviraj[14], although a superstar on screen, believed that theatre should proliferate every city, not temples and mosques. Instead, he urged, “spend on theatres that would become centres for cultural education.” After the first election, when he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1952, he’d said, “In that temple called theatre, a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Parsi and Sikh all come together. No one cares whether it’s a pandit or a mulla [15]sitting next to them. Communists sit with communalists, to laugh together and cry together. It would be the biggest temple for the benefit of the nation.”

Such a person could not reconcile to the Partition of the subcontinent. It meant, in his own words, that “You will turn me out of Peshawar, and leave my unfortunate Muslim brethren here in the lurch, with their roots uprooted from the soil!” His protest took the shape of four plays that started in 1945 by underscoring the folly of dividing lives on religious basis.

The quartet began with Deewar (Wall), an original play thoroughly contemporary in its politics and communicating its message in a language everyman could follow. The Partition was symbolised by two brothers who, egged on by the foreign wife of one brother – played by Zohra – insist on dividing their ancestral home into two halves by erecting a wall. At a time when Jinnah was raising his pitch for a Muslim nation, the play interpolated the dialogue with speeches by him, Gandhi and Macaulay. So prescient was the message that the British government refused to allow the performance without a green signal from the Muslim League, despite the go-ahead by its CID and the IG Police.

Eventually, despite objection by certain Urdu papers, the play continued to play till 1947 with the peasants pulling down the wall in the climax. In reality, though, the Radcliffe Line concretised the division on the midnight of 14/ 15 August, unleashing bloodshed and misery for millions. On that fateful day, the play was exempted from Entertainment Tax for one full year. Deewar was performed 712 times between 1945 and 1959, until Prithvi Theatres folded up.

The secular credentials of the company is summed up in one practise: The actors began their days with voice production handled by Prithviraj himself, and singing rehearsed by the music director Ram Gangoli. And what did they sing? The base tones were practised by singing Allah Hu! While the high pitches intoned Ram! Ram!

In another expression of his secularism, after the Direct Action Day[16] riots unleashed on August 16th by Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan, leaving 5000 dead and 15000 homeless in Calcutta alone, Prithviraj drove through the city in an open truck with Uzra and Zohra on either side. However, this Hindu-Muslim amity resulted in death threats for them.

And on the eve of Independence, the entire company gathered in the compound of Prithvi Theatres, unfurled the Indian Tricolour, sang Vande Mataram, then took out a procession. Zohra danced with abandon on the streets of Bombay, while Prithviraj’s son Raj Kapoor played the drum. The euphoria did not last: at a personal level Kameshwar was annoyed; on a larger level, death and destruction stalked the streets and the country was engulfed in the horror of untold violence.

Prithviraj’s immediate response was to stage Pathan, the story of two friends – a Muslim Pathan and a Hindu Dewan. When Tarachand dies, Sher Khan promises to look after his son as his own. Local feuds result in a revenge killing where Vazir is implicated. When tribal custom demands an eye for an eye, Khan sacrifices his own son, Bahadur. And when this scene was enacted, there would be no dry eye in the auditorium. Uzra and, in particular, Zohra immersed herself in the play along with Raj and Shammi, the two sons of Prithviraj, who played the two boys. Raj, then only 23, also travelled to Peshawar to design and redesign to perfection the single set of the play. The play was staged 558 times between 1947 and 1960, when curtain fell on Prithvi Theatres.

When rehearsals for the play were on, so was rioting in the cities and towns across India. Prithviraj would, without fail, visit the affected mohallas[17]and hold peace processions. The one dialogue that resonated long after the play ceased to be staged is still pertinent: “Do you want that Hindus should sacrifice their lives for Muslims and the Muslims should not sacrifice their lives for Hindus? Why should they not when they know they belong to one country, eat the same food, drink the same water, and breathe in the same air? Knowing this, you still raise this hateful question of Hindu-Muslim?”

Prithviraj truly believed that religion does not make for conflict, only the abuse of religion, turning it into the handmaiden of vandals, created conflict. “And it is the responsibility of art to present the true aspect of reality.” So, his next production, Ghaddar (Traitor) covered the period from Khilafat Movement to 1947 to deal with the question of the four million Muslims who had remained in India. If they were traitors, who had they betrayed – Islam or Pakistan? Prithviraj as Ashraf and Uzra as his wife join Muslim League but remain staunch nationalists. Shattered by the violence unleashed in Punjab after August 15, he vows to stay back and serve his motherland. He is therefore shot dead by a ‘friend’ Muslim Leaguer.

Zohra loved the cameo she played of a maidservant who refuses to go to Pakistan. Fully identifying with the sentiments of the character — whom she crafted after the family retainers in her mother’s home — she would add extempore dialogue, and these endeared her to the audiences. She was deeply pained that the Partition created personal loss in her family as many of her own people moved across while she, married to a Hindu, never even considered it. But, in covering the thirty-year span of the play she had to enact an old woman – and “feeling old from within” was against the grain of the ever-exuberant lady who, even at 102, would go to bed with a smile on her lips as she whispered to her long dead husband, “Wait just a little longer Kameshwar, I’m on my way to be with you…”

As with Deewar, Ghaddar too faced problems with censor board clearance. The chief minister of Bombay asked Prithviraj to approach the Central government. Sardar Patel introduced him to Nehru, who sent him to Maulana Azad. The Education and Culture minister not only gave him a letter of clearance but also a 50 percent reduction in train fare for all cultural troupes. But the Muslims boycotted the play; Muslim Leaguers in Cochin threatened to burn down the theatre; and some crazy elements wanted to shoot Prithviraj. When he invited people from Bhendi Bazar to watch the play, they concluded that, “People who have been shown as Ghaddar deserve to be shown as traitors.”

Meanwhile the entire population of villages — where their neighbours were their community, their family — were being uprooted in Punjab and Bengal. They were going crazy trying to decide, “To go or to stay?”  People who didn’t know any borders were figuring out if, by crisscrossing the imaginary line, they would remain Indians or become Pakistanis. Would they forego their lifestyle by going or ditch their religion by staying? The questions assumed frightening proportion as two of Zohra’s brother, one of her sisters, and even her dearest Uzra relocated themselves in Lahore and Karachi.

However, the real tragedy in all this for Zohra was that Kameshwar had distanced himself from her. Never having found a foothold for himself in Bombay, he had taken to alcoholism, substance support, and perhaps occult activities. Her touring with the Theatre did not make matters easy. But the need to put food on the table combined with the draw of footlights, and acting became Zohra’s calling and, yes, her second nature.

Ahooti (Sacrifice), Prithvi’s final play in the Partition Quartet, was the story of Janki, who is abducted and raped on the eve of her wedding. She’s rescued by Mohammed Shafi and reconciled with her father in a relief camp. But when the family moves to Bombay, she is subjected to slander, and although her fiancee is willing to marry her, his father forbids that, compelling her to commit suicide. The story mirrored the life of countless ‘Partition widows’ – on either side of the border — who have found place in literature and, much later, in films like Shahid-e-Mohabbat Buta Singh(The Sacrificing Lover, Buta Singh, 1991) and Gadar:Ek Prem katha (Rebellion: A Love Story, 2001)too. The published estimates of the number of women abducted by the governments of both the fledgling countries put the figure at 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 non-Muslim women in Pakistan. The enormity of the problem led the two governments to enter into an agreement to locate, recover and restore all such women to their respective families. But what of the women who had, in the meantime, acquired a new family?

In the original script it was to be the story of a mother and daughter but since Uzra had left the country, Prithviraj rewrote it as the story of a father and his daughter. Zohra did not have her heart in the play: first, becaue Uzra was not there; then, because her original role had been altered. Here too, she discerned Prithviraj’s self-indulgence. The play opened in 1949 to tepid reception and dull reviews that dubbed it ‘boring’. But the Deputy Genral of Bombay Police was moved by the girl’s plight and offered his services to help all such women. Prithviraj introduced him to one refugee whose daughter had been separated in the chaos of fleeing – and within days the daughter was found and restored to him. That is not all: at the end of the play the larger-than-life personality would stand with shawl spread out to collect any donation dropped into it, to help the relief work. Such was the emotional response that women even dropped their jewellery in the shawl – which Prithviraj soon requested them to desist from doing.

The Partition Quartet was to first perhaps to see where the rhetoric of religious difference can lead, the contest over territory can entail, the violence and violations that can result. Whatever the quantum of success or criticism they earned, they certainly provoked debate and affected political discourse that still hasn’t lost its sting. Zohra’s heart would swell with pride when Prithviraj rose to address conventions; call on people to turn his moves into a movement for peace. Through him she found herself performing in Punjab’s Firozpur jail, for prisoners who sat with hands and feet in chain… and she also got to witness the hanging of a man scheduled for the next dawn.

All this changed Zohra in a fundamental way: she shed her arrogance; she learnt to respect the dignity of everyone she worked with; she understood the transformative power of theatre. And perhaps she came to love her country, her people, her roots a little more.


[1] Born Sahibzadi Zohra Mumtaz Khan Begum (1912-2014)

[2] From the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

[3] Pathans of Afghan origin who migrated to Uttar Pradesh in the 1700-1800CE

[4] Communist Party of India

[5] A famous French dancer in Uday Shankar’s troupe

[6] Allaudin Khan(1862-1972)

[7] Nayantara Sahgal

[8] Chandralekha Mehta

[9] Feroze Gandhi (1912-1960), Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s husband and son-in-law of Nehru

[10] The Quit India Movement started on 8th August 1942

[11] All film stars

[12] Writers

[13] Film stars, directors, composers

[14] Prithviraj Kapoor(1906-1972)

[15] Hindu or a Muslim priest

[16] 16th August, 1946

[17] Colonies

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Interview

Bridge over Troubled Waters

In Conversation with Sanjay Kumar, the founder of Pandies, a socially responsible theatre group

Some members of Pandies, with Sanjay Kumar sitting in the right hand corner.

Festivals often involve pageantry where people connect, reach out and have fun through performances. These can range from high class shows in halls to entertaining performances in street corners, individual buskers or theatricals at home. Brecht (1898-1956), often taught in universities,  popularised socially responsible epic theatre.  Epic theatre connects the players, imbued with welfarism and a sense of social responsibility, to educate the audience, subsequently encouraged to question and move towards altering their present reality to a more egalitarian one. Add to this students who look for more than just academic growth in universities and a young dynamic professor in the 1980s, and the end result is a volunteered ‘institution’ that has blossomed over three decades into a strangely named group – Pandies.

Sanjay Kumar

Founded in 1987 by Sanjay Kumar, an academic from Delhi University with residencies in Italy and the United States for the welfare of exploited children, the group evolved into a major voice trying to reach out to all strata of society. Kumar evolved a form of theatre to channelise the energy of students towards creating an awareness for the need to grow by helping the less fortunate. He tells us by the way of introduction: “We have been working with twenty slums or bastis in Delhi, have had interactions with a hundred schools and about twenty-five colleges. A minimum of hundred presentations are held each year. The major issue till 2000 was gender-sensitisation. Each year, pandies’ latches on to a different theme. After performing in the proscenium theatre, it takes adaptations of the same to diverse places. The group also works on issues related to environment. The adaptable, flexible, bilingual (at times multi-lingual) scripts are totally ours. The group is constantly exploring, searching for better modes to get its meaning across. Songs, dances, choreographed sequences are all a part of its repertoire. One of the most successful modes is an extremely interactive discussion at the end where the activist even narrates relevant anecdotes to get its audience to talk. The group has evolved a mega network in and around Delhi consisting of women, HIV activists, environmentalists, school and college teachers and students, progressive women from various communities including slums, victims of rape, attempted murder.” His work has reached across to multiple countries, universities (including Harvard) and has found credence among number of hearts across the East and the West.

The most impressive performance I saw was online with young refugees from Afghanistan and migrant workers in slums. They have worked with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)  that work with children, sex workers and women, thus educating and learning from them and exposing them to our, more secure world where the maximum need a young student has, is to score well to get into the right university and for their family and friends to travel, to have freedom of speech and better lives. Perhaps, the best way to comprehend this kind of drama is to let Sanjay Kumar take over and introduce the work they are doing, bridging gaps at multiple levels.

Tell us about the inception of pandies’. How old is the group?

The incipience of the group goes back to college really to the year 1987 when we did the first play from Hansraj (a college under Delhi University), though we registered later in 1993, as we broke away. As I got free from MPhil, I decided to start theatre in the college in a way that steers it clear of the festival circuit of doing 25-30 minutes plays and winning small cash awards at various college fests. The College Drama Society was revived in 1987 and under that banner we did six plays, one each a year on the trot: Lorca’s Blood Wedding (1933), Ngugi’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1974), Strindberg’s The Dream Play (1901), Vicente Lenero’s The Bricklayers (1976), Genet’s The Balcony (1957)and Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944).  Each was a full-length play of at least 100 minutes.

We were doing plays at a semiprofessional level, all having a run of five to seven days in Delhi’s leading theatre halls. The bookings were being done in the name of the college but from the beginning no money was put forth by the college. The funding was collected by the students from small donations. The group was getting too big for the college. There was a constant targeting from many in the administration and the faculty, accusations of the openly sexual content of the plays, of the insubordinate behaviour of the students, of classes being bunked. And then as the group evolved, there were many students who had graduated but still wanted to be there and as the reputation grew with the choice of plays and quality of production (contemporary reviews read us at par with professional groups), many students from other colleges wanted to join us. Things came to a head with the college administration in 1993. We had already booked at the auditorium in the name of the college and were rehearsing for Macbeth. We decided to launch our own group (the work normally took about six months) and in two months we registered and collected money enough to go under the new banner — Pandies’ theatre.   The relationship with structures of the university remains tricky, there are those among the younger teachers and of course students who love us but the old and orthodox are still a bit wary.

Was this theatre started for the needs of the students/ teachers or to create an interest in academic curriculum?

Yes, at that time the syllabus had a totally first world bias (the bias is still there but less), to get in plays that speak to us. They may be first world, but they critique our oppressor — Brecht,  Rame, Genet.

 What was the gel that bound the group together ? Was it used to satisfy the needs of  the students, teachers or society. Can you elaborate? 

The first thing was the love of theatre. It’s like a bug, and the heady thing about a collectivism trying its own thing, charting paths not done in college before. And then the activism took over and went way beyond the love. We started pandies’ with a view that our world is not the way we want it. We wanted to make it better for more people. Even the plays from 1987 to 1993 were exploring non-canonical theatre. 

The first point of attack was the huge gender bias. We felt we were living in a misogynist, rape friendly society. Series of proscenium plays attacked that. We tied up with the feminist NGO, Shakti Shalini. Our ties go back to 1996, with LGBT movements and women’s movements. Veils had more than hundred shows, theatres, colleges, schools and markets and slums and villages. We were asking for  change in rape laws in the country. She’s MAD took stories from women’s organisations about laws of mental illness being consistently used against women to label them mad to take away their property rights, custody of children and provide a veneer over patriarchal violence. Again a play that sought legislative reform was Danger Zones. It explores what happens when you are lesbian and do not have a big wallet or parents to save you — forced marriages, sale into prostitution. 

Equally important, in fact more so in later years has been the attack on religious bigotry. Gujarat was a breaking point. We had years of series workshops with impoverished youth in slums exposing the rhetoric of  bigotry. We start with the Sikh pogrom of ’85 and go on to dissent against what our society has evolved to under a right wing dispensation, the religious supremacism of our world.

When you work with young boys, drug peddlers and sex workers, aged eight to fourteen, you return home a wreck and in need of therapy. But if you keep that fire alive inside you, you know how to take on the oppressors.

It is about a naked politics. We seek to rouse people from slumber, awaken a critical understanding of the world we live, of the forces that govern us — patriarchy, capitalism and, the tying factor of all oppression — religion.

The need was and remains the need of our times and our ethos.

How did the name evolve? And your group evolve?

It goes back to 1993 and is fully in keeping the with ‘play’ aspect of the group which likes to play with politics with its audience. It emerged from collective decisioning that has been the hallmark of pandies’ functioning. The name is a take ‘off’, ‘away’ from Mangal Pandey and the revolt of 1857. Actually, from the inability of the British to get Indian pronunciations correct. Pandey became Pandy, a hated expletive for the British commanders and continued in their letters even 50 years after the suppression of the revolt. ‘Pandy’ was one who was a part of the British structure, in their employ (Jhansi’s soldiers were not Pandies for instance), earned from them and rose against them. The hatred conveyed by the word was many times higher than in the simple expletives of  traitor or the Hindustani ‘gaddaar.’ While it has a historical solidity, it also has a playful aspect just beneath, for many of the young in the group it was also deliciously close to panties and pondies (slang for pornographic literature), the sexual aspects for which the group was falsely castigated while in college, and what we loved to grin and laugh at.

We broke away in 1993, four teachers and about thirty students. Starting as a proscenium English group with an activist leaning in 1993, by 1996 we had turned totally activist. Starting with about thirty-five members (still the core for each project), the group soon acquired more than hundred members (today it has more than that, people go away and many return, even after a decade or fifteen years, to do that “better thing”).  A strong presence of young, motivated women gave the group a feminist essence. And seeking overtly to make our ethos better, the group stressed a Left Feminist Atheist core as the law of its work from the very beginning. Activism, simply the overt statement that we are not okay with our world the way it is and seek a systemic change and are willing to do our bit as theatre enthusiasts for it.

Our three primary areas of work are : a. Proscenium: The plays are always activist and many of our own scripts and many adapted, some activist plays (Brecht, Rame and other activist scripts including agit prop) in the original; b. Theatre outside proscenium: What is usually called street theatre, nukkad natak, guerrilla theatre, the group has done actually thousands of performances and c. Workshop theatre: Where activist facilitators create plays with communities, staying with them or visiting them regularly — razor’s edge work has been done with young boy sex workers picked from platforms and housed in shelters, in the cannibalised village of Nithari, in women’s shelters, with refugees and in Kashmir.  The process consists of getting ‘stories’ from the margins and creating theatre from them, performed usually by the community members, and at times along with Pandies.

Were you influenced by any theatre/art forms/writers or any external events to evolve your own form?

From the international activist tradition Brecht has been the most solid influence, his mode of showing what is obvious but we refuse to see it. Boal, Franca Rame, Dario Fo. The entire traditions of left swinging realism and alienation. In our own traditions the influence is more subtle, Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) itself and Janam (a  more contemporary people’s theatre group). We also borrow from the political and popular traditions of the subcontinent — Dastaan Goi, Jatra, Tamasha and Nautanki to name a few.

What impacts us most is the politics. Theatre is about critique, it’s about my ability to say ‘no’ and my desire to ask ‘why.’ We look back through history, history that tells us nothing can be permanent, that is record of those who stood and fought tyranny and authoritarianism. Gujarat 2002 was difficult and so was Babri Masjid but so was the emergency of 70s and never forget the anti-Sikh pogrom of the mid 80s at the heart of the country where I live.

Yes, and what is happening today, here and all over the globe cries for activist intervention.

What were the kind of content you started with? I heard you even adopted out of Aruna Chakravarti’s novel (Alo’s World?) to make a play. So, what was the content of your plays? Were you scripting your own lines?

We started with adaptations of plays with explicitly activist content which could be made more activist and imposed on our reality. Ibsen’s Ghosts, inspirations from Simon de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing. And post-1996, we were creating more and more from our own scripts, often containing multiple plays tied with thematic thrusts. And again, in times of repression one reverts to adaptations, of those who stood up to the challenge of their times, specially at the doors of gender, religion and class (the three themes of Pandies).

What we did for Aruna was akin to what we have done for other friends of Pandies, fiction writers, create small dramatic enactments based on parts their novels/short stories to go along with the launch and publicity of their works.

Have you moved away from your earlier models? What is your new model?

From proscenium to (while retaining proscenium) community theatre to (while retaining proscenium and community) workshop theatre that was the trajectory of Pandies before the pandemic struck our world. 

The pandemic thrust us into a new model of cyber theatre. The group meets every Sunday but with Covid and the lockdown, we all went hibernating for a few months, awestruck by what struck us.

And then we started meeting online. It was amazing, we were able to connect with members in US, in Philippines, in UK and in different parts of India. There was the frigidity of the online mode but the ability to converse with so many people in their respective bubbles was just great. We met every Sunday. And started with storytelling for each other. With around thirty people that process took some Sundays. And then we started thinking of doing online plays using zoom. These were live online, no recording and each ending with a question-and-answer session with our audiences.

What was happening around us, the pandemic, and the equally deadly forays of our right-wing rulers made us look for avante garde activist plays from the past. We turned deliberately to the American tradition (important to let it be known that even the most decadent capitalist center has a solid activist theatre tradition) and did one agit prop and one proto-feminist play. Subterfuge was important and it was also important to say that even in the darkest of hours people have stood up to tyranny and fascism. Clifford Odets’ Till the Day I Die (1935), an anti-Nazi play of the agit prop tradition is aimed as much at Hitler as at McCarthy and relevant against all fascist governments. Broadcast simultaneously on Zoom and Facebook, the play got over 7000 hits. Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (1928) was the second, a proto feminist play it raised issues of mainstream violence and suppression of ‘other’ voices. We were making quite an impact. Our audience was not confined to people from one city but spread internationally as friends all over the world who had wanted to see our plays (we have travelled and performed abroad twice, once in Manchester with an anti-fascist play — Cleansing in 2002 and in New York in 2012 with Offtrack, based on the lives of young boys ‘rescued’ from platforms in India).

We decided to connect with communities that we work with at least in and around Delhi through zoom. And we discovered the horrors for ourselves. While the rich had actually been ‘worried’ over the lockdown, the poor had taken an unfathomable hit. The incidence of domestic violence was at a peak (lockdown, problems getting ‘booze’, little help from cops and NGOs). Our young friends — now in late 20s, with whom we had been performing since 2006 since the Nithari (slum outside Delhi) pogrom had been thrown out of their meagre jobs, belonging to families of migrant labour — had seen it all and refugees from Afghanistan — in a bad state anyways — were really hit. And they were all artists, performers and storytellers par excellence. So, we decided on a storytelling festival where people from these sectors would narrate their stories in the same cyber format. And we asked our audience to put in some money and that was entirely distributed among the participants. The stories that emerged, personal and fiction derived from personal, were simple exhilarating.

What and how many languages do you use and how do you bridge linguistic gaps?

Language is highly political. We set out as an English group but with Macbeth itself some crucial scenes were being rendered in Hindustani (the opening scene and the porter scene). By 1996, as the group was going totally activist, a multi-language form had evolved. We were still keeping a section of English in the proscenium (had to be translated or made easier in the slums and villages shows) but sections of Hindustani and diverse languages of North India are being introduced. A recent example is an adaptation of Manto’s(1912-1955) stories and writings (Saadat Hasan Manto: Pagaleyan da Sardar), about 60 percent in Punjabi and 40 in English with no other language used (Punglish). We do a lot of translation work, including at times on the spot.

Who does your scripting? How do your scripts evolve?

The original scripts are a collective, collated exercise and emerge after months of workshopping on an issue within the group. Most of the Scripts are written by me or my colleagues from Delhi University, Anuradha Marwah and Anand Prakash.

Who are your crew members and how many team members do you have? How many did you start with?

The total number is above 100. Many leave for a while and return from careers and families. It is strictly volunteer group. The group has tried variously models and the one that works and keeps it activist intent intact is the one where we do not pay ourselves for our time. A project involves a total of about thirty people.

What was the reaction of your colleagues when you started Pandies? Did it find acceptance/ support did you receive from among your colleagues, the academics, and the media?

I would like to add that the reactions from colleagues and academia have been interesting and mixed. Pandies is the first and possibly the only story, of a group tracing its origins in college society theatre and move on without a break to establish not just a national but an international reputation. Even as the model evolved from proscenium alone to in-your-face activism, from seeking and getting funding to putting in your own money and/or collecting it from the audience but never compromising on the political content of what you do. It makes people uncomfortable, especially in the early years, say the first decade — “is this theatre at all?” Today it is seen a story, as an experiment that worked  — the sheer survival of the group from 1987 to 2021 and beyond creates a space for admiration. Students spread across this university, over other universities in India and abroad have been the most ardent support system.

The media has been supportive, quite a bit actually. Over the years, the Pandies’ fan club has extended there too. We got some adverse reviews to begin with but more from those from the academia, who were writing in papers and journals, who had problems of simply — I cannot see activist success stories from the university itself.

What has been the impact on the people who are part of the Pandies? What has been the impact on the audience?

When you do political theatre the impact is on all sides of the spectrum. And the best place to measure the success is your own side. The empathy, the killing guilt and the desire to do more manifest in the group members, especially after series of tough workshop theatre evidences the impact.  

I saw your play in an on online forum. What exactly made you move towards what you called cyber theatre?

Basically, the pandemic. But it has been a good experience, sheerly in terms of reach and numbers (the first play had 7000+ hits though we never got near that again, also we were ticketing plays after the first). We always crib about the reach of market theatre and how activist theatre falls by the side. The cyber medium actually gives an international access to live theatre. Think the potential is huge.

How would others access these plays?

Amazingly the reach of the smart phone is huge. When we worked with communities, we did send out signals to make available smart phones for our performers and their local audience but discovered that not much was required. The internet does at times pose problems, even for us, there are technical glitches at times but then we have glitches everywhere. And technology, as young techie at Pandies told me, is to be used and not feared. If the audience can suspend disbelief in theatre, what’s a glitch or two on screen.

The potential far outweighs the hurdles.

You had interesting pieces (or rather pieces) evolving out of slums and migrant workers. You had an interesting take on why slums develop. Can you tell us?

The ignored margins of our world. Metropolitan cities, and I speak of Delhi — my abode specifically, attract people from all over. The prospects are great, and it is not untrue, as we have seen in our experiences of performing in so many slums and more importantly creating theatre with those who live there, that life is actually better for most. They earn more, eat better and find better school and health facilities. The trajectory is both simple and awful, many villages around Delhi become abodes for migrants, first on rent and then ownership. These margins are also the blot for the rich and famous who live around there in big bungalows and condominiums. They berate the residents for being thieves and drug peddlers and use them for a supply of menial help, maids, drivers, and the same kind of drugs. Working with them and creating theatre one realises that the grievances from the other side are worse — of exploitations, profiling and being treated worse than animals.

What was the impact of this piece on migrant workers and the theatre you had with Afghan refugees among your audience? Who are the people that constitute your audience? How do they respond to these plays? Do you have collaborations with more universities or theatre groups?

In the preceding decades Pandies has performed in practical every college in Delhi University besides performing in universities all over including IITs (Indian Institute of Technology), TISS (Tata Institute of  Social Sciences), Jammu, Bangalore and colleges of Rajasthan and Jharkhand. The tie-ups and collaborations are specific project related. Pandies has over the years been very zealous of guarding its artistic and political independence and anything that seeks to compromise that even slightly is not welcome. We have long lasting collaborations with organisations that work in areas we are in — Shakti Shalini (NGO Women’s group), or Saksham in Nithari (NGO running schools for children).

Can you tell us its reach — universities, theatre halls, small screen? How far have you been able to stretch out in thirty years? Tell us about the growth.

Bourgeois theatre rules the world. It’s connected  and money generates more money. pandies’ endeavour has been to connect not just at the university levels, not just at national levels but at international levels, evolve collectives that deal with exploitation and oppression at diverse levels.

We perform and do workshops. The group’s reach has been wide. Going on a narrower, sharper course over the last decade to be able to work with the severely marginalised, those who don’t even come on the space of development of the downtrodden.

The nature of our theatre enables us to connect with the underserved and more than 80 percent of the work does not come on the page of the dominant middle class. Performances and presentations all over the country and many abroad use the pandies’ template, Syrian refugees in Greece (2018), Gypsy communities of Ireland (2013), communities in NYC (2012) and nooks and corners of our own country including the Muslim valley of Kashmir where angels fear to tread.

What are your future plans?

As the world opens up, all varieties of work have started again. Workshops with our underserved margins and a full-length proscenium production are both long overdue.

At the same time the cyber experience has taught us the importance of reach, that those who go physically away don’t have to opt out of working for the group.

So yes, we seek a malleable form, a hybrid that combines stage theatre with all its power and is available online live, and the online form too will merge together to the performance which will be more far reaching and accessible. Given the group’s depth we will get there and soon.

Thank you.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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A Special Tribute

Dilip Kumar: Kohinoor-e-Hind

In a tribute to Bollywood legend Dileep Kumar or Yusuf Khan in real life, Ratnottama Sengupta, one of India’s most iconic arts journalist, time-travels to the days when the ‘Fankar-e-Azam’ – the great actor – sprinted about on the sets of Bombay’s studios …spiced up with fragments from the autobiography of Sengupta’s father, famed screenwriter and litterateur, Nabendu Ghosh

“Actually the quality of a performer is also measured by the contrast that he can handle. To do something different, to be humorous, and intimidating, and also to make them feel sorry for you… that is the way people like you.” – Dilip Kumar

On 7thJuly, 2021, I was at a loss — in trying to think of an epithet for the thespian who had just passed away.  So am I now, in deciding where I should start my recollections of the deathless legend. For, Dilip Kumar was already B-I-G when I started understanding the word ‘Cinema’.

I was born in 1955 — the year of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali in Bengal, Bimal Roy’s Devdas in Hindi films, and also of Azad. Years would go before I learnt that Apu-Durga’s Song of the Road had placed India on the celluloid map of the world. Before I understood that my father, Nabendu Ghosh, had a hand in immortalizing Devdas by writing its screenplay – often dubbed ‘direction on paper.’ And before I observed this curious coincidence: Azad had released the same year as Devdas, the ode to undying, self-destructive love. Curious, because it brought the Monarch of Tragedy with Tragedienne, Meena Kumari, in order to create a comedy! A fun outing where a rich man, Azad, rescues Shobha from bandits; and when she decides to marry him, her family discovers Azad is the bandit.

1955 First release of Devdas . Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

I became aware of this film only recently, while working on the song Apalam Chapalam – danced by Sayee and Subbulaxmi – for my underproduction documentary on Dance in Hindi Films. That number is a lesson for anyone studying dance. But aeon before I came to it, I would start dancing every time the Murphy radio in our Malad bungalow played Radha na boley na boley na boley re (Radha shan’t speak to Krishna).  I would pick up the hairband lying in front of our mirror, put it on and start swaying in a circular motion. I must have been about two-and-half. There was no television, no silver screen, no Meena Kumari in my life, only a radio. And it cast a spell with this song from Azad, one of the few comedies of Dilip Kumar, with Kohinoor and Ram Aur Shyam.

Years down the star actor had talked about distributors objecting to his playing a comic role. “’But people are used to seeing you in tragic roles… so you will die in the end, right?’ they would insist. ‘But I wanted to alter the image. I did not want to be stuck in one groove. There is a risk in breaking a familiar mould, but if people can anticipate you, that is the end of your mystery! So you must do something different each time, a departure from your familiar personality. You must work a little harder and change the chemistry of the personality’.” This could be the Bible for any actor if he plans to defy time.

Dilip Kumar captivated me with a dance which – like Meena Kumari’s in Azad – was no classical number, only robust, folksy Nain lar jai hey toh manwa ma kasak hoibey kari (When our eyes meet, I feel a pang in my heart). This was in Gunga Jumna (1960), produced by Dilip Kumar and directed by his mentor Nitin Bose. The star gustily dancing with a bunch of guys in dhoti – he was so spontaneous, so natural! This at a time when women danced but men dancing was seen as effeminate. Yes, the traditional dance gurus were male, but the movie idol had to be macho, so no dancing! Dance gurus were revered in life but on screen they were lampooned as in Padosan (The Next-door Neighbour, 1968). But he was so confident, suave you cannot but be infected by his joi de vivre.

The other thing about Gunga Jumna was its dialect.  The tongue he speaks — an admixture of Brajbhasha, Khaiboli, Awadhi, Bhojpuri — connects all our people in northern India. That may be why, when Amjad Khan was preparing to play Gabbar Singh, his lines garnished his dhobi’s (washerman’s) dialect with Gunga’s. Again, Lagaan (2001) returns to this tongue which Aamir Khan once more picks up as PK (2014), the alien who knows no earthly language of communication, from a street walker in a psychic manner, by simply holding her hand.

Dilip Kumar’s dialogue delivery was distinctly different from his other contemporaries, Raj Kapoor or Dev Anand. One had cultivated a generous dose of Charlie Chaplin in his mannerism; the other had to thank Gregory Peck for his angular tilt of head. Dilip Kumar’s controlled delivery, low and clear, probably stemmed from his admiration for Paul Muni. He whispered for the benefit of his lady love alone – how romantic! A person standing at an arm’s distance, and being addressed almost with reverence, at a time when so many of contemporaries had yet to cast off the theatrical manner of vociferous enunciation: this intensity charmed my mother’s generation of men and women and spilled over to actors of my preteen years – unabashedly they subscribed to the adage, ‘Imitation is the foremost form of adulation’.

When Joy, the worthy son of Bimal Roy, made his centenary tribute to his father, he had started by interviewing Nabendu Ghosh. In it, while talking about Devdas, the screenwriter says: “On the first day of shooting I saw Dilip Kumar loitering by himself, aloof, remote. So I asked him, ‘What’s the matter Yusuf Bhai? Every day you sit with us, talk to us, join us in our banter. Why are you so preoccupied today?’ He replied, ‘Woh teenon mere kandhe par baithey hain Nabendu Babu (those three are weighing me down like a burden on my shoulder).’ ‘Kaun teen (which three)?’ – I asked him. He replied, ‘Barua Saab, Saigal Saab, and Sarat Chandra.’” The first two legends had played Devdas (1935), Pramathesh Barua in Bengali and K L Saigal in Hindi, in New Theatre’s bilingual production, and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (the author of Devdas) of course is the most translated author in India: Devdas alone has seen a dozen versions in as many languages if not more. Nabendu continued: “So I asked him, ‘What do you think of Sarat Chandra as a writer?’ And he replied, ‘He had divinity in his pen.’”

What a pithy appreciation of a literary master. Hardly surprising that Dilip Kumar was a major presence on the stage when the Sarat Centenary Celebrations were held in Bombay. Others present included Nitin Bose and Biraj Bahu Kamini Kaushal along with Sunil Gangopadhyay, then a young Turk who pooh-poohed the literary giant. Baba, having scripted Parineeta(1953), Devdas, Biraj Bahu(1954), Majhli Didi(Middle Sister, 1968) and Swami (later filmed by Basu Chatterjee), as much as due to his standing in Bengali literature, had chaired the unforgettable celebration.

 When Nabendu Ghosh was wondering about Yusuf Saab’s eloquent reticence, clearly the actor was in the process of pouring himself into the soul of the persona — or was he giving Devdas the stamp of Dilip Kumar? It was this total absorption that saw him transcend every known interpretation of the character and make his Devdas the abiding face of an indecisive, love-torn soul.  In an interview Dilip Kumar had said, “If I have to be convincing as a 30-year-old, I must familiarize myself with what he has gone through in the preceding 29 years.”

 However in another interview — this one, to renowned film critic, screenwriter and director, Khalid Mohamed — he had debunked method acting saying, “Yeh kis chidiya ka naam hai? What is this thing you call Method Acting?” Okay, so he did not learn – or unlearn – the acting technique of the Russian master Stanislavsky but he certainly believed in the ‘art of experiencing.’ He must have drawn on personal experiences or their memories to inform his characterization, the truth behind the persona who lived and loved in another space and time.  This I can say from my visit to the sets of Sungharsh (Clash,1968) directed by H S Rawail.            

 I can’t remember why I had gone there but I remember visiting with my father. The crew was busy preparing lights for the shot. This was the last film where Dilip Kumar was seen with Vyjayantimala: their first was Devdas, and included Gunga Jumna, Madhumati, Naya Daur, Paigham. I noticed him running round the sets, dressed in a dhoti with a gamchha tied round his waist. “Why is the hero working himself out of breath?” I’d wondered to myself.  I got the answer when they started the takes: the scene required him to run up, axe in hand, and breathlessly deliver a message.  The film based on Mahasweta Devi’s novel, Layli Aasmaner Aina (The Mirror of Layli Aasman), revolved around a courtesan and a thugee, and almost half a century later Baba wrote Sei Sab Kritantera (Those Gods of Death) which won him the Bankim Puraskar, about the cult of bandits. But circling back to Dilip Kumar, I find it astounding that a quarter century after his screen debut, the legend was preparing for the shot by physically running around!                 

No wonder he was so natural. Yet this perceptive actor did not skyrocket into fame with Jwar Bhata (Ebb and Flow, 1944), directed by Amiya Chakravarty, nor did Pratima, directed by Jairaj with music by Arun Mukherjee, do any good to his career. It was with Nitin Bose’s Milan (The Union), based on Tagore’s Naukadubi (The Wreck) and released on a Friday preceding 15tH August 1947, that his listless performance gained sparkle. Along with Jugnu (Fireflies), which was the highest grosser of the year, Milan laid the ground for the long innings of the resolved player. Small wonder, when he produced Gunga Jumna, he singled out his mentor to be the director.

All the three films, Jwar Bhata. Pratima and Milan were produced by Bombay Talkies, then being run by Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar. The popular pair of Achhut Kanya (The Untouchable Girl, 1936) was responsible for most decisions in the milestone production company that gave breaks to other majors of Indian cinema like Dev Anand, Gyan Mukherjee, B R Chopra, Sadat Hasan Manto. Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani had given Mohamed Yusuf Khan, the son of a Pathan dry fruits trader from Peshawar, his screen name. “Why did Yusuf Khan become Dilip Kumar?”  is a much asked question. To Khalid Mohamed the thespian had revealed, “The choice was between Jehangir and Dilip Kumar. The second seemed a better option because it sits easy on every tongue.” Many others have seen a different reason behind the change.

Ashok Kumar Ganguly was directed to lop off his family name at the instance of Franz Osten, the Bavarian director who partnered Himanshu Rai in the early years of Bombay Talkies, to make him more ‘Indian’ rather than a Bengali or a Brahmin. ‘Kumar’ – meaning, young prince – was, since then, included in their name by most actors — Uttam Kumar too. When Dilip Kumar debuted in mid-1940s, the national movement to free India from colonial harness was coming to a head — as was the crescendo for a separate political identity for the Muslim populace. In this scenario, many in the profession that depended on the support of maximum number of viewers, were opting for names that did not underscore their Islamic roots. Thus Mahjabeen Bano became Meena Kumari, Mumtaz Jehan Dehlavi became Madhubala, Nawab Bano was renamed Nimmi by Raj Kapoor, Nargis had started as Baby Rani, Hamid Ali Khan had assumed the name of Ajit. However, Dilip Kumar spawned many other clones. Thus, commenced the age of Pradeep Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Manoj Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar, Akshay Kumar. And many tried to clone his histrionic abilities too!

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The year 1947 proved a turning point in the life of Dilip Kumar in so many ways. Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (Gesture,1949), his Aan (Pride) and Nitin Bose’s Deedar (A Glance), both released in1951, Amiya Chakravarty’s Daag (The Stain,1952), Bimal Roy’s Devdas, Yahudi (Jew), Madhumati,  K.Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960) — all the films thereafter proved super hits. They also carried a message for the masses, be it against alcoholism, or war; in favour of fidelity in marriage, or unadulterated friendship. They turned the brooding hero into a popular idol. At a time, the country was rapidly industrializing, Naya Daur (New Age) focused on the conflict between modernity and tradition through a race between a tonga and a bus. Yahudi, through the love between the Jewess and the Roman prince, sent out a message of communal bonding.

Dilip Kumar, it is evident, kept pace with the transformation coming in the nation’s life. His own performance, his selection of roles all reflected this. That could be why Gunga Jumna by the family production house of Citizen Films, became a precursor in so many ways. I have already spoken about its dialect. Projecting dacoits in the central roles was another. Later decades saw dacoits being replaced by smugglers as villain, drag racketeers as the evil guys, terrorists as the despicable ones.  But the dacoit theme kept recurring through Mujhe Jeene Do (Let Me Live, 1963), Mera Gaon Mera Desh (My Village My Land, 1971), Sholay (Flames, 1975), Pratiggya(The Oath, 1975(, Ganga Ki Saugandh ( Swear by the Ganga, 1978), Bandit Queen (1994), Pan Singh Tomar (2010). More so, the keynote of two brothers on either side of law was to see many reincarnations – most remarkably in Deewar (The Wall), which turned Amitabh Bachchan into the legend he is. Years later Dilip Kumar teamed with Amitabh Bachchan to play father and son aligned on opposing sides of law – again, with amazing success.

The legend teaming with a younger icon was not something new for Dilip Kumar, nor would it be the last. Keeping pace with his growing years he had shared screen space with Anil Kapoor in Mashal (The Torch, 1980s), and with Naseeruddin Shah in Karma. Prior to Deewar he had appeared in Paari (1970s), a Bengali film, where the then rising star Dharmendra played the lead. This film was remade as Anokha Milan with the same cast. Likewise, Tapan Sinha’s Sagina Mahato (Bengali) was remade as Sagina (Hindi) with his wife Saira Banu opposite him.  This remains one of Dilip Kumar’s most significant performances — perhaps also his most ‘political’ incarnation on screen. Here he is a factory worker who becomes the first to stand up to the tyranny of the British bosses in the tea gardens on the Himalayan reaches of North Bengal. Once more he surprised us, his younger viewers, to whom he was nothing but a man named Sagina Mahato whose naivety was being cleverly exploited. I had seen both the Bengali and Hindi versions but I have no answer as to why the remake did not work a magic nationally. Dilip Kumar was, after all, a master of delivery in Hindi and Urdu, although his English too was flawless.

Dilip Kumar seems to have had a special equation with Bengal, which could have grown out of the fact that so many directors from Bengal dominated the Indian screen through 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s… in other words, the screen idol’s active years. I was won over by the charisma of the star in Madhumati, incarnated from a story by Ritwik Ghatak. He had penned the first draft of the immortal classic that continues to mesmerise viewers to this day, then he was summoned back to Kolkata to direct two of his own films, Bari Theke Paaliye (The Runaway) and Ajantrik( 1957). The final script was prepared by Bimal Roy, as was his practice, in conference with his team. As a part of this Nabendu Ghosh had worked on detailing the reincarnation film as Dilip Kumar himself revealed in the interview to Khalid Mohamed. I was simply enchanted by the actor’s screen presence. Here I was, growing up in the age of Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, remember? Yet I was compelled to surrender to the charm of this actor! The only other ‘Kumar’ who superseded his charm for me was Uttam Kumar – and both had started their screen journeys in 1940s – long before I was born! Madhumati itself was ‘born again’ – most successfully as Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007) but the enduring charm of Dilip Kumar as an engineer arriving the upper reaches of Kumaon Hills and losing himself amidst tribals remains matchless.

Baba (Nabendu Ghosh) also scripted Yahudi where Bimal Roy directed Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari as the Roman prince and the Jewess who fall in love – endangering lives. In the Nehruvian era, it resonated with the values of secularism that the super actor himself enshrined. In his personal life, this saw Dilip Kumar align with the Congress. He donned the hat of the Sherif of Bombay (1980) and raised funds for causes, including for the physically challenged, through exhibition cricket matches. His commitment to the country’s constitutional framework saw him campaign in support of V P Singh — and later Manmohan Singh — as Prime Minister. Nominated to Rajya Sabha — the Upper House of Parliament — from 2000 to 2006, he served in Standing Committees that brought in amendments to Indian Medical Council Act 2006. He used his MP funds to restore Bandra Fort and improve the Bandra Promenade. These kept earning him laurels in India and beyond. The Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner was decorated as Padma Bhushan in (1991), Padma Vibhushan by the present Modi government in 2015, and — befittingly — accorded state honour at his funeral.

My most significant interaction with Dilip Kumar happened four decades after Yahudi – in 1999. Atal Behari Vajpayee was then the Prime Minister, and the Pakistan government was to confer their highest civilian award – Nishan-e-Imtiaz on the actor. In the wake of the Kargill infiltration and the ensuing war this was red rag to the right wingers. Shiv Sena had laid siege outside the thespian’s Pali Hill mansion, objecting to his receiving the award of merit as a betrayal of his own country. At that point Dilip Kumar, who continues to have a massive following across the subcontinent and beyond, had come to meet the Prime Minister. And I, then the Arts Editor of The Times of India, was given a special audience – perhaps also because I was the daughter of ‘Nobendu Babu’.

I clearly recall his words: “I was born in Peshawar, which by a twist of events is now in another land. A boundary line has turned it into a foreign country but I continue to be a produce of that land. I cannot deny that nor do I wish to. And I am not breaking any law of this land by accepting this Order of Excellence. If my country benefits in any way by my refusing this award, then I am willing to do so. If instead it strengthens bonding with a (warring) nation, why should I decline it?”

This is what he said to the Prime Minister too, resulting in Vajpayee ji issuing a statement to the effect that Dilip Kumar does not need to prove his patriotism to anybody. He will do just as his heart dictates. Whether he should accept the Nishan or decline it will be decided by his inner self. No one needs to tell him that.

In later years I have thought to myself: Suchitra Sen, another abiding icon who was paired with Dilip Kumar in Devdas, has been honoured by the Bangladesh government because she was born in Pabna, and we felt happy. Soumitra Chatterjee has been honoured by the French Legion de Honor – as was his mentor Satyajit Ray before him – and we felt honoured. The Government of India conferred the Padma on Sir Richard Attenborough for his directorial essay on Gandhi (1983) and we rejoiced. If all of these gladdened our hearts, why should we take exception to Nishan-e-Imtiaz? Why must we carry scars of the past in our mind and heart? Would it not be better to apply balm on wounds and reinforce peace? 

Before I wrap up, I must time-travel back to 1991. That was the year the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) conferred an Honoris Causa on Nabendu Ghosh whose 25 year association (1966-1991) had seen the emergence of such famous alumni as Kumar Shahani, Jaya Bachchan, Subhash Ghai, Girish Kasaravalli, Aruna Raje, Syed Mirza, Ketan Mehta, Kundan Shah. “By honouring his association with FTII we are also honouring the milestones the screen writer has gifted to the world of cinephile,” Dilip Kumar had said as the Guest of Honour handing over the honorary doctorate.  And in his address to the students, who had caused waves of unrest in FTII, he had said: “You have come here to learn the art of filmmaking. Instead, do you wish to teach your teachers? In our times we did not have any institute, we learnt from our directors. Bimal Roy himself was an institution. Nitin Bose, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan – they have moulded masters who come to teach you here. You stand to gain if you learn from them. Never forget to benefit from those who have learnt by experience…”

The words stay with me, as do the performances of the timeless actor who stopped short of scoring a century.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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