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Brothers in arms

Print edition : Sep 21, 2012 T+T-

A book on artiste-brothers Balraj and Bisham Sahni offers an understanding of the relationship between art and politics.

THAT there was a theatre group trying to bring about social and political awakening among the people of India is lost in public memory. Yet, the role of the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) in building a progressive political platform for theatre and other artistic activities in the country remains of great value. It has inspired generations of Indian theatre to follow suit.

Founded in 1942, the IPTA was the cultural wing of the then undivided Communist Party of India and took pride in promoting leftist consciousness in the overarching nationalistic mood of the country. Against the backdrop of the nationalist struggle, the IPTA, through its innumerable street plays, dwelt on issues and stories that directly concerned the people. Issues such as hunger, famine, poverty, communal violence, and feudal and colonial exploitation featured constantly in its plays. Together with the Progressive Writers Association (PWA), the IPTA transformed the meaning of entertainment and art in India, which had historically dealt only with tales of fantasy and mythology.

Yet, the importance of such a cultural movement was hardly archived. The New Delhi-based Sahmat, an umbrella cultural organisation, realised the necessity to fill this vacuum. In 2011, it held a three-day symposium on the IPTA and the PWA, the first ever formal discussion on Indian political theatre and literature. The group also published a book on two principal players of the IPTA movement Balraj and Bhisham Sahni. Balraj and Bhisham Sahni: Brothers in the Political Theatre is an extension of Sahmats consensus to bring the memory of the IPTA and the PWA back to the national consciousness.

Balraj made it big in Indian cinema, and Bhisham went on to become one of the greatest Hindi writers and actors of all time. While popular imagination reinforces the Sahni brothers as great entertainers, the book tries to take readers back to their initial days, much before they became celebrities. As it tries to document their association with the IPTA, their struggles and their aspiration to bring about a change in the world come out prominently. This the book does through two chapters, one written by Bhishams daughter Kalpana Sahni and the other by the first general secretary of the Communist Party, P.C. Joshi.

Kalpana Sahnis is a relatives point of view about the Sahni brothers. She talks about their families, their experiences, their thinking, and their choices. Her memories as a child and how she personally experienced the making of Balraj and Bhisham Sahni as star performers form the crux of the chapter. Most of her memories come from the IPTAs plays and the role of the Sahni brothers in organising them and rendering the IPTA into a well-defined structure. Through the first chapter, the passion and sincerity of Balraj, the elder brother, which influenced Bhisham in his decision to leave Lahore and join the IPTA in Bombay (Mumbai), comes out clearly.

It was a phase, Kalpana Sahni reminisces, when Balraj could not think of anything else but the IPTA. She says that Balraj, who by the early 1940s had become a devoted Communist, had decided that he would spend his whole life organising the IPTA and spreading the message of Communism among the people. By the time Balrajji and his wife returned to Bombay in 1944 from war-torn London [as BBCs employees], both had become committed Marxists, she writes.

She lets the readers learn more about the Sahni brothers through interesting anecdotes. She quotes Balraj Sahni: One day, I happened to read in a newspaper an advertisement announcing a play which the Peoples Theatre was going to put on. I knew there was a Peoples Theatre in China; was there one in India too.... That evening I ran into V.P. Sathe, the well-known journalist.... When I asked him if he knew anything about a peoples theatre in Bombay, he answered, You bet I do. I am one of its members. In fact, I am right now on my way to attend its meeting, where Khwaja Ahmed Abbas is going to read his play. Come along.... And there began Balrajs long association with the IPTA.

While the first chapter is about the Sahni brothers association with the IPTA, the second, by P.C. Joshi, who was known to be the biggest patron of the IPTA, talks about the political lives of the Sahni brothers and what led them to become committed IPTA members. Joshi points out that Balraj had always wanted to contribute to political change. It was this yearning that led him to Santiniketan and Gandhis Ashram. He learnt a lot about humanity and collectivism there but found these spaces too sanitised with respect to the harsh realities of the real world. He found his true calling in Communism in London and decided to practise it through his skills in acting and writing. Joshi describes how he was wary of foreign-returned Communists and considered them romantics more than anything else. However, Balraj and his wife, Damayanti, also a devout leftist, impressed Joshi and he let Balraj organise the IPTA.

Joshi writes: Balraj and Damayanti had come with their credentials. They came to me, if I remember correctly, through my then secretary Parvathi.... You earned your living from the BBC in London. How will you now earn your living? I asked.... Quiet and sweet, Damayanti began, I have already joined Prithvi Theatre. Prithviraj Kapoor has been kind to me and I have been assured a job for as long as I work there. We have both contacted the local IPTA comrades and Balraj could be an unpaid whole-timer, which the IPTA badly needs. He recalls that Balraj looked tense through the whole conversation. But the tension gradually faded out when he was given the responsibility of organising the IPTA.

He recalls Balrajs ability to mingle with the working class and find talent among the local communities. This ability, Joshi says, helped the IPTA grow and spread across India. The IPTA, during the Sahni brothers time, went on to produce brilliant plays on the Bengal famine, the widespread hunger and the communal violence during Partition. It was the Sahni brothers who helped find great artistes like Anna Bhau Sathe, Prem Dhawan and Deena Gandhi, and spread the IPTAs influence to all parts of the country.

It was this popularity that Indian cinema also capitalised on. The likes of S.D. Burman, Prithviraj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt, who were leftists themselves, were impressed by the growth of the IPTA. For them, the IPTA had become a great ground to find talent in music, acting and direction. Unfortunately, Joshi reminisces, the IPTA gradually faded out after Independence, when the Communist Party changed its line under the general secretary, B.T. Ranadive. Joshi, under whom the IPTA had flourished, was accused of being a bourgeois agent and was expelled from the party.

The IPTA came to be considered a financial burden and the left adventurism in the party deprived it of all its artistic liberties. It was expected to seek permission from the Communist Party leadership and toe the party line in every play. Bhisham, Kalpana Sahni recollects, was reprimanded by the party leadership for wearing a Nehru cap in a play.

Gradually, according to both Kalpana and Joshi, many prominent members of the IPTA resigned from, or quietly left the party. Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, who directed Dharti ke Laal, the only feature film by the IPTA, starring Balraj and Damayanti as the lead pair, was also among those who left the IPTA quietly.

Although they resigned from the Communist Party, the Sahni brothers remained Communists throughout their lives. Both brothers came close to Jawaharlal Nehru in his last days; Indias first Prime Minister promoted independent artistic activities and had a socialistic goal. Many other IPTA artistes formed their own groups but still carried the leftist message to the people.

The book is not just a biography; it is a document that helps one understand the relationship between art and politics. It also gives valuable insights into the politics of the time through the lives of two individuals who became big names in independent India. And, more importantly, it gives us a detailed picture of two artistes who were driven by the social and political concerns of their times, a trait absent in artistes of contemporary India.