Reoti Saran Sharma

Voice of humanism

Print edition : October 28, 2016

New Delhi, February 26, 2008: Reoti Saran Sharma receiving the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award from President Pratibha Patil for his contribution to Hindi theatre. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

The versatile playwright Reoti Saran Sharma (1924-2016) was equally at home with Urdu and Hindi and was known for the rich detailing in his plays and the poetic flourish of his language.

AROUND a decade ago, when the illustrious playwright Reoti Saran Sharma was conferred the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (2007) for his contribution to Hindi theatre, old-timers were mildly surprised. To them, he was an Urduwallah who attained name and fame with his Urdu writing, a man who could have happily continued to write in the language of Mir and Ghalib had All India Radio (AIR) not insisted on the Devanagari script for his plays. To them, it was an Urduwallah being conferred the Hindi award. For the relatively young crowd though, Sharma was a man who penned path-breaking serials and telefilms for Doordarshan at a time when a hit show on the channel meant that the man on the street was aware of the twists and turns in the story. Of course, those who frequented the theatre world regarded him as a man who gave breathing space as also life to Hindi theatre, covering the stage with the pluralist ethos of the land. That was the beauty of the life and times of Reoti Saran Sharma, who passed away on September 23 at the age of 92.

Sharma hit the limelight with Aur Bhi Gham Hain Zamane Mein, a searing take on the issue of divorce among Muslim women. The much-lauded tele-serial was a remarkable departure from the rarefied world of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (a term used to connote the pluralism of the central plains of northern India) that Sharma had come to personify ever since he wrote his first radio play. That was in 1944. Such was his dexterity with the Urdu language that by the time of Partition, Sharma had cultivated a loyal fan following among Urdu listeners of AIR.

His radio plays, which usually lasted up to an hour, were appreciated for their rich detailing. He raised social issues. His choice of words was impeccable and his language had a poetic flourish that won over the discerning. His use of proverbs kept him linked to the land. And his brief, witty sentences exhibited a man at ease with the language.

Yet, Sharma’s love affair with Urdu plays was cut short rather abruptly. Following Partition, Sharma discovered to his dismay that most Urdu-knowing people had migrated to Pakistan. Worse, Urdu came to be linked to the Muslim community. This communalisation of the language was personally hurtful for Sharma, who, as a child, had chosen Urdu over Hindi after completing his primary education in western Uttar Pradesh’s Hapur township. The township left a deep imprint on Sharma, who often joked that the local people, not blessed with higher education, did not understand the subtleties of the language. Their inability to pronounce his name correctly meant that Sharma was stuck with the name Saran instead of Sharan for the rest of his life.

Sharma’s plays talked of humanism. They were often like an adhesive for a society coming to terms with hate violence. The plays continued to be aired on AIR; gradually he showed his powers of adaptability. Asked to write in the Devanagari script, he took the help of one of his early teachers, who presented him a copy of Devdas and asked him to develop his skills on the same lines. Sharma was a fast learner. He drank from the fount of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay as lustily as he had devoured the works of Intizar Hussain. To his own surprise, nine of his plays were broadcast nationally and translated into various Indian languages. Among them was a romantic play titled Lao Zehar Pila Do, a story of two sisters and a tutor. It stayed close to his heart.

More than 150 plays

He wrote more than 150 plays, a feat that may not be replicated, considering the vicissitudes in the fortunes of radio plays in the age of satellite television. His plays have been repeated many times on radio. In the 1960s and the 1970s, it was not unusual for AIR to receive postcards from listeners asking it to run a play by Sharma again and again. Like great works of cinema, his radio plays had a great rerun potential, which was well exploited.

Equally fascinating was his tryst with theatre and television, though to his last day Sharma called himself a radiowallah. There are interesting anecdotes relating to his television writing, among them being the all-time hits such as Talaash and Adhikar. Interestingly, his scripted programmes were often telecast again in the afternoon slot to enable housewives to catch up in case they had missed the first run the previous evening. This came to define afternoon television in the mid 1980s. Recalled to this day is Lekh Tandon’s Phir Wahi Talaash, which reminded the public of his own early struggle with his father. When Sharma was a teenage boy, his father wanted him to study no further than middle school before ultimately permitting him to complete his matriculation. He wanted young Reoti to learn to manage a shop and settle down. Sharma had other ideas and was insistent on higher studies, something which did not go down well with his father, who equated higher education with westernisation, something unthinkable in the days of the freedom struggle.

Sharma brought to the fore all the niceties of the Urdu language in Aur Bhi Gham Hain Zamane Mein, a serial for which he read the Quran, particularly researching on two verses relating to divorce, surah Nissa and surah Talaq. The usage of the scripture’s verses coupled with impeccable Urdu won over new admirers for Sharma, particularly among Muslims, who were surprised that a non-Muslim knew their scripture so well. Then there were instances like Adhikar, Purani Haveli and The Great Maratha. All along, Sharma showed his ability to take a dig at social mores. For instance, his comparison of the famous Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administration in Mussoorie (Uttarakhand) to a mandi, a marketplace, to “buy” IAS officers for marriageable girls.

Sharma was careful to avoid verbosity on television and on stage. He often let the actor interpret the words, refraining from filling moments of silence with verbal clutter. On radio though, he used words to craft a character in such a manner that listeners could “see” the character in their mind’s eye. It was this ability to adapt according to the medium that stood him in good stead at a time when radio had started receding into the background in the face of the challenge presented by telefilms and serials, not to forget theatre.

Incidentally, his Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb groomed his theatre too. He regarded the stage as a fine showcase of humanism and often concentrated on giving a voice to the voiceless. In an interview, he once wondered why the efforts to bring in peace were left to those responsible for bringing about wars. Associated with the International Theatre Institute since the early days, Sharma regarded rang manch (theatre) to be teamwork, one where the inputs of technicians, actors, scriptwriters and the director combine to give the viewer a whole presentation. Interestingly, for all his passion for theatre, he never longed for industry status for theatre in the country because he believed that once huge funds came commercial compromise would be made. He was happy that theatre was appreciated by genuine lovers of the medium who were willing to ignore the limitations of the craft. Theatre was not an extravaganza to bewitch and befuddle the audience. It was a moral compass that often brought in its wake periods of introspection for viewers. For him, theatre was all about striking a bond with audiences with stories that tapped into the reservoirs of human emotion. It was probably for this reason that his plays almost always had popular muhavare (proverbs) as part of the narration. Sharma was exposed to proverbs at an early age. An unlettered woman used to visit his mother when he was a child. She was rich in anecdotes, proverbs and phrases. Sharma imbibed the proverbs and phrases from her and backed them up with the skills of an ace short story writer, and came up with scripts and stories that tugged at the heart. The medium, be it radio, television or the stage, receded into the background.

Today, even as Sharma has receded from the mortal world, the values of humanism and pluralism that he always upheld will live on through his works.

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