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Poetry Behind The Curtain. In The Year 1984


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
by Neelam Man Singh

Image: Neelam Man Singh is first on the left.

Punjabi culture lends itself very easily to a myth making industry that dresses its reality in such a way that the ‘copy’ became more real than the ‘original’. As a copy is always a distorted image of the real, a few exaggerated, larger than life qualities started getting associated with the Punjabi theatre. As a theatre director certain questions have concerned me. First and foremost is the issue of language. Punjabi as spoken in Hindi films is a gruff patios of pidgin Punjabi interspersed with juicy aphorisms. This became the gauge in the way the language was perceived. When I decided to set up a Punjabi theatre repertory in 1984, my work was dismissed, even before I started. It was almost as if the image of Punjabi culture, as something loud, frivolous, comic and crass, had become ossified. The cliché that reiterates, ‘Punjab has agriculture, but no culture’. It has always struck me that those who rely on this silly line must be far more illiterate than those they deride, knowing as they do so little about Punjab and Punjabis. I have never been able to separate culture from the earth. To till the land and see the tree you plant grow is akin to the joy that an artist feels when he/she has painted a painting or created a play. Culture is inextricably linked with agriculture. The Punjabi language, dance, music is replete with images from the earth and the joys of procreation, growth and renewal. I used to wonder why Punjabi was considered an unsophisticated language and why the Sikh were always being seen in Hindi films as the bumbling taxi driver or as Singh is King - valorised for qualities that were loud and suspiciously misogynist. My mind resonated with verses from the Guru Granth Sahib and songs from Heer Ranja, Sohini Mahiwal and Sassi Punnu ( sufi love stories from Punjabi folklore).

When I first arrived in Chandigarh in 1984, I attended a lecture by a distinguished theatre critic who while delivering a paper on Indian culture referred to Punjabi culture as the ‘Balle Balle’ culture, with a dismissive gesture of his hand. At that time I made light of that jibe, but in retrospect it really bothered me. To me this seemed like a full-blown dilemma of description.

It was difficult working in an environment that mocks its own culture. As a theatre director working in the Punjabi language, I am concerned with doing theatre, not trapped by question of whether the theatre I do is regional or national. I work in the language of the state with actors from the state in which I live. It is ironical that in Punjab I am perceived as a director who is ‘not-one-of-us’. The reason being, I take stories and plays from different parts of the world, rather than direct plays written by Punjabi playwrights. It is strange that while we are quick to defend the freedom of the artist, we sometimes hail fusillades at those who do not fit into the boundaries of our expectation. I believe that any play, text or literature carried from one language to another enriches and adds to the living tradition of theatre. By doing western plays in Punjabi translation, does not in any way damage my relationship with my language. For me it’s like expanding what I truly loved- theatre.



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