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 Gursharan Singh: A Devout Punjabi


Punjab has its vibrant revolutionary tradition starting with Bhagat Singh. With the death of Gursharan Singh, fondly known as Bhaaji respected brother, a link with this tradition has broken. If the worst crisis of East Punjab since 1947 was the Khalistani mayhem, Bhaaji emerged heroically from it. Born into a devout Sikh family, he lived in his ancestral house Guru Khalsa Niwas in Amritsar, wore his turban and did not trim his beard. This made him a ‘critical insider’ for Khalistani militancy and made his opposition to it more meaningful.


Gursharan Singh as Bhai Manna Singh-Amritsar-1972-Amarjit Chandan Collection.jpg


Gursharan Singh as Bhai Manna Singh. Amritsar. 1972. photo Amarjit Chandan Collection


Bhaaji’s opposition to Khalistan was in a league different from others. He did not issue sanitised statements from behind bullet-proof podiums or well-guarded houses. He moved fearlessly in villages and towns of East Punjab with the determination of a soldier for democratic socialism against Sikh extremism. This experience gave him the faith to advise activists, ‘Your doubts will melt and you will find a way if you go to the people.’ On the day of his cremation, some 150 groups pledged to carry people’s work forward on Bhaaji’s inspiration.  


In 2007, the Centenary year of Bhagat Singh, the whole of India caught revolutionary fever thanks to films like The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Rang de Basanti etc. It goes to the credit of Bhaaji that he celebrated the memory of Bhagat Singh in Punjab two decades before this. Around the Martyrdom Day, viz. March 23, Bhaaji would hit the streets of East Punjab with his cultural troupe since the 1980s.  


Bhaaji used street theatre as the medium to spread ideas for change and he dipped his ideas for change in the earthy wit of Punjab. His enduring fame was created by Bhai Manna Singh – a play that was telecast from the Jalandhar station of Doordarshan for more than a year between 1985-86. Bhai Manna Singh is a character who stands for reason amidst slippery social climbers and cunning power brokers. Some thought it was a character Bhaaji represented in his daily life.


The Green Revolution produced economic development in East Punjab. But this growth came with a cultural lag. Bhaaji put this dilemma beautifully. ‘Just a few feet away from Punjab’s flourishing modern agricultural fields exists an impoverished culture. This culture is full of fear for the weak and packed with ethical deprivation for the strong.’ The son of a famous doctor in pre-Partition Punjab, Bhaaji took a Master’s degree in Chemistry. From 1961, he earned his livelihood for twenty years as a cement technologist with the Canal and Irrigation department of Punjab Government. He contributed to the research of strengthening the bunds of reservoirs like Bhakhra. His social conscience bid him to oppose the Emergency (1975-77) and he was promptly jailed for it.  


A man of immense sensitivity, Bhaaji observed keenly and expressed vividly. One dark day at the height of the Khalistan movement in 1987, we sat huddled in a meeting of one Democratic Forum at a small hall in Patiala. The Khalistanis were called people without a just cause by one speaker and condemned for bloodletting without meaning by another. As the chairperson of that meeting, Bhaaji rose to speak at the end.


            I oppose Khalistan due to two simple reasons stemming from experience. I have seen the Partition of united Punjab. I was a good player of hockey in college and was habituated to good         cheer. But after seeing the bloodshed and listening to all those horror stories then, I have not   laughed whole-heartedly ever since 1947. Secondly, I oppose Khalistan because I have two     daughters and these fellows have no program for the future. All they are doing is making         vulnerable people more insecure. And all they will do is ask women to cover their head or even            face, stay home and live like caged birds. I cannot approve this.’


Though all of us had spoken our minds as frankly as we could, Bhaaji had spoken from his heart truthfully. He carried the day.    


My first encounter with Bhaaji was in 1985. Navsharan, the elder of his two daughters, and I were colleagues at a research institute in Chandigarh. On my request, he carried a pair of blankets for me from Amritsar to Chandigarh. He lived in Amritsar amidst his big joint family, large theatre group called Amritsar Natak Kala Kender and larger group of fans. I learnt much later that Amritsar was as much well known for Bhaaji as it was for its woollen goods and the Golden Temple. Somewhere it hurts my conscience that I saddled a man of his stature with a domestic chore like buying a pair of blankets in Amritsar, carrying them 300 kms away to Chandigarh in an ordinary bus and delivering them to a lout like me. Who said great men do not do ordinary chores?


- Bhupendra Yadav


[The author teaches History in Rohtak University.





Ordinary man’s Hero



Punjabi theatre is one century old; popularly known as Bha jee between thespians and Bhai Manna Singh amongst the people of Punjab, Gursharan Singh has ruled the realm of Punjabi theatre for fifty years. He was equally popular in Punjab, other parts of India and all the regions of globe where ever one can find Punjabis; he didn’t go there with his words and images alone but also with the convictions that he nurtured with equal amount of emotions and reflection. His commitment, secularism, hard work, pro-people stance and consistency, coupled with a lot of courage to fight against the establishment and in the process to be ready to sacrifice anything, earned for him an image that is certainly not proportionate to an ordinary life; a number of theatre halls in his name coming up in the state are sufficient to realize it.


A cement technologist by profession, Gursharan Singh’s contribution to Bhakhra dam is colossal, but whereas he helped block the enormous water to produce much required energy, the place also helped him to find a channel for his energy to flow with utmost strength as an artiste and a dreamer. The cultural show that was put up for the then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru at Nangal was not meant for the ordinary people who were involved in the construction of the dam; the incident was enough to get the fuel ignited that was in plenty within him.


It was at Amritsar that he found his medium in theatre and started doing regular drama in Gandhi Grounds. Contrary to popular notion, he did, in his initial years, a theatre that had all the ingredients of a matured production with a good number of casts, elaborate costuming, appropriate lighting and authentic movement on the stage to create a three-dimensional image that could actually enter the mind of the spectator. Of course, such plays were directed by the talented persons like Suresh Pandit. And Gursharan Singh had a regular audience that used to flock almost every quarter when he would put up a number of performances spanned over three-four nights. The viewers also spent some money to become the regular members.

This was the time when Naxalite movement was getting momentum in Punjab and the frustration against the inadequacies of the prevalent system had started coming to fore.


Gursharan Singh  not only acquired the stance but also started becoming, gradually, the voice of the marginalized people.  I had the opportunity to see his productions like Pakistan based Najam Hussain Sayyad’s ‘Takhat Lahore’ and Ishaaq Muhammad’s ‘Kuknus’ , besides the likes of ‘Desire Under the Elms’ and ‘ Ghosts’ produced in Punjabi.  The Pakistani plays use the legend of Dulla Bhatti to expose the impotency of establishment as rulers and its strength to exploit the ostracized people.  He dared to directly attack Gyani Zail Singh, the then Chief Minister Punjab. His anti-establishment postures earned him a place behind the bars and hence termination from his coveted post. Ironically, Gyani Zail Singh, after seeing his play at Jammu a few days before his arrest, had termed him as a diamond. 


Gursharan Singh once again used the legend of Dulla Bhatti and wrote his masterpiece ‘Dhamak Nagare Dee’; Bansi Kaul was invited to direct it. But it was during the celebrations of Guru Gobind Singh’s birth tercentenary and Guru Nanak’s Quincentenaries’ that he thought of weaving the commonalities of  Sikhism and Marxism in his theatre, with the help of playwright Gurdial Singh Phul. It was a theatre that had an off-stage hero but he effectively used it to impress upon the masses of the lofty ideals of resistance against oppression, equality at all levels, dignity of labour and service of the humanity. This type of performances took him to all parts of Punjab; this is how the concept of his simple and straightforward theatre started emerging. But unfortunately, in the absence of a tradition and adequate funding, the productions were gradually contracted to Gurdwaras; Gursharan Singh started distancing.  His role during the troubled periods of Punjab was again exemplary and he led the theatre movement from the front to keep Punjabis united, many a times risking even his life.


He outgrew his theatre image and made an impact as an honest fighter against the high- handedness of the establishment and the extremists of all the hues. He also symbolizes as a crusader against the social ills of our society. Ardently owned by the leftists, Gursharan Singh belongs to all types of Punjabis. I believe there was never a single group of people in the state, including extremists, who didn’t have reverence for his work. His contribution is historic; it’s the time for us to keep his flame scorching, not only by jingles, but by the endeavors.     




The author is a Punjabi playwright.