In a valiant attempt to keep the tradition of dreaming alive, Ajoka Theatre recently staged a play in Lahore on Bhagat Singh. The venue was a public hall and tickets cost nothing but your transport to the centre of town. My rickshawala, a young man I had asked to wait at the gate, came in along with me and sat right through.
Based on the trial and hanging of the 23-year-old young man, Mera Rang De Basanti Chola is the story of a dreamer of revolution that would change the lives of poor people in India. He took on the violent and unjust British government with his young friends, a white man’s life was lost, and Bhagat decided to turn himself in to the authorities to own up to what he had done along with Raj Guru and Sukh Dev, his close friends and allies who marched with him to the gallows.
Who was this young man so loved to this day, more popular than Jinnah and Gandhi in the 1930s India, and so reviled by contemporary historians in India and in Pakistan where the debate still rages over whether he were a “terrorist” or a “revolutionary”? In India, 60 years of Congress rule have wiped clear the legacy of all other freedom fighters from the textbooks except for Nehru and Gandhi, labelling everyone else either a “terrorist” or “separatist”. In Pakistan, we suffer a blindness all our own: a Sikh hero is an embarrassment to the national narrative.
Ajoka’s restaging of Mera Rang De Basanti Chola addresses an important erasure from our history
As Madiha Gauhar put it in her introduction to the play, “We forget that this country was made in the name of a minority — a Muslim minority — with the help of other people who lived here.” To the credit of Ajoka, they did not use the legend of Bhagat Singh to rehash the Punjabi nationalist narrative, although the young man was unmistakably from an agrarian family of full-blooded, revolutionary Sikhs who loved home.
To all appearances, Ajoka has come of age. The vaudeville is finally working and the huge cast and chorus put in a performance that was energetic and enthused with a lot of song and dance, live musicians and tunes set to the wealth of poetry written on Bhagat Singh and the songs the three friends sang in the courtroom to mock their trial, then all the way to the gallows to mock despair.
It is also a well-researched piece of writing with a twist, where Shahid Nadeem introduces a new historical villain — Nawab Mohammed Ahmed Khan of Kasur — the magistrate who hanged Bhagat. Forty years later, the infamous Kasuri was fired upon by unknown assailants in the exact same spot where Bhagat and his friends had been hanged, Shadman Chowk, where the scaffolding was quickly dismantled to prevent a popular uprising. The bodies of these young men were then hacked, burnt near a village along the Ravi and — when villagers approached the pyre — the half-burnt bodies were thrown into the river.
In the play, an old man says he knows who killed Kasuri: “It is the patron saint, Shah Jamal, who called him to come face his end.” At every turn, the playwright invokes local saints and poets as rebels against an unjust social order, and as lovers who care not for the fruits of fortune.
Bhagat has lived on like he always said he would, even though he refused clemency at the hands of the British-run courts. ‘I care not if I don’t live to grow a hundred years old. Breathing is not all there is to being alive’, Bhagat says in his last letter and then adds humorously: ‘Had I lived long, you would have found fault in me. Today, I go as your hero. Besides, there will be many coming after me.’ That spirited young man has lived to be 108 this past week.
Bhagat Singh may have been one such young man influenced as much by the internationalist anarchists and Marxists as by the bhaktis, the sant and the fakirs of the Punjab. The stylish young man that he was, he lived simply, gave away all his expensive possessions, and remained celibate despite the demand from his family to marry. The basanti chola he wore was the saffron attire of those who forfeited this world, of tiag, the colour of sacrifice for a cause that was larger than a personal life or its needs.
When asked why he called himself an atheist or dehriya, he responds in a letter — in the tenor of Sant Kabir Das — that he did not despise or belittle other people’s gods out of vanity but because they used the gods to hate each other and because they were driven by greed for reward in this world and in the next one. This life was all he had to use, he writes, and to do what good he can. His comrades recount how remorseful he was after the shooting of the British officer Saunders who was killed to avenge the murder of Bhagat’s teacher, Lala Lajpat Rai. Rai was the founder of the National College Bhagat attended in Lahore.
Bhagat loved books, though, and one of his last wishes before the hanging was to be allowed to finish the chapter he was reading. It is said that he read a lot … Iqbal’s poetry, French and Russian novels, the history of anarchists from all over the world, the philosophy of Marx and the politics of Lenin. “No revolution is complete without books”, he writes.
Bhagat Singh was a college student educated in the best local schools set up by nationalists who did not want their children to be subjected to British-run institutions. Another young man who loved books and was like Bhagat in many ways, died in similar circumstances in the Lahore Fort 30 years later in 1960, for the crime of dreaming of a better world. His name was Hassan Nasir.
So Bhagat has lived on like he always said he would, even though he refused clemency at the hands of the British-run courts. “I care not if I don’t live to grow a hundred years old. Breathing is not all there is to being alive,” he says in his last letter and then adds humorously: “Had I lived long, you would have found fault in me. Today, I go as your hero. Besides, there will be many coming after me.” That spirited young man has lived to be 108 this past week.
Ajoka has done well to address this important erasure from our history. It is interpreted with sensitivity and humour. A small caveat about the performance, however, is the physical portrayal of the hero for being quite conventional.
In pictorial references, Bhagat is often remembered through that fading portrait of a rakish man with arched brows and a tilted black hat. The only other picture we have of his last days in prison is of a lean young man with long, curly locks sitting cross-legged in a dhoti on a charpai, the iron fetters visible, looking at someone in conversation. His photographs sold wildly across India four years running after his assassination, more popular than Gandhi’s posters. But which one was it? Could Ajoka have used someone else from their talented repertoire to portray a softer Bhagat and not a sharp-looking, crew cut guy in a hat, taller than everyone else?
Bhagat Singh was a man of theatre too and would have appreciated how this production left no one out. My rickshawalla sang Bismil’s ghazal all the way home ... Sarfaroshi ki tamana, ab hamaray dil mein hai … while I begged him to slow down, at least at the turns.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 9th, 2016