Ajoka's play Mera Rang De Basanti Chola

Many of us look towards the social uprising in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya as a sign of hope, which is why Ajoka Theatre’s new production, Mera Rang De Basanti Chola (based on freedom fighter Bhagat Singh’s life) is relevant and was highly appreciated.

Few among us might know that one of the most influential revolutionaries of his time, the young Bhagat Singh, lived and was hanged in Lahore. Even more intriguing is how the magistrate who ratified the execution orders was accidentally murdered some four decades later at the same spot.

The premiere of Mera Rang De Basanti Chola was held to packed audience at the Alhamra Hall in Lahore. The audience was a disciplined motley of people from all kinds of backgrounds, among them a number of university students.

The play opens to a dholia and a group of narcoleptic dhamalis on the shrine of Baba Shah Jamal. Two police officers arrive to pay their respects and start a discourse with Baba Bhoga (Sarfraz Ansari), an old devotee. The officials are on their way to investigate the murder of magistrate Nawab Ahmed Khan from Kasur. The name of the magistrate catches the attention of Baba Bhoga and he recounts a fascinating tale dating back to the Colonial era.

Bhagat Singh springs to life as Baba Bhoga starts to reminisce about him. The handsome young Bhagat (Nirvaan Nadeem) is arrested along with his two comrades, Rajguru Dutt and Sukhdev for killing a British DSP mistakenly as revenge for the murder of freedom activist Lala Lajpat Rai at a peaceful protest march against the Simon Commission. Bhagat had also lobbed an explosive device at the Central Legislative Assembly session in Delhi to oppose the Defense India Act, which didn’t lead to any casualties but did cause a furor within the British government.

Belonging to a progressive and educated family that supported liberation movements, Bhagat was an ardent admirer of literature from around the world, and especially Allama Iqbal’s poetry. Initially an atheist, he had a deep respect for all faiths and believed in social harmony.

Bhagat’s fiery diatribe against the British Crown made him a formidable force. In fact, the British government could not find a single magistrate in Lahore who would agree to sign the order to hang Bhagat and his comrades. Eventually, Nawab Ahmed Khan from Kasur agreed to sanction the death verdict which Bhagat and his friends accepted with characteristic zeal. On March 23, 1931, the three were taken to the gallows in the middle of the night at the Lahore Central Jail to avoid public attention and later their bodies were quickly cremated.

Bhagat’s killing assumed great significance at the time. Gandhi offered little support to the three activists for their violent activism. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, however, made a flaming speech to support Bhagat’s stand for freedom while the common man continued to regard Bhagat as a hero. In fact, it became popular lore that Bhagat’s ghost had been spotted at the shrine of Baba Shah Jamal with the sufi saint’s, and that Baba Jamal had sworn revenge for Bhagat’s killing.

The intriguing twist narrated by Baba Bhoga in the play was how Nawab Ahmed Khan was shot dead at the Shadman roundabout in Lahore 44 years later as assassins aimed at his son who escaped the attempt on his life. The Lahore Central Jail had since shifted to another location and in its place the Shadman roundabout was raised. Thus, both Bhagat Singh and Nawab Ahmed Khan died at the same location.

The Nawab Ahmed Khan case had tremendous repercussions on the political history of Pakistan as Z.A. Bhutto had been tried and implicated in the same case. Bhoga added further drama to his narration by adding that Baba Shah Jamal’s shrine is in close proximity to the Shadman area. A memorable scene towards the end was Bhagat’s spirit doing the dhamaal at the shrine of the sufi saint while wearing western attire.

Interspersed with Punjabi folk melodies and specially a Lahori tonga wala’s tribute to Bhagat, Mera Rang De Basanti Chola, that dates back to 1932, Ajoka’s play was simple, evocative and intriguing. There are many strange and marvelous historical facts in the drama that make it engrossing till the very end, despite the fact that it had no typical commercial elements to jazz it up.

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