A Punjabi gaze on Kashmir

Sukant Deepak –

He says that being an outsider gives him a unique perspective. That he can look at things not only objectively but also with a certain degree of empathy. “And then you are able to observe the contrasts and contradictions without being judgemental,” says playwright Atamjit Singh, recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and Sahitya Akademi awards, whose latest Punjabi play ‘Balde Rahan Chiragh Hamesha on Kashmir has now been translated into Hindi and Urdu.

The Mohali-based playwright, who had written a play, eTasveer Da Teeja Pasa’, on the politics of terrorism, centred around incidents in Punjab and Kashmir; says that situation in the Valley pushed him to devote his latest work around it.

“Kashmir, being very close geographically and emotionally, has always fascinated me. And ever since reading up on saints like Lalleshwari and Noor-ud-Din , who are also known as Lall Ma and Nund Rishi, I felt a peculiar attraction towards that land. Many people are unaware that Nund, a Muslim saint, was actually breastfed by the Hindu saint Lalleshwari.”

Playwright and writer Atamjit Singh (Photo: Sukant Deepak IANS)

The plot of the play is based on true incidents that took place in a district in Kashmir managed by his writer friend Khalid Hussain, who was a Deputy Commissioner there. Centering around a Hindu boy raised by a Muslim family which never stopped him from practicing his Hindu faith, the script brings forth the protagonist’s dilemma when the graveyard where his Muslim father’s remains are buried is destroyed by a brick klin owner.

Like in his other works, this play too has several historical contexts. However, Singh stresses that no playwright uses history just to retell the past chronicles (“history books do that better”). Emphasizing that for him history is a root in the soil, and if one follows the roots in the true spirit, there is seldom a fear of going wrong, he adds, “If used imaginatively, history becomes the strength of the plot that can be used to say what the writer wants to. And that is what I have done in eBalde Rahan Chiragh Hamesha’. For me, the most interesting chapter of the land is on Rinchan, who was the first non-Hindu ruler of Kashmir. Buddhist by his faith, Rinchan decided to come to the fold of the religion of general public, which was Hinduism at that point of time. But the clergy didn’t allow him to do so, thus paving way for him to embrace Islam. However, the play largely concentrates on the post-independence era including the early nineties when the exodus of Pandits took place. But I must add, a play is never restricted to the history that it refers to, it is and should always be contemporary.”

Stressing that he would be elated if the work was staged in any or all the languages of J&K including Dogri, Gojri, Urdu and Pahari, Singh adds, “During the reading session held in Jammu recently, the two Kashmiri scholars in attendance felt that it was important that a work talking about the Valley be made accessible in their language.”

Believing that theatre, or for that matter any other art, cannot be used as eantibiotics’, he stresses that a writer’s role is not to treat problems but identify them. “This play delves into the centuries-old history of co-existence followed by the cracks created by politicians. The irony of the situation is that the Kashmir problem actually is not the creation of Kashmiris. Obviously, a work of art that wishes to genuinely touch the hearts and minds of people cannot offer lip-sympathies, but it can for sure be a part of the healing process.”

Known for undertaking long and exhaustive research before writing his scripts, the playwright went to Chicago, known for its libraries for the same. “While writing an earlier play on World War 1, translated in English as eCome Back from the War’, I found the Chicago Library system extremely useful. For this play, I needed to read up on the politics of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), and was unable to find enough material here. “Look at the irony, I had to travel to Canada and America to find material on an Indian subject. This says so much about our own libraries.”

Believing that finding the real problem is in itself a part of the solution, he is now all set to write a new play on centered around Diwan Singh Kalepani, a doctor and Punjabi poet, who did monumental work in Andaman and Nicobar Islands before he was hanged by Japanese in the early forties for opposing the idea of using a Gurudwara as a brothel for Japanese soldiers.

“I wanted to visit the islands for my research, but will need to postpone due to the current COVID-19 crisis. And yes, for a long time, I have been wanting to write on Sir Ganga Ram whose contribution, in terms of innumerable monumental buildings and institutions that he raised in the city of Lahore in undivided India, has not suitably been recognized by Indians till date. Ironically, he is a better-known person in Pakistan today. But I don’t see an immediate chance to visit Pakistan now considering the strained relations between the two countries.”