Revolutionary playwright, director, and activist, Gursharan Singh passed away in his home in Chandigarh on September 27, 2011.
Gursharan Singh, who became popularly known as “Gursharan Bhaji, and “Bhai Manna Singh,” after a character he created, was born in Multan in 1929. He was trained as an engineer and was employed by the government till his arrest and dismissal in 1975 for his protest against Indira Gandhi’s suspension of the constitution and imposition of Emergency.
Though he was released from prison and reinstated in his job after the fall of the Indira Gandhi government in 1977, he resigned his post when he was rearrested in early 1980s and devoted himself wholly to theatre.
Gursharan Singh started writing plays in the 1950s and created a large body of works, including 13 books, 132 short plays and 6 full-length plays. There have been close to 10,000 performances of his plays across the world. The best loved of these are: “Toya,” “Baba BoldaHai,” “Dhamak Nagare Di,” “ChandnniChowk to Sirhand Tak,” “Kursi Morcha ate HawaVich Latkde Lok,” and “Kamiyanda Wehda.” The plays have been collected in six volumes.
Gursharan Singh produced street theatre in the cities, travelled with his plays to the villages of Punjab, and created a genre that has become known as “rural theatre.” Basing himself on the folk idiom of entertainment and didacticism, GursharanSingh used theatre to tell the truth about an oppressive and corrupt social and political system, speaking for those who had no voice, and encouraging the oppressed and deprived to aspire to change their world. He opened more than thirty-five centres in villages and in Chandigarh, where he trained local artists. Gursharan Singh also published progressive literature and distributed Punjabi books all over Punjab.
Gursharan Singh stood up against the dictatorship of Indira Gandhi at the cost of losing his job and being imprisoned. He also courageously continued his performances through the 1980s, when Punjab was in the grip of religious-separatist violence, despite threats against his life. He took his bold championship of the oppressed beyond theatre to become a prominent defender of democratic rights and civil liberties in India. He supported all who struggled against oppression and fought for social justice while remaining above factions.
He received many awards. At the national level he got the Sangeet Natak Award in 1993, the Kalidas Award in 2003, and the Sangeet Natak Academy Ratna Award in 2006. In Punjab he received the State Language Department Award, Bhagat PuranAward for Service to Humanity (2004), and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Punjab Arts Council (2011). But perhaps the most fitting award for the work of his life was the Revolutionary Commitment Award that he received in Moga in 2006, when more than 10,000 peasants, workers, and students from across Punjab came to honour him.
Gursharan Singh came twice to North America at the invitation of Indian People’s Association in North America (IPANA) and left a profound impression on the South Asian Diaspora. He not only inspired a generation of writers and activists in Punjab, who mourn him today, but many writers and activists in the Diaspora also mourn him as a source of inspiration and a beloved guide.
A meeting to celebrate Gursharan Singh’s legacy was held in Surrey, BC, on Monday, October 10, 2011.