Gurpreet Singh: Progressive playwright Gursharan Singh will always be missed

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This week's news of the death of prominent Punjabi playwright Gursharan Singh in India saddened many of his supporters in this part of the world, too.

Affectionately known as "Bhaaji" (elder brother) by his fans, Gursharan Singh had a big following in Vancouver, where he performed many of his plays during his visits.

In particular, progressive groups within the Indo Canadian community are in a state of shock. For them, his death is a huge loss in their struggle for a just society.

That's because most of the close to 200 plays he wrote and enacted in villages and cities in the Indian state of Punjab and in Canada promoted social equality through art. For him, art was for the people and not for the establishment.

Born in 1929, he passed away on September 27 after an illness. Incidentally, he died on the eve of the birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh, a towering leftist revolutionary who was hanged for the murder of a British police officer in 1931.

Bhaaji was an ardent admirer of Bhagat Singh and used to perform plays almost every year on the anniversary of his birth.

Despite his age and illness in recent years, he continued to organize plays in rural areas. Through his dramas, he challenged the tyranny of the Indian establishment and religious extremism.

His plays educated the masses about socialist aspects of Sikhism, and about the true interpretation of this religion. In addition, he questioned the age-old caste system in orthodox Hindu society, as well as the continued oppression of the so-called untouchables. Bhaaji's plays also exposed those indulging in superstition and witchcraft.

In the 1970s, he opposed a state of emergency imposed by then-Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, which cost him his job.

At the same time, he was critical of the Sikh fundamentalism and lived under constant threat when terrorism was at its peak in Punjab. Yet he never compromised on his position. He wrote plays critical of religious violence even when Sikh separatists were calling the shots and targeting leftist scholars and activists.

Once, a major Sikh leader in Punjab, the late Gurcharan Singh Tohra, ordered one of his popular plays stopped. He claimed that the script was "anti-Sikh" when it was, in fact, critical of religious fanaticism and and opportunistic politics.

I had a chance to attend a news conference held by Tohra following the incident. He branded the play's organizers (Gursharan Singh’s team) as Russian agents.

Though Bhaaji was known as a Communist thinker, nothing stopped him from criticizing Communists when he felt this was necessary. In one radio interview with me, he condemned the authoritarian approach of Communist regimes and pulled no punches against them for imposing censorship on the media.

During my last informal meeting with him in 2008, he said that Indian communists were foolish because they did not fully acknowledge the problem of casteism in Indian society. He wa particularly upset with leftists who were indifferent to the plight of untouchables.

He vowed at that time to produce more plays in villages rather than in cities because the "real India", according to him, lived there.

He also provided me with a very inspiring quote for youngsters: "You must be proud of your heritage but learn to march ahead with the time."

On other occasions, I had a chance to listen to his passionate speeches, which were largely pro-poor. With his oratory skills and dramatic voice, Bhaaji had an ability to draw listeners—and most of his plays remained crowd-pullers.

He was respected by leftists of all shades: Marxists, Leninists, and Maoists, as well as by centrists. As a result, condolences poured in after his death from various Indo Canadian leftist organizations in Vancouver, including the East Indian Defence Committee, the rationalist society Taraksheel Sabha, the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy (SANSAD), and the Indo Canadian Workers’ Association.

The SANSAD issued a condolence statement and organized a public event to celebrate his life from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. on October 10 at the Bombay Banquet Hall in Surrey.

Among those influenced by Gursharan Singh in Greater Vancouver were NDP MLA, Raj Chouhan (Burnaby-Edmonds), former B.C. Human Rights Commission commissioner Harinder Mahil, Progressive and Intercultural Community Services founder Charan Gill, and the late Hari Sharma, the founder of SANSAD and a former SFU sociology professor.

Chouhan recalled that Bhaaji visited Vancouver at least four times at the invitation of different groups.

Although Bhaaji will always be missed, the legacy of his pro-people theatre and critical-thinking skills will keep him alive among progressive forces around the world.

Gurpreet Singh is a Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.

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