Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Triumph and Tragedy of Being Balraj Sahni

This article was published in the monthly magazine Identity, May 2013.

Going by all the tons of authentic accounts available, Balraj Sahni was one of the most decent individuals, the noblest intentioned patriot and the most magnetically charming personality of the 'glitteringly glamorous' but also the 'big bad, mad and sad' world of India's 'dreams-selling' industry of Bollywood. The life story of Balraj (May 1, 1913-April 13, 1973) can certainly be interpreted in terms of the larger history of India. The period of his life indeed encompassed the complex struggle for Independence culminating into 'freedom at midnight' that was tainted by the most shameful killings of innocent people in the wake of the Partition of the country. The first quarter century of India's 'tryst with destiny' was dominated by the leadership and legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, Balraj's personal idol. Balraj's journey of being 'a card holder' to 'a committed cultural activist' of the Communist Party of India can be acclaimed or faulted in the light of one's personal ideological prism.

I had the first and the last glimpse of Balraj sometime in 1969 at an Indo-Soviet Cultural Society (ISCUS) Conference in Ludhiana. Shri VK Krishna Menon, Nehru's once trusted friend but later a disgraced Defense Minister during the India-China in 1962, had been, perhaps, touted as a star crowd puller but his speech in English proved listless and required to be redeemed in translation for the audience, mostly the Punjabi peasants. As a young college lecturer in English, I remember that some HD Malviya had done a reasonably good job in rendering Menon's speech into Hindi. I do recall that Menon had said that the USA would have used Atom Bomb in the Korean War if the Soviet Union had not developed its nuclear bomb by that time and that the strong Soviet Union was the guarantor of the world peace against the imperialists. It was, however, the speech by Balraj Sahni, in chaste Hindustani with sprinkling of pure - theth - Punjabi, which had the audience spell bound. Then onwards, I started taking the 'pro-poor' popular actor more seriously. I had, however, not been fond of watching films considering it a waste of time and money and I was too busy preparing for my IAS / IFS, etc. examination.

It was in November 1972; I had arrived in Delhi a year earlier after joining the Indian Foreign Service. The capital of India was agog over an unconventional convocation address delivered in the recently established prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University …by whom? It was by the actor-activist Balraj Sahni. Addressing in conversational Hindustani, Balraj had spoken from the heart and disarmed the determined protesters of the CPI(M)'s wing of students union. He said, "…l may just say that I could gather courage to speak to you because I deeply love the personality after whose name this University has been founded ... if I had been asked to clean up the floors and stairs of this august institution, I would have felt as fortunate as I feel now to stand up to address you ... when I was a student, our British professors made every effort to inculcate in us that making good films and producing quality plays and literature was the privilege of only persons with the white skin ... today we have film makers like Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy and our artists and technicians have earned international reputation ... but in spite of all this, what we lack is the fact we are still copy-cats. We still use foreign formulas to make our films ... Today we are again in need of a Mahatma Gandhi who could inspire us to give up the impulses and instincts of the slavish mentality and embrace the ideals and values rooted in the culture of freedom..." Balraj carried the day with his sincerity and his straightforwardness; he concluded quoting the lines of Guru Arjan Dev Ji, “Blessed are those who serve the masses; mingle and rejoice with them/ The dust of feet of toilers is sacred for face and forehead; All the waves of desires are calmed by serving humanity.”

Balraj Sahni and Damyanti, 1936
Balraj has written at length and with a lot of relish about his family and friends in Rawalpindi; his education in Lahore and travels in the pre-partition Punjab. Born after five sisters (only two had survived), Balraj's original name Yudhishthira had to be discarded, being difficult to pronounce, and the family was overprotecting towards him. He was admitted initially in the orthodox Gurukul Ashram School but he protested successfully in getting himself shifted after three years to the more modern DAV School. .He passed matriculation in 1928, standing second in the district and earning a scholarship. He was deeply impressed by Prof. Jaswant Rai, a liberal minded teacher in the local DAV Intermediate College, who was also a good friend of the family. He travelled to Lahore in Dec. 1929 to listen to Nehru who, as the youthful President of the Congress Session, had bravely announced the adoption of  'goal of Pooran Swaraj - Complete Independence' of India. Defying family pressure for joining a professional degree course, Balraj joined Govt. College, Lahore and completed BA (Honors) followed by MA in English in 1934. Having no other option in hand, he reluctantly joined, for some time, the reasonably flourishing family business of 'import and export'. Meanwhile in December 1936, Balraj's marriage was solemnized with Damyanti (Dammo), the youngest sister of Prof. Jaswant Rai. In spite of the severest opposition of his father, Balraj and Damyanti departed from home in September 1937 to 'try their luck' in the wide world in the field of their natural interests - literature and art of theatre.

After a short unsatisfactory spell of attempts in writing and theatre in Lahore, they moved to Calcutta. Balraj was helped to take up a teaching job in Tagore's Shanti Niketan at fifty rupees per month. They found the literary and artistic atmosphere of the place quite consoling and reassuring. Balraj has candidly written about Tagore's advice to him that he should adopt mother tongue, Punjabi, for his literary expression instead of hankering after English or Hindi. He could not fully appreciate Tagore's advice at that time. Balraj and Damyanti became parents to a son, Parikshit, in July 1939. They escaped to serve in Gandhi Ji's Sevagram for the 'Naee Taleem'. Lionel Fielding, Director General All India Radio, during his visit to Gandhi Ji, impressed upon the Mahatma that Balraj could better work for the new India section in the BBC to be established in the wake of the need for broadcasts to Indian Defense Forces serving in the far flung areas of the world. The Sahnis soon set sail for Britain and had a life transforming time there till 1944. Both become dedicated followers of Marxist philosophy, thanks to their closer friendship with the British communists, progressive thinkers and writers like Harold Laski, TS Elliot, George Orwell, etc.

The chance meeting in Srinagar with Chetan Anand, an old friend since college days in Lahore, resulted in an offer of acting in his film, Neecha Nagar. They soon became part of the Indian Peoples Theatre (IPTA) and inducted for roles in several plays and the film Dharti Ke Laal. The role for Dammo in Prithvi Theatre production Deewar made her a star. When things had just started looking up for them, the sudden death of Dammo in April 1947 devastated Balraj's life. He even blamed himself for being neglectful and insensitive towards his young and most talented life partner. The catastrophe of Partition deprived the Sahni family of their home and hearth. Back in Bombay, Balraj struggled for work; he scripted and acted in a highly 'popular' play, Jadoo Kursi Ka - the Magic of Chair, reflecting the line of the Communist Party - making fun of policies of the Nehru Government. Balraj was later full of remorse about this play and made sure that all its copies are destroyed!

Do Bigha Zamin, 1953
After resisting pressure of relatives, he got married in March 1949 to Santosh (then divorced), his first cousin, who was his love of early youth. He had to undergo imprisonment for several months for his activities as a communist. He was completely broke: some relief came when he wrote the screen script of Chetan's Baazi, 1951 and dubbed a Russian film with Santosh (Toshi). The making of Do Bigha Zamin - Two Acres of Land - in 1953 by Bimal Roy changed it all for Balraj. He, at long last, arrived as the screen super star of a different kind of dazzling brilliance: by his sincerest portrayal of a rickshaw puller. He had worked in 10 films between 1944 and 1954. The number was impressive 125 for the next two decades of his life, including many commercial hits. He had flowered as the finest character actor - Kabuliwallah, '61; Haqeeqat, '64; Waqt, '65 and his swan song classic on the theme of Partition, Garam Hawa - the Hot Breeze - '73 are among his many ever green great films.

Kabuliwala, 1961

Garam Hawa, 1973

Once when asked about his greatest ambition in life, Balraj had replied, "Oh, I wish I had been a beloved poet of people...” He was quintessentially an artist yearning to express his abundant love of humanity and unfathomable beauty of nature in its myriad manifestations. He was a dream merchant who was ever eager to share his passion for life with the lowliest in life: his heart was always beating for the most deprived and mind ever trying to understand root causes of injustice in society. He had turned to scientific socialism via the routes of Tagore's universal humanism and Gandhi's path of the basic commonality of the morality of all religions and an impeccable faith in nonviolence.

With brother Bhisham Sahni, 1940s

With son Parikshit Sahni

Finally, fully convinced of Tagore's advice, he had determined to make a mark by writing in mother tongue, Punjabi. There are 13 books by Balraj published in Punjabi; four in Hindi and occasional essays, belle letters and columns for daily news papers of different languages. Balraj's Meri Filmi Atamkatha was first serialized in popular Punjabi monthly, Preet Larhi. His ambitious novel, A journey, a Story remained unfinished due to his sudden death by heart stroke. The autobiographical overtones in all his writings make them authentic, colorful and extremely readable. He had become a regular traveler to Punjab in the last decade of his life and dreamt of living in Punjab as a full time author of Punjabi. He enjoyed close personal friendship with all the prominent writers of Punjabi and was a steadfast crusader for the cause of Punjabi language. His book Samen di Pairh - Footprint of Time - has a deeply touching and prophetic interview, circa 1969, with novelist Nanak Singh on the communal-linguistic conundrum of Punjab. The two giant and full blooded Punjabis were dismissive of creation of a shrunken state on the false premises of language and culture.

It was again on the 1st of January this year, as since my many years in retirement in Delhi, that I attended the day long annual Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) function. The theme for the year long celebration of the birth centenary of Balraj was unveiled with the release of SAHMAT publication Balraj & Bhisham Sahni - Brothers in Political Theatre. I realized how the name Balraj forgetting his original name, Yudhishthira, had become a metaphor for the most decent values in life in a nation which has witnessed a steep and sharp decline in public morality and integrity at the altar of pursuit of political power. Tears trickled in my eyes remembering another Balraj, a Thanedar - Police Inspector- of my home town of Ahmedgarh. As a lecturer in college in Bathinda, I spent a month with him in his dormitory in the Police Lines. I noted that all his colleagues called him Sahni Sahib for his high qualities of character and excellence in the tough profession. Interestingly, Balraj was the personal hero of my mentor - my school teacher, Ashni Kumar (1916-99, born in Gujrat of legendary Sohni), a skeletal giant of knowledge, a Nehruvian like Balraj who taught me that Karl Marx could have been a reincarnation of Gautama Buddha for the modern epoch! And, I had been lucky to roam about in the streets of Balraj's 'Pindi as a representative of India!!

It is well known that Balraj loved the 'city beautiful'; many senior Chandigarhians would tell tons of charming tales of his visits here. Master Sohan Lal Bansal, the legendary teacher of Mathematics and a dedicated Comrade, shared with me how Balraj had walked into his house in February 1971 while on a campaign for Amarnath Vidyalankar for the Parliamentary elections. He was indeed overwhelmingly polite, without the slightest sign of any fuss or airs. Looking from the windows, he complimented Master Ji for the blessings of sun light and green trees and quiet atmosphere around his home, the real luxuries mostly denied to him in big city. It was an uphill task how to escort Balraj to the venue of public meeting, without the crowds taking him a hostage on the roads. Instead of Master Ji, as asked for by Balraj, guarding him against milling crowds, it was Balraj who had to help in tracing Master Ji on the way to the venue of his speech! My Guru in Foreign Service, another 'Pindian Sahni' who has been living for decades in the city would certainly have many more authentic anecdotes of the darling magician of the masses, Balraj. The centuries have to await when the angelic human beings, like Balraj, visit the planet earth ... the world indeed remembers you most sincerely, Balraj, on your 100th birthday!!


Further links:



1 comment:

Aditya Prateek Anand said...

The history and the times, passing us by, are best understood by the narrative of lives of the people who have lived them. This is a wonderful article on a genuine and 'original' icon, whose life seems immersed in all experiences of his age. From Tagore, to Gandhi to Nehru, and others and himself becoming a personification of the best that people see in themselves.