Remembering Ranbir Singh, who will keep reminding us that ideological struggle is imperative

Ranbir Singh was an eminent theatre personality and prolific writer. As president of IPTA, he was well regarded because of his unassuming conduct, and comradely relations with veterans and newcomers

Remembering Ranbir Singh, who will keep reminding us that ideological struggle is imperative

Jaya Mehta

It was around noon on August 23 when we heard that IPTA president Ranbir Singh had breathed his last at a Jaipur Hospital. The news came as a shock because just two days earlier, we had heard that he had underwent angioplasty successfully and would be discharged from the hospital shortly. The news was also a shock because just three months ago, we had met him in Indore.

His youthful demeanour and his bright smile had told us then that he would remain with us forever.

Ranbir Singh was 93. He lived his life as he wished. He explored new vistas in his work and always remained committed to his political ideology. He faced challenges in life with equanimity and never lost his zeal for life. By celebrating his life and work we can draw confidence and strength to pursue our own goals to the best of our abilities.

Born on July 7, 1929 in Dundlod town of Jhunjhunu district in Rajasthan, Ranbir Singh did his initial studies in Mayo College Ajmer and then went to Cambridge University for his graduation. On his return to India in 1949, he went to Mumbai to act in a couple of Bollywood films. In 1953, he came to Jaipur and formed a theatre group there. He directed several plays and also acted in a few of them.

In 1959, he went to Delhi to form ‘Bharatiya Natya Sangh’ with Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay as the chairperson. He also formed theatre group Yantrik in Delhi. In 1976, he went to Mauritius as drama advisor.

When in 1980s, IPTA was being rejuvenated and reorganised, Ranbir Singh joined the process with alacrity. He participated in the 1985 convention at Agra. In the 1986 conference at Hyderabad, he was elected as the vice president of the organisation. After the demise of AK Hangal in 2012, Ranbir Singh became the national president of IPTA and remained so till the end.

Remembering Ranbir Singh, who will keep reminding us that ideological struggle is imperative

Apart from acting and direction, Ranbir Sinh also wrote great many plays in Hindustani. His major plays are Sarai ki Malkin, Mukhauton ki Zindagi, Amrit Jal, Mirza Saheb, Tanhai ki Raat etc.

In addition, there are a few adaptations of foreign language plays into the Indian milieu.

His most important writings are, however, in the field of cultural history. He wrote extensively on the history of theatre in India. He did meticulous work on history of Sanskrit theatre and history and evolution of Parsi Theatre.

He was also interested in tracing the trajectory of theatre in India after the decline of Sanskrit theatre and before the rise of Parsi theatre. While tracing this trajectory, he came across interesting facts. His book Indra Sabha relates to his research in this field.

Amanat Lakhanavi was a contemporary of Wajid Ali Shah. His play Indra Sabha was staged again and again during the days of Parsi theatre. There was a popular story regarding the genesis of the play. The audience was told that the play was written by a courtier in Wajid Ali Shah’s court. The play was performed in Kesar Bagh and Wajid Ali shah himself played the role of Indra. Ranbir Singh’s research exploded this myth. He pointed out that the narrative was baseless. Amanat was not a poet in Wajid Ali Shah’s court. The play was never performed in Kesar Bagh. Nor did Wajid Ali Shah act in it.

In his book on Parsi theatre, Ranbir Singh has given examples from different plays to demonstrate the use of new techniques, new language and new subject matter in Parsi theatre. He has also demonstrated nuanced writing against the colonial rule and how censorship imposed by British rulers was evaded by the playwrights. Ranbir Singh has also written on how the theatre in India covered Indian freedom struggle.

Ranbir Singh was an eminent theatre personality and prolific writer. But as president of IPTA, he was loved by all of us because of his unassuming conduct and comradely relations with veterans as well as with newcomers.

His departure has been a great loss to the organisation but it has also been a personal loss to many people who came in contact with him.

IPTA artists spread the message of 'Dhai Akhar Prem Ka' among working people in urban areas and in rural areas. In Bihar, the cultural troupe visited as many as 100 villages. The artists paid their respect to local heroes of freedom struggle, sang songs, performed plays and spent time with people. The journey ended in Indore and we organised a two-day closing ceremony.

Ranbir Singh joined us in Indore. He sat in the front row, heard all the deliberations, and attended all the performances for two days.

A play was staged by the Indore IPTA unit. It was the story of a ninety-year-old women who participated in India’s freedom struggle as well as in the liberation war of Bangladesh. She lost all her nine children in these struggles but in the end, she arrived in India as a Bangladeshi refugee. She asks, ‘Is this the return that people should get for sacrificing their lives and their children?’

The play was quite intense and the audience was moved. I had directed this play. When I came down from the stage, Ranbir Singh called me and said he would like to spend one hour with me discussing the play. Unfortunately, I got involved in many other things and could not get that one hour with him. He was to leave next morning, so he called me and made me sit next to him. He said, "Let me tell you some main points. I liked the play very much but let me tell you that you are a bad director. I wanted to discuss at length scene by scene how you could have improved the play, but …." He was very affectionate. He held my hand and encouraged me to improve my directorial endeavour. I took his criticism as a compliment.

Ranbir Singh’s memories will remain with us always. He will keep reminding us that ideological struggle is imperative, if we want to live in a world which promises peace, justice, freedom and human dignity to every individual. And IPTA has a cardinal role to play in this ideological struggle. It is a ‘people’s theatre that stars the people’.

(Jaya Mehta is an Economist and theatre activist associated closely with IPTA)

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