Looking back now, growing up as a little boy in Jalandhar, India, I was to have no idea of the magnetic pull that theatre and drama would play in my life. But if I examine my early years more closely, then my theatrical ventures should not really have been a surprise to me or those who I have had the privilege to know.
At the tender age of five, I was put in the charge of Bhabi, my paternal grandmother. My grandfather had left for Kenya, my father was working away in West Punjab, thus it was decided that I would be good company for Bhabi. Although I missed my parents and my two younger brothers, the time I spent with Bhabi was nothing short of an adventure. My years with Bhabi were to leave a huge impression on my young mind and this in turn was to lay the foundation of my theatrical footprint. These early years were filled with storytelling based on scriptures and mythology, with Bhabi dramatizing each narrative session and creating magic with a variety of voices and sounds based on the characters that she would portray. The intonation in her voice, the high and low pitches, the smoothness of her voice contrasted with gruff interjections enriched the fabric of the mythological world that she would help my young five year old mind to weave. And when the theatre beckoned me with open arms, I just followed the call without looking back.
I was eighteen when I, with my mother and two young brothers made our way by sea to the port of Mombasa and from there to Nairobi to join my father, who had already made his way there a couple of year earlier. The era of the British colonial rule prevailed, and my father was enlisted by his twin uncles to help them run their growing electronics business.
As a matriculate and a college going student recently arrived in Nairobi, I was able to get a job in the Accounts Department of the EA Power and Lighting Company. Premnath, a colleague introduced me to Mohammed Bashir, and together, Bashir and I got involved in radio presentations at Cable and Wireless, Kenya , later known as Voice of Kenya. The such radio play of note was “Qaziji” scripted by Zafar Mirza which focussed on topical issues full of wit and humour; such was the popularity of Qaziji, that the then High Commissioner of Pakistan, Nawab Siddique Ali Khan hosted a reception for the entire team at his residence to show his appreciation, as did Nahar Singh Mangat, QC, the renowned local lawyer. Other radio presentations included “Dukhi Preet” (“Aggrieved Preet”) in Chaman Lal Chaman’s “Radio Theatre”, “Geeton Bhari Kahani” – a presentation of Hindi film stories interspersed with music and “Aap Poochchte Hain”. It was during this period that I met Ram Moorti Maini, a teacher by profession, who presented “Bhaiya Moorti”, a children’s radio programme. Ram Moorti persuaded me to train as a teacher and not needing much persuasion, I signed up for a two year teacher training programme at the Asian Male Teachers’ Training College, Nairobi.
Ram Moorti Maini
At a College end of term function, Joe Clement, a college lecturer, saw me presenting a short sketch in Urdu. Although Joe could not understand the language, he must have seen some potential in my acting ability. I guess there was something about me that led to Joe seeing the actor in me, and under his guidance and leadership the acting skills, which I did not even know I had seemed to just spill over like a torrent. Thus started my stage and drama relationship with Joe. My close friends Dilbagh Chana, Mohammed Bashir, Ram Swaroop Sharda and Hashim Ismail and I were selected to participate in three short Oriental plays in English that were to be produced and directed by Joe. I acted in two of these – “The Sealed Box” and “The Three Straws”. The productions were well received. This was all the encouragement that Joe needed to produce several full length plays at the prestigious Kenya National Theatre.
Mohammed Bashir AD
Chaman Lal Chaman
The first of these plays was “Lady Precious Stream”; this was followed by “Kismet”; and then in 1955, by “The Singing Maid” which was entered at the National Drama Festival. My portrayal of the “Story Teller” won me the Best Actor Award in that year. “Murder Will Speak” was followed by “Noah”, a play by Andre Obey, another National Drama Festival entry in 1957. I played the main lead of “Noah” and the play was adjudged the best play that year. I also competed in the Kenya Music Festival for a number of years and was adjudged winner in the verse/elocution category. One of the entries, a monologue by Dr. Faustus in Christopher Marlow’s Dr. Faustus was televised by Voice of Kenya under the direction of Musa Ayub.
Joe, my mentor; Joe my friend. Our relationship that started as a tutor and student; then mentor, then as friends was to last for many years. Interspersed with my collaborations with Joe, I also acted in Kenyan Eastern Arts Company’s Ram Vanvas as Rishi Vishwamitra and UmaDevi Chowdhury and S.L. Shetty’s Jhankar. Jhankar comprised three ballets in which I played a range of roles. This was followed by Minerva Liberal Arts “Asha”, a play written and directed by Mohinder Bhalla where I played the key role of Jigyasu, a man who struggles to regain his peace of mind, which he has lost in the pursuit of his dreams.
With Joe’s guidance and encouragement, I then travelled to the UK to study for a diploma in “The Teaching English as a Foreign Language” at London University. Upon my return, an opportunity arose for me to secure the position of a lecturer in Phonetics, Speech Training and Methodology (methods of teaching English) at the Coast Teachers Training College in Mombasa, where Joe had been promoted to as Principal. I was to replace two teachers who were returning to England. Here, Joe, in conjunction with Little Theatre Club, Mombasa, produced and directed “Hassan”, a play by James Elroy Flecker with me as Hassan. After production, Joe wrote to me, expressing his happiness in achieving his ambition to produce Hassan with me in the lead.
And then, when Joe returned to England, my journey into the theatrical world continued. Incidentally, excerpts of Hassan were also televised by Voice of Kenya. A string of plays was to follow. I produced Rabindranath Tagore’s “Sacrifice” and “The Post Office” as part of Tagore’s Centenary celebrations organised by the Trident Arts Society.
The Mombasa Shakespeare Group then approached me for the role of “Shylock” in “Merchant of Venice” and “Friar Francis” in “Much Ado About Nothing”. Both plays were enacted in the cool open air, in the grounds of the prestigious Mombasa Technical Institute, its ornate Moorish architectural hue casting a romantic spell on the shrewd drama of Shakespeare. I subsequently produced and directed “Price of Perfection” for a fund raiser by HH Agha Khan High School.
I was then cast as the journalist Mr. Evans in Frank Bentley’s production of Carrington VC at the Little Theatre Club. Many years later, I was to return to the Little Theatre Club with “The Sound of Indian Music, a Journey into Raga”, a classical Indian musical presentation by Khan Saheb Mohamed Suleiman Khan, a holder of “Sangeet Visharad” and a student of the noted Khan Saheb Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan.
My work with Voice of Kenya continued during my time in Mombasa where I started a magazine programme, “Sagar Kinare” in collaboration with S.A. Mehdi. We would record the programme at the Kenya Broadcasting Studio in Mombasa for onward transmission to Nairobi. I also recorded educative talks covering the history of the East Coast of Africa and on child psychology based on Gurbax Singh “Preet Lari’s” book “Saade Waris”.
Times changed, and I found myself appointed Principal of Wajir Secondary School, in the North Eastern Province of Kenya. Here, the hot desert air and the dry winds could not evaporate my love of the theatre. I wrote, produced and directed Mohammed Hassan of Griftu, a play in Somali, Swahili and English. I took my students to Nairobi where they competed in the National Schools Drama Festival and my school won 2nd place in the competition – this was a proud achievement not only for my students, but also their parents, whose hard earned money went to pay for the basic needs and education of their children. As one of the winning entries, the play was televised by Voice of Kenya. Then, I received a request from the Punjabi Kavi Sabha asking me to collaborate with them on their proposed tribute to Shiv Kumar Batalvi, a poetic genius who had passed away at a young age, and whose writings were the rage amongst students in India. Thus, back in Nairobi, I returned to my old stomping ground at the Kenya National Theatre, where working in collaboration with Harshad Joshi and Mukund Vyas (both courtesy Orient Art Circle), I produced and directed “Loona”, my “shradhanjali” to the poet. The spectacular sets designed by Harshad and the lighting by Mukund were only to enhance Loona which was later double billed with “Do Juttiyan”, a play based on G.S Khosla’s Juttiyan Da Jora and re-written by Chaman Lal Chaman. Punjabi Kavi Sabha then presented Pushpanjali, a tribute to one of Punjab’s leading poets, Professor Mohan Singh when I recited his much loved poem – “Basant”.
Ever a nomad, in Cardiff, Wales, I was on the Management Board of the Welsh Tagore Society, South Wales Ethnic Arts Team (SWEAT), South Wales Inter-Cultural Community Arts (SWICA) and Chairman of Theatr Taliesin, Wales, a professional Drama Group. I also acted in Trystan and Essyllt directed by Nigel Watson, and produced by Theatr Taliesin Wales and Cardiff’s Asian Community.
Noting a demand for instruction in Tabla, Roma Choudhary and I persuaded Steve Fletcher of SWICA to organise Tabla playing sessions in Cardiff with Harjinder Matharu as the tutor. As a founding member of “Natak”, a drama group, I produced, directed and acted in Ramesh Mehta’s “Dhong” (“Farce”) and “Uljhan” (“Confusion”) with the assistance of an enthusiastic local cast and the artistic designing talent of Ajit Gadhvi. I had already previously produced, directed and acted in these plays and in “Saraye ke Bahar” (“Outside the Inn”) in my earlier days in Nairobi and Mombasa. I took “Dhong” and my actors to London and then north to Liverpool where we performed to large audiences.
As a member of the Cardiff South Asian Arts Festival steering group, I co-ordinated a range of events under the umbrella of “Saatrang”; these included a Bhangra Project, screening of the film Pakeeza, Shakuntala, a classical dance presentation of Bharat Natyam, a Mushaira evening, Children’s Day, a Fashion Show and a Community Night showcasing folk dances, music, and poetry.
Soon afterward, an invitation by Chaman Lal Chaman led to my producing, directing and acting in “Pahlam to Heathrow”, a bi-lingual play in Punjabi and English written by him. The play was performed in Hounslow. Chaman also authored “Saare Jahan De Achha”, a play celebrating the 50th anniversary of the independence of India and Pakistan. The play was directed by Dilbagh Chana with me as his assistant.
Whilst in Cardiff, working in collaboration with Ahmed Farukhi and Ghulam Hussain, I presented “Saatrang”, a programme of news, views and music on Red Dragon Radio for many years. I also set up “Basm -e- Adab”, an Urdu Poetry Group with Salim Kidwai and Mian Majid, which continues to meet every month and established “Punjabi Mehfil”, a Punjabi Poetry Group with Gurcharan Singh “Channi” Kaler. Over the years, I have continued to write, in Urdu and Punjabi, but the call of the theatre continues to beckon me and Stage, Action, Drama are never far from my being.