The legendary theatre artist, playwright and director, Gursharan Singh, affectionately called Bhai Manna Singh (after the character he created through his plays), was 82 and was struggling from illness for quite a long time.
He had created the rural theatre in Punjab with modern sensibilities, written and performed widely, and was instrumental in creating a socially meaningful theatre in Punjab, after the IPTA era. . Gursharan Singh was a "revolutionary, missionary and a socialist", who brought Punjabi folk and rural theatre to the forefront. The history of post independent Punjabi theatre is created by him, and has nurtured and groomed younger directors like Kewal Dhaliwal.
“It is a long battle, the battle of changing mindsets,” Gursharan Singh, once said of his theatre movement.
Gursharan Singh, an engineer created a cultural revolution in Punjab through his new genre of theatre called Tharra theatre (‘platform’ theatre, a kind of street theatre) He performed widely from interior villages in rural Punjab to the corridors of power in Delhi.
Theatre for him was more a social activity, to convey a message, and to change the course of the society than an activity of ‘art or aesthetics’. His theatre talked about his society, its injustices, and was not concentrating on the ‘finer aspects of aesthetics, that may cater to the elite. He had a definite purpose for is theatre - the betterment of society and voicing the bitter reality that is seldom expressed.
Whenever he found that social injustice is prevailing and forces of oppression that suppresses the masses, he stood up with his theatre. He sensitized the people at the grass roots level against the social evil and unethical values prevalent in the system through the medium of theatre’. As actor, author or director, Singh aimed at a theatre for social change and for civil rights
He was a leftist to the core, a sympathiser of the Naxal movement; when youngsters were being killed by the police in fake encounters during the Naxalite movement in the 1970s, he questioned the state’s acts through Kiv Koorrey Tuttey Paal
During the dark days of Emergency, when freedom of expression was numbed by silencing he came up with the play Bund Kumre and was eventually put in jail in September 1976 . He was arrested under a trumped-up charge of “training the youth to blow up a bridge.” After going through the charge sheet the magistrate laughed and said, “it would have been better to implicate him in some theatre activity case.”
When the militancy and separatist movement nabbed Punjab in the 80’s Gursharan Singh dared to voice against the militancy movement as well as the blind military actions of the state. He and his team toured the nook and corners of Punjab staging plays like hamak Nagare dee, Bhai Mana Singh, and Miti da Mul which attacked the militant separatist movement directly. At the height of Sikh terrorism he continued to perform, regardless of the threat to his life. It was natural that he has to fight against the militants as well as the state power, but his plays and life was protected by the farmers and the village folk. Their anguish was reflected in the works of Gursharan Bhai, and it is those words which they wanted to speak aloud was echoed through his characters. The silent cries of the millions of poor, the marginalized of society, the people who for centuries have not been allowed to speak
When state terrorism was silencing every voice of dissent, he challenged them by staging Hit List in Amritsar
He worked relentlessly for an egalitarian society, gender equality and workers’ rights. He was the one who forced the state to make mention of the mother’s name in school certificates necessary.
“Dhamak Nagare Di” , “Chandni Chownk tu Sirhind Tak”, “Baba Bolda Hai”, “Kammiyan da Wehda” are a few of his very important and famous plays.
His theatre group also produced some world classics by Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett in Punjabi, and he himself penned some of the most memorable dramas written in Punjabi language.
Gursharan Singh won several awards from Kalidas Samman and a fellow of the National Sangeet Natak Akademy.