• Ajmer Singh Aulakh : Demise of Another People’s Playwright

    Chaman Lal

    November 24, 2017


    Ajmer Singh Aulakh, the notable Punjabi playwright, passed away on 15 June. He left behind a legacy of revolutionary plays that stand testament to his progressive ideals. His funeral, much like his life, was a celebration of literature, music, and progressive values. He is survived by his wife and three daughters who continue the work he had begun.

    He was two months short of completing 75 years of life, when early in the morning on 15 June, without the knowledge of anyone, he breathed his last. Around 2.30 am, his wife and a caretaker had attended to him and helped him rest because he was in discomfort, but when they touched him around 5 am, he was no more. He had been brought back to his home just five days previously from Fortis Hospital Mohali, where he was being treated palliatively for a few weeks due to the unbearable pain brought on by his cancer. While discharging him from hospital, the doctors had cautioned the family—his wife Manjit Aulakh and their three daughters, Supandeep, Sohajdeep and Ajdeep—that his cancer had spread through his body, though, surprisingly, it did not affect his brain, and he had been alert until a few hours before he passed away. On the night of 14 June, he chatted with the family, enquired about news, and listened to some text until 10 pm. He was in a cheerful mood, as was always the case, even during terrible bouts of pain.

    Born on 19 August 1942, in the village of Kishangarh Farwahi, close to Mansa in Punjab, Aulakh had suffered from incurable cancer since 2008. Doctors were not hopeful that he would survive beyond two or three years, but Aulakh fought cancer with the indomitable spirit with which the characters in his plays fight against their oppression. His family, friends, the several organisations he was part of, and even the Punjab government, under both the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Congress, extended financial support during his medical crisis. Even the Punjab assembly paid tributes to him after his death.

    On 29 November 2013, he wrote a brief will in Punjabi and signed it. A translation of it is provided below.

    My last wish is that after my death –

    (1) My daughters, whosoever is present at that time, should light the pyre.

    (2) No religious rite like bhog, etc may be held, only [a] memorial meeting may be held. In this meeting, no political speaker [should] be allowed. The number of speakers should be limited, and socially they should include my friends, writers, cultural activists, and representatives of workers-peasants, [and] organisations.

    (3) [The] memorial meeting should not be unnecessarily long.

    Aulakh’s daughters lit his pyre as per his wishes, and his remains were put into a canal flowing through the village of Farwahi. On 25 June, a large memorial meeting was held at Mansa. The meeting was conducted according to Aulakh’s directions. A few thousand people attended, mainly farmers and farm labourers from the state. The meeting was addressed by his friends, the eminent writers Gurbachan Singh Bhullar (fiction writer), Surjit Patar (poet), Atamjit (a playwright like Aulakh) —all three of whom had returned their Sahitya Akademi awards along with Aulakh in 2015. Plays and songs were performed, and Aulakh’s three daughters presented a choreographed rendition of his life and his resolve to continue with the revolutionary tradition of cultural transformation through plays and literature. Even at his cremation on 16 June, a large number of farmers, farm labourers, and intelligentsia participated with flags in their hands, raising slogans like “inquilab zindabad!” and “people’s writer Ajmer Aulakh amar rahe!” An MP and MLA from the Aam Aadmi Party and government officials were also present and laid wreaths.

    Ajmer Aulakh was born in a poor farmer family and became friends with Hakam Singh Samaon, the legendary Naxalite hero of Punjab, during his student years. (Hakam Singh passed away several years ago.) Aulakh did not have to struggle much to find a job. The Nehru Memorial College in Mansa was set up in 1965, the very year that he completed his master’s degree in Punjabi, and he joined the college as a lecturer in the same subject. He retired in 2000 after 35 years of teaching at the institution. Once a private college, Nehru Memorial College was taken over by the Punjab government in 1994. Aulakh’s eldest daughter, Supandeep Kaur, is its present dean of cultural affairs.

    The year 1967 witnessed the “spring thunder of Naxalism” in the country, and Aulakh’s friend, Samaon, was one of its forerunners in Punjab. Aulakh was also influenced by the movement, but his area of interest was literature. He wrote plays, some of which were staged by different theatre groups in rural areas across Punjab, and he formed his own drama group, which his wife Manjit and his daughters also joined. He directed many of his plays himself, but he also worked alongside other directors.

    The Naxalite movement had a great impact on the literary sphere during the 1970s, and the biggest names in contemporary Punjabi literature matured and developed as writers during the early phase of the movement (1967–80). Many new literary journals emerged during the movement and Hem Jyoti, an already renowned literary journal, became the mouthpiece of the radical Punjabi literary–cultural movement in the 1970s. Many Punjabi writers were arrested and tortured at the time, including Pash, Amarjit Chandan and Sant Ram Udasi, all of whom eventually became acclaimed literary figures. A few underground poets like the late Harbhajan Halwarvi, who later edited the daily Punjabi Tribune, returned and joined the literary movement. Gursharn Singh, Waryam Sandhu, Attarjit, Surender (the editor of Hem Jyoti), Kewal Kaur (the editor of Rohle Ban), and several others were arrested and jailed for different periods of time, but they escaped torture.

    Emergency and After

    Aulakh was also arrested during the Emergency, and we both remained in Bathinda Jail for many months. There were serious debates on the role of literature in revolutionary movements and a group was formed in October 1973 under the title “Panjabi Sahit–Sabhiachar Manch” (Punjabi Literary–Cultural Forum) with the intention of crafting literature from a Marxist perspective. The T Nagi Reddy group from the Marxist–Leninist (ML) stream was the organising spirit behind this forum. The group functioned for a few years, during which time its 15 members were Pash (deceased), Gursharn Singh (deceased), Amarjit Chandan (now based in London)Waryam Sandhu, Ajmer Aulakh (deceased), Sant Ram Udasi (deceased), Attarjit, Chaman Lal Prabhakar (this writer), Sabinderjit Sagar, Buta Ram, Niranjan Singh Dhesi, Surinder Singh Dosanjh, Surender Hemjyoti (deceased), Kewal Singh (no information about his whereabouts), and Megh Raj (deceased). Buta Ram was elected as the group’s convenor, and the meetings, which sometimes ran for days at a time, were held in the members’ homes. Staples of Marxist literature like Marx, Engels, and Lenin on Literature and Art were discussed at length during these meetings. Megh Raj was the political personality selected to oversee and guide the group. One of the meetings was held at Aulakh’s house in Mansa as well. However, the group lost its stream during the Emergency as many of its members were trapped in jail. Surender’s journal, Hem Jyoti, was then made into the forum’s mouthpiece. Amarjit Chandan and Pash were made editors alongside Surender, and later Pash was replaced with Harbhajan Halwarvi, after the latter came over-ground and became part of the forum. One of Aulakh’s short stories, “Behkada Roh” was published in the March 1975 issue of Hem Jyoti.

    Besides the literary–cultural movement, a radical student movement organised under the leadership of Pirthipal Singh Randhawa of the Punjab Students’ Union (PSU), who was assassinated in 1979, gathered strength. PSU was a mass organisation active in colleges and universities, and it held many cultural events, including poetry recitations and theatrical performances. Aulakh and Gursharn Singh’s plays, and the poetry written by Pash, Sant Ram Udasi, Lal Singh Dil, and a few others, were popular among students. Gursharn Singh’s plays became extremely popular in rural areas, where hundreds of presentations were organised all over rural Punjab during the fifth centenary celebrations of Guru Nanak in 1969. Since Ajmer Aulakh was teaching in a college, and its affiliated university, Punjabi University, Patiala, was holding annual drama festivals and competitions, Aulakh’s plays became major hits in these annual competitions. Every year some team or the other would win a prize for a rendition of one of Aulakh’s plays.

    Aulakh wrote nearly 13 one-act plays and about 20 short plays, apart from dramatising stories by other writers. In the early period, Aulakh’s one-act plays, Aabra Cadabra and Arbad Narbad Dhundukara (Eons and Nebulae), were a big hit at festivals. His other one-act plays to become immensely popular were Bigane Bohad di Chhan (The Shadow of the Alien Banyan Tree) and Annen Nishanchi (Blind Sharpshooters). He wrote eight full-length plays, which include Satt Bigane (Seven Aliens), Kehar Singh di Maut (Death of Kehar Singh), Salwan, and Bhajjian Bahin (Broken Arms), which was based on a story with the same name penned by Waryam Sandhu. One of Aulakh’s plays, Jhana de Paani, is available in a English translation—Waters of Chenab.

    The Artist as Protester

    Aulakh received the Sahitya Akademi award in 2006. His other awards included the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, the Shiromani Natakakar award bestowed by the Punjab government, the Punjabi Sahit Akademi award, and the Pash memorial award. Guru Nanakdev University, Amritsar, also honoured him with an honorary Doctor of Letters degree. Despite this widespread recognition, however, Aulakh remained committed to his pro-people concerns. Most of his plays are based on poor farmers, the women’s struggle against landlords, government-instituted anti-farmer policies, and attempt to expose the state’s oppression of struggling people.

    Amidst the outbreak of the Khalistani terrorist movement, Aulakh continued to stand for progressive values, and he wrote plays against both the state and Khalistani terror. After Pash’s assassination at the hands of Khalistani terrorists on 23 March 1988, Aulakh was somewhat unnerved. A few months after the assassination, Aulakh commented on it in his report on the 50th anniversary of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) held in Barnala, Punjab. “The artist should not say things directly. In his view Pash would not have been killed, had he confined himself to writing poetry and not condemned the terrorists openly” (Kumar 1988). All the same, Aulakh was vocal in attacking oppressors, including terrorists, in several of his plays. Gursharn Singh did so as well and perhaps was even bolder! Aulakh also joined many of us authors who protested by returning awards in October 2015, after Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and finally M M Kalburgi were assassinated by Hindutva terrorists.

    Apart from executing his role as a playwright and director, Aulakh contri­buted to the larger democratic movement of Punjab as well. He remained a patron of the Kendri Punjabi Lekhak Sabha (Progressive Punjabi Writers Organisation) and was also president of the Association for Democratic Rights, Punjab. Earlier this year, after the eminent Punjabi novelist Gurdial Singh’s death, hundreds of working class people paid him homage by organising a memorial meeting at his home town, Jaitu. In 2011 too, when the author Gursharn Singh passed away, hundreds of farmers and labourers and middle-class intelligentsia held mass memorial meetings, during which they emphasised the idea of accompanying revolution with revolutionary songs, slogans, and printed pamphlets. The same new radical cultural tradition was followed during Aulakh’s commemoration on 25 June. During these times, when religious fundamentalism has state-backed power and ransacks society at large with its fascist methods of killing and maiming people, asserting Bhagat Singh’s atheist and revolutionary spirit (even during the public mourning of our writers’ deaths) is certainly an act of resistance, and a welcome one at that! By honouring Ajmer Aulakh’s last wish, his family, friends, and comrades have paid him a real and well-deserved tribute!


    Chaman Lal ([email protected]) retired from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, as professor, and was part of the radical literary movement of the 1970s in Punjab.

    First published in EPW.

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