A life of creativity and humanity

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of attending one of the gems in the exquisitely simple and beautiful garland that was placed around Bhisham Sahni, writer, playwright and actor, on his birth anniversary at Delhi's IHC.

One of the most gifted writers of his time, a man whose humanity ran like a deep river through his life and work, a man who lived with quiet dignity and gentle kindness, Bhisham Sahni wrote some of the finest books of his time, books imbued with humanity, compassion, gentle humour and delicate nuances.

Bhisham Sahni
Bhisham Sahni

But more than all of it, he lived a life of such rich creativity and wisdom, working quietly, with such humility and grace, that those around him never felt awed or humbled, or were even conscious that they were in the presence of a writer – leave alone such a great one.

I say this because I had the privilege of being part of his extended family. My mother Usha, had been his niece, his sister's daughter - the sister who having been the only daughter of the family to survive in to adulthood, had tragically also died, leaving behind four children and a widowed husband.

For my mother, Bhisham Mamaji was her adored uncle, as was his elder brother Balraj Sahni, the great actor writer and activist; both uncles who had such an enriching influence on their era through their striking creativity and humanity.

His life and times
Born in 1915 in Rawalpindi, with a master's degree in English Literature from Government College, Lahore, and a PhD from Punjab University, Chandigarh, Bhisham Sahni was witness to India's struggle for Independence followed by the horrors of Partition.

Sahni with wife SheilaSahni with wife Sheila

He participated in the freedom movement and was in the INC during Partition, working tirelessly to organize relief work for the victims of communal violence. Soon he was to start working with IPTA, the Indian People's Theatre Association and this in turn led him to leaving the INC to join the Communist Party. All along, he supported himself and his family, by working as a lecturer in various colleges in Punjab.

With brother Balraj in Moscow
With brother Balraj in Moscow

It was as a translator at the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Moscow, that he worked next from 1956 to 1963, returning to India to take up teaching at the University again. And while doing all this, he was a loving husband to his wife Sheila, and father to his children Kalpana and Varun, his gentle ways and deep compassion imbuing every thing he did.

Serene, pure and resonant with humane reassurances
"His voice, both as a writer and a man, was serene, and pure, and resonant with humane reassurances. His immense popularity was not a result of any pandering to vulgar tastes but a reward for his literary merits—his sharp wit, his gentle irony, his all-pervasive humour, his penetrating insight into character, his mastery as raconteur, and his profound grasp of the yearnings of the human heart," said Krishan Baldev Vaid, the noted writer and playwright in a tribute.

"That Bhisham never paused, never halted in such a long creative journey is a big achievement; but what is bigger perhaps is that his life nurtured his work and his work nurtured his life, both nurtured each other continuously," said writer Nirmal Verma.

"Bhisham Sahni's name is etched so deeply into the twentieth century of Hindi literature, that it cannot be erased. There was no need to ask a general reader if he had read this or that writing by Bhisham. This too is rare that the fame he received from Hindi should, during his lifetime, become the fame for Hindi itself," wrote Kamleshwar.

From acting to activism
Throughout his life even while he worked prolifically turning out masterpieces like Tamas in 1974, his book based on the riots of 1947, which won the 1975 Sahitya Akademi Award for literature, Bhisham Sahni also engaged in several literary and human rights organizations.

Acting as a villager in an IPTA play
Acting as a villager in an IPTA play

He was General Secretary of the All India Progressive Writers' Association (1975–85) and Acting General Secretary of the Afro-Asian Writers' Association, and was the founder and chairman of 'SAHMAT', the organization to nurture secularism.

Somehow, he also found the time in the autumn of his life to turn out memorable performances in Saeed Mirza's Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha, and Aparna Sen's Mr and Mrs Iyer, his humane and kind face etched forever in their viewers' hearts.

Celebrating and remembering
The moderator for Saturday's program was well known theatre director and actor M K Raina, who had staged four of the six plays written by Bhisham Sahni, including Hanush, Kabira Khada Bazaar mein, Madhavi and Muavze. "It was important for us to have people on stage who were closely associated with Bhisham ji rather than random characters," said Dr Kalpana Sahni, Bhisham Sahni's daughter, former professor at JNU, and herself a gifted writer.

Actor Anis Azmi, who had acted in Raina's Kabira Khada bazaar mein, had read excerpts from Sahni's autobiography, Aaj ke Ateet, followed by a beautiful speech and song by my mother's younger sister, Harshi Anand, who'd been an active IPTA member; a moving eulogy by actor Parikshit Sahni who'd flown down for the centenary; a riveting performance by Bhisham Sahni's son, the astrophysicist and classical guitarist Varun Sahni and his wife Rohini, a noted academic amongst others.

"Till a few months ago, Penguin was to have sponsored the Saturday event, whereas Rajkamal, the Hindi publishers, were doing the Sunday one," said Kalpana Sahni. "Both were going to release some new translations and books. (But) Penguin's top team resigned a few months ago and their plans got postponed, whereas Rajkamal went into a silent mode," she said.

"And so we decided, after the initial panic, that, rather than cancel the program, we would go ahead and make it into a non-commercial event, one where family and friends could participate and share Bhisham ji and rejoice and celebrate his centenary together."

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