People’s theatre rises from the ashes again

- November 27, 2023
| By : Mohd Shehwaaz Khan |

While the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) has almost fizzled out in Delhi, it is reviving with a slightly different approach in other parts of the country

Some organisations live because their legacy was created by a number of passionate minds. Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA) is one of them. 

IPTA is celebrating its 81st birthday this year. Several programmes are being held across India, however, with less sheen or publicity than it used to be in its heydays during the freedom movement.

Such is the stature of IPTA that according to Readers’ Digest, IPTA Movement was one of the 15 most important things that led to Indian freedom movement. When IPTA had turned 50, Government of India had released a stamp on it. 

Stalwarts among litterateurs, poets, eminent dramatists, writers and actors such as AK Hangal, MS Sathyu, Sardar Jafri, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Kaifi Azmi, Dina Pathak, Chetan Anand, Habib Tanvir, Bhishm Sahni, Balraj Sahni and many more made sure they never let its stature down by doing insignificant plays. 

The reason was obvious. IPTA Movement began to help construct a good, civil society for brotherhood among all communities who would stand up for each other in case of eventualities and speak up for the oppressed. 

Aziz Quraishi – it’s about expiry date

Aziz Quraishi headed the Delhi chapter of IPTA

The 80-year-old Aziz Quraishi, a well-known television, theatre and film actor and sportsperson had taken up the responsibility of staging plays at Delhi’s IPTA chapter in late 1960s. The story of Delhi’s IPTA chapter, however, faded long back.   

“Like a policy, Delhi IPTA never did any ticketed shows, nor asked for funds from any private organisations or government. We requested our moneyed friends and well-wishers. Some of them were kind enough to shell out funds. Actors also didn’t ask for money from us. Thus, doing plays like this became a trend in Delhi too,” says the veteran.

How Quraishi became a part of Delhi IPTA is a tale of luck shining on him in late 60s. On Ghalib Centenary Year in 1967, the Government of India decided to do some plays on Ghalib in Urdu. For that they searched for some Urdu speaking actors. 

“I was into sports but a friend told me that my fondness for theatre could be answered here. I reached (the veteran playwright/director) Sheila Bhatia from IPTA who made me read some Urdu script. I got selected. We did tremendous plays on the poet at Ghalib Academy in Delhi. This marked my official entry at IPTA,” he recalls. 

“India’s first President Late Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad’s wife Begum Abidaji saw my plays. She called me and created a theatre group called Hum Sab. We started doing plays for IPTA’s Delhi chapter and all of us knew Urdu well.” 

He is largely accused for not taking Delhi’s IPTA chapter seriously. On IPTA’s inactivity in Delhi, Quraishi says as a matter of fact, “We did over 100 full-fledged plays in Delhi IPTA with 3,000 shows across India. But everything has an expiry date, so has IPTA and people like us. Veterans like Rajendra Nath and Alkazi retired, so did their theatre groups. Moreover, people have less interest in Urdu theatre nowadays. Those who were in IPTA Delhi chapter are now doing their own shows under another name. They fell out with IPTA due to financial crises. We have fizzled out with time. It is a natural process. Even my passion for theatre has died.”

Shama Zaidi – the angry writer

Shama Zaidi says IPTA makes plays for Ambanis and Adanis instead of workers

Initially “not interested” in talking about IPTA, the veteran screenwriter sounds almost sad and angry about how IPTA isn’t what it used to be, yet rationalises it.

“IPTA used to work for workers, now they make plays for Adanis and Ambanis. What are you talking? The eminent writers like Sagar Sarhadi and K Javed Siddiqui, my daughter Shelly who was working for IPTA have left because IPTA is not ideologically doing what it used to. Shelly goes to small villages and does plays on her own. Does IPTA do it? When the likes of Balraj Sahni was part of it, they used to do meaningful theatre in small towns and villages. Balraj himself would travel in passenger trains as an ordinary man. Vo trainon mein latak kar jaya karte they; vo aik jazba thaa, ab khatam ho gaya (he would travel in passenger trains; there was this passion which has finished now),” the eminent actor-director almost fumes in anguish. 

“IPTA’s mentality is still stuck at Stalin’s time. It is a dying institution. Right wing has arrived which has no interest in plays and theatre,” she asserts as a matter of fact.  

Zaidi opines that In India, the Left isn’t active anymore, the CPI has died and [since] “IPTA followed its socialist ideology, so now IPTA should close down too”.  

Simmering a bit, the eminent writer continues, “IPTA is still active in small towns and cities and doing plays infrequently. They are dedicated and hard working. But what is the result, you tell me?” 

The poetess rues that any theatre develops only if states are interested in funding it large-heartedly like Karnataka does. 

“It is not IPTA’s fault. It is the state’s,” the better-half of MS Sathyu comes around.

Masood Akhtar – we are at it, still

Masood Akhtar played the role of Tyrewala in Nukkad

The 70-year-old Masood Akhtar is an actor especially known for his role of a tyrewala in Saeed Mirza’s immensely popular serial of the 1980s, Nukkad, apart from countless second fiddle roles in Hindi films and television. He is attached with IPTA for 40 years. 

The writer-director-dramatist Akhtar asserts, “We never got a single penny from any state or central government. We have done only meaningful shows till date. Living on the legacy of the play histories by (writer/filmmaker/chief patron of IPTA) MS Sathyu, we still do issue-based, sensible plays that raise voice against bureaucracy and establishment if that is an oppressor. 

“Our pro-people plays try to reach out to those few hundreds who come as our audiences if we cannot reach en masse as the voice of the voiceless. We believe if we actors and writers do not take the responsibility to speak for the oppressed, who will?” 

IPTA-Mumbai, he adds, has continued doing meaningful plays on its own and without state or central government’s help. 

“We talk about aam aadmi (common man) such as farmers’ suicide. We try to delve deep into why they commit suicide unlike other deprived people such as rickshaw-pullers or autowalas who are often under similar financial stress.”   

IPTA’s new look

IPTA was always functional but its all-India structure broke with time and changing ideologies between 1960 and 1984.

It looks like IPTA is less active now, considering its socialism is no longer the agenda of any state or Central government as well as the stalwarts who are either no more or are too old and ailing to participate actively as they did in their prime. 

However, the good news is IPTA is still alive, albeit in new appearance and activities, not far from its core value – strengthening brotherhood and composite culture in India.

It is active not only at indistinct villages and towns but also at the national level, without much noise through paid publicity, though.  

For instance, last year on April 9, 2022, IPTA initiated a yatra (journey) namely, Dhai Aakhar Prem (two-and-a-half word called love) to forward the legacy of composite culture of India. 

However, it now emphasises that much before IPTA took upon itself the job of spreading harmony and brotherhood, the likes of Buddha and Sufi saints like Kabir and Rahim had been reaching out to people by advocating the cause of universal brotherhood through their teachings.

This yatra that derives its name from Kabir’s poem, “…Dhhai aakhar prem ka, padhey so Pandit hoye,” began its second journey in 1989 from Lucknow to Ayodhya, to spread love and brotherhood in the run-up to Babri Masjid demolition. 

Poet-lyricist Kaifi Azmi was a part of this yatra. So many such journeys have taken place in India after the demolition, from Varanasi to Maghar (where Kabir died). 

Rakesh Veda, the Working President of IPTA, recalls immensely interesting journeys that were undertaken under IPTA and are still continuing.  

Rakesh Veda is the working president of IPTA

“We traced the footprints of Kabir on his journey which he undertook 600 years ago. We followed the same routes, stopped at every small village, as he travelled from Varanasi to Maghar. We still find the remnants of Kabir in these local places as people still sing Kabir.” 

In 1995, the IPTA undertook Pehchaan Nazeer Yatra to explore and spread the legacy of Nazeer Akbarabaadi who has been one of the greatest poetic luminaries advocating syncretic culture. This yatra was held from Agra to Delhi. 

This followed a series of small yatras in almost every small town and city of Uttar Pradesh, at times remembering Mahashweta Devi, or Munshi Premchand who are campaigners of shared co-existence. These continued till 2012. 

The Delhi Yatra 

On September 28 this year, another yatra of IPTA to Delhi from Rajasthan was undertaken. The idea again was to spread love and brotherhood. It might culminate on Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary on January 30. Not only that, IPTA president and well-known theatre person Prassanna took a three-day workshop in Delhi for youth to keep alive socialism in theatre.

IPTA started its journey from UP on November 18 this year. The members selected unknown spaces of historical significance like freedom fighter Tantya Tope’s small village Jalon in UP, and so on.  

Whether it is Bihar’s Chamaparan, which is of historical significance since Gandhiji started one of his movements here, or Bhagat Singh’s village in Punjab, the members meet people, know their culture, make them aware of the importance of arts and culture, syncretic and shared philosophy in daily lives, as well as make them understand the relationship between technology and human labour as well as the importance of physical labour and environment. 

Does it sound like Phoenix rising from the ashes?