As 1947 began, Geeta Dutt sang Mera Sunder Sapna Beet Gaya across North Indian cinema theatres – the film was Do Bhai, the posters showing two brothers separated by the figure of a woman, her face disturbed, one brother looking down in sadness, the other staring out of the frame.
Audiences also loved Nasir Khan and Indumati in Shehnai, and the young actor Dilip Kumar was about to make his name as the country’s most beloved idol, in Jugnu. His co-star Noor Jehan, who would leave India for Pakistan after Partition, sang Yahan Badala Wafa Ka, along with Mohammed Rafi: “Yahan badala wafa ka, bewafai ke siva kya hai… abhi kya tha, abhi kya hai, yun hi duniya badalati hai.”
The world was changing, and after Independence, after Partition, the country would spend decades making sense of both that hard-won azaadi, and the violence that had accompanied it. Freedom was here at last, but not for all citizens.
Some Indians stepped into true azaadi in 1947, some had never had rights and freedoms and struggled to claim them. Many found the azaadi denied by the British, only to lose them under successive regimes, right up to our own time when the sedition laws are used to silence journalists telling important truths, and to muzzle discussions of Kashmir or the RSS, for instance.
In Bombay, Prithviraj Kapoor weathered threats by Islamic fundamentalists angry with portions of his hit play, Deewar, written by Inder Raaj Anand, and performed in 1945. The young actress Zohra Sehgal went to the premiere, and wrote in her memoir: “Here was a play fresh, topical, original, inspiring the spectator to immediate action as it dealt with the looming partition of India, the “wall” between Hindu-Muslim unity.” She told her husband, “To hell with all the films, this is what I have always wanted to do!” and joined Prithvi Theatre.
Deewar ran for 712 shows; the play that replaced it in 1947 was Pathan, with Prithvi Kapoor playing Sher Khan and Zohra Sahgal as Khairunissa. Ashis Nandy quotes Khwaja Abbas on what made this play so special: “Prithvi had put into it the tenderest memories of his childhood, the flavour of all the tales and legends of Pathan chivalry that he had ever heard, the patriotic and the idealists’ passion to make of the play a vehicle for the theme of unity which was then of urgent significance to the people of our country.”
A premonition of the trials ahead, a message of unity, nostalgia for part of a shared past. By 1948, Prithvi Kapoor and his theatre were staging Ghaddar, which spoke directly to the dilemma faced by Muslims who had stayed back in India post-Partition, only to be called traitors and to have their patriotism questioned. The play named the Congress and the Muslim League and denounced politicians with a freedom that today’s playwrights and film-makers can no longer exercise.
Theatre was on the rise in this new India – Dr Shriram Lagoo founded the Little Theatre Group in 1947, while the Indian People’s Theatre Association had been founded during the Quit India movement in 1942, and tamasha groups had much material for their street plays across the country. And the Indian fiction writer had acquired confidence, had a distinctive voice – Ismat Chughtai published her classic novel, Terhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line), exploring a woman’s determination and desires in a time of political ferment, and RK Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand both had collections of short stories out in 1947. The literary historian Sisir Kumar Das mentions an important novel, Nayi Imarat, by the Hindi writer Anchal, which spoke directly to the problems facing the new nation.
Bhabani Bhattacharya’s So Many Hungers! explored the legacy of the famines that swept Bengal, where a man could be killed if you gave him rice to eat after too many days of starvation – famine-weakened bodies could not take the sudden return of nourishment.
But Bhattacharya saw so much greed, and so many other kinds of hungers, combining to make famine on that scale possible – hunger for wealth, political power, lust, most obviously. His vision of the new India as a place of competing, fierce and mutually destructive hungers, of despair generated by artificial scarcities, of a famine of the heart and soul, is terrifying; this is truly a book not of his, but of our own times.
In Calcutta, Nabendu Ghosh published Phears Lane, a 136-page novella that plunges readers into the heart of the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946, clinically dissecting the riots that raged through the city’s “cigarette and pan shops, tailors’ shops, tiny stationery shops, the large tanneries, seekh-kabab-festooned grimy ‘Taj Mahal’ hotels, shops that sell potatoes, onions and pink sherbet.” Ghosh became famous as a screenplay writer, with Teesri Kasam among his many credits, and had the honour of falling foul of the British sedition laws in 1945.
Of his many other short stories, another strikingly contemporary one is Traankarta (The Saviour), which was a biting indictment of the Bengali middle-class, and its ability to keep its hands clean while sacrificing other classes and castes. The main character is Jhogru Sardar, the leader of the Doms, who is persuaded to do the dirty work of killing during the riots.
The police goes after him, not after the respectable middle-class who instigates him to start the violence. In the same year, Thakazhi wrote Thalayodu, about caste and community segregation, and Dr BR Ambedkar published States and Minorities: What Are Their Rights And How To Secure Them In The Constitution Of Free India, where he pointed out that the Scheduled Castes would require “special safeguards against the tyranny and discrimination of the majority”.
Instead of giant flags and statues, perhaps our ruling politicians should read the books and pamphlets that Indians wrote in 1947. Many freedoms were promised to Indians across religions, castes and communities. Seventy years after Independence, all that a successful secular republic should care about is making sure that these freedoms reach all its Indian citizens, not just politicians, the Developer Raj, and a privileged majority.
(Published in the Business Standard on August 16, 2016)