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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 13, March 21, 2015

Not Lonely in Life or Alone in Death

Sunday 22 March 2015

TRIBUTE

by Noor Zaheer

The show is over, the actors and director have taken the last bow and curtain call and from a crowded auditorium after the thunderous applause has died down, friends and acquaintances are walking up with smiles, hugs and congratulations. I look around searching the face of the person responsible for our theatre group being in Agra for the convention of the Indian People’s Theatre Association [IPTA], the one who had been scouring India for units still functioning as the IPTA, digging out theatre groups who were doing similar work but with different names, persuading senior members to set aside differences and join the revival process and convincing the younger lot that unity under the umbrella of the IPTA was the need of the hour. Jitendra Raghuvanshi was nowhere to be seen. Feeling a bit put out I had asked a volunteer and was informed that he had rushed to the dining place to get some food packed for our artistes who were travelling back to Delhi the same night.

That was Comrade Jitendra Rahguvanshi, the silent worker who did not stop to collect his share of praise and applause after a successful organisation. He would immediately initiate something else, plan another meet, another theatre festival or a conference. A car he had bought only a few years back. It used to be a two-wheeler scooter on which he negotiated the pot-holed roads of Agra, manoeuvring it through puddles, crowded alleys, attending college to teach Russian, parking outside a printing press to check the proof of a pamphlet, stopping for a few minutes to remind a friend of a coming symposium and ferrying pillion-riding guests from the Taj Mahal to the venue of the seminar.

In 1984 his father, Comrade Rajendra Raghuvanshi, had decided that the disinte-gration and groupism that had already become visible in Indian politics could only be checked by a strong cultural movement that would unite the youth and strengthen the Left. As a founder member of the IPTA in 1943 he had witnessed the power wielded by performing arts in spreading awareness about the freedom struggle, igniting the fire of social justice in the workers and in countering communalism. In the late fifties he had also observed the crumbling down of the lively movement. He planned a year-long campaign to get in touch with all the earlier pillars of the movement and also find out those who now espoused the Left ideology in their theatre and music but remained outside the main body of the organised Left movement.

It was Jitendrabhai who did all the running around to make the 1985 convention for the revival of the IPTA take place. He had heard about our group, Brechtian Mirror, and had come down from Agra to Delhi to see it perform ‘Hartaal’, an adaptation of John Galsworthy’s ‘The Strike’. It was a shoe-string production, performed in the Shriram Centre basement, with no sets and floor seating. But the play had a pace, using traditional songs of the IPTA and a lively narrative of how factory strikes are manipulated and workers’ struggles disinte-grated by the industrialists and their stooges. Jitendra bhai had waited after the show for the audience to disperse and then invited the group to the Agra Convention. Comrade Rajendra Raghuvanshi also managed to get Kaifi Azmi, Shaukat Azmi, Himango Biswas and Ruma Guha Thakurta, Subroto Bannerji and Samik Bandyo-padhyay, A.K. Hangal, Paresh Das and so many more. It was the shining suns and the moons of the past sending out the message of unity to the contemporary wayward, solitary planets to merge, to form a strong and alternate solar system.

All these eminent artistes had no problem sleeping in dormitories, eating the simple fare being served and sitting on the floor during academic sessions. It was answering the call of the time, it was reliving their formative years. But more than that the convention sent out another message to the younger generation: a people’s struggle cannot provide luxuries, the road of a movement is not a bed of roses but it is a journey that must be undertaken and once a person has embarked on this road there is no turning back.

At the convention Jitendrabhai was everywhere, arranging extra beds, making time for all the performers who had turned up, seeing to the food, talking to the managers of the Sur Sadan where the evening performances were held, guiding the volunteers and taking notes. His wife, Bhavya, was too tied down with two young children but was beside her husband as soon as the children had become a little independent. Teaching in a school and giving all her free time to the Agra IPTA, together they organised theatre workshops in Agra and around, wrote plays, sang songs and put in all their energies to reviving the IPTA.

Jitendrabhai was a young Professor, with a Ph.D from Leningrad, teaching Russian at the Agra University, a department that he helped set up; he also wrote poetry, plays and short stories, was a sensitive analyst and critic of literature. He could have been all these things and lived a comfortable life. But one found him running from one place to another, to organise the IPTA units, supervise their democratic elections and functio-ning, have national conventions every three years and, in short, fulfil the dream his father had of a strong, united Left cultural force.

When Rajendra Raghuvanshi passed away, Jitendrabhai worked harder. He organised regular summer theatre workshops and also formed the Little IPTA. Here he would not turn away even a child of two years, convincing the parents that theatre is part of everyone’s being from the day one is born.

In the years that he functioned as the Secretary and then General Secretary of the National IPTA, he gathered so many details on the IPTA’s past and contemporary happenings that one had only to ask a question and he would reel out, names, dates, events, anecdotes. He became like a storehouse of information, never once holding it back from anyone and passing it with a smile. Only a person who believes that with all assets he is still a worker, a comrade can be so approachable.

The last time we met was in Raipur, where the Chhattisgarh IPTA was holding its State Convention. A year back he had persuaded me to be the President of the IPTA, Delhi and on the back and forth train journey we discussed the progress made by the IPTA since 1985, the States where it was still inactive and, most importantly, that it was time to begin organising an archives of the IPTA and of organisations involved in similar activities. We talked about this project again over the phone twelve days before he passed away. He was unwell and promised to come down to Delhi to prepare a blueprint as soon as he was better. He had also promised to go down to Indore to meet and guide the Madhya Pradesh unit where the National Convention is to take place in 2016. He did come down to Delhi but only to be admitted in Safdarjang Hospital where he succumbed to swine flu after two days.

It is again in Sur Sadan that a huge crowd has gathered for the condolence meeting. The hall that seats 800 gets overcrowded and we shift out on the lawns. People are embracing and weeping, the family undefined, all one single clan: mourners for a man who loved Agra, loved people and loved life. But even in death he has a lesson for all. The Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party gets up to convey the condolences sent by his party unit. All his life Jitendrabhai had been a staunch Communist, upholder of secular values and an outspoken critic of the policies of the BJP. Yet such was his work and contribution that even his enemies had to stand up and be counted in the list of people grieving at his untimely demise.

The author is a writer, researcher and the President of the Delhi State IPTA.