Becoming Banda Singh: an actor’s sojourns

Bullah and Banda debated how tyranny and injustice could be fought, by sword or by Sufism?

Being offered the role of Banda Singh in Ajoka’s critically acclaimed play ‘Bulha’ was a huge honour and challenge. Ajoka’s landmark play, showcased around the world and taught in universities abroad, is about the Sufi poet Bulleh Shah and his struggle against the muftis and nawabs of his day. I had watched the play umpteen times as a member of the audience; now I was to be a part of it.

Banda Singh was a Sikh warlord who vowed to avenge the execution of his guru’s young children and played havoc in Punjab, killing innocent Muslims and burning villages. He is regarded as an arch villain by the Muslim historians while Sikhs give him an exalted status. Banda Singh Bairagi was a bairagi sadhu, who believed in non-violence, not even hurting insects, but became a bloodthirsty warrior, titled as Banda Singh Bahadur.

Banda and Bulha lived in the same time period, but there is no evidence that they ever met. The Writer of Bulha, Shahid Nadeem, had taken poetic license to make them meet. They debated how tyranny and injustice could be fought, by sword or by Sufism.

In fact, the playwright had presented Bulleh Shah and Banda Singh as two sides of the same coin; Banda responding to tyranny by revenge and bloodshed and Bulleh Shah by spreading the message of peace and love through his Sufi poetry.  Banda Singh is full of anger, hatred and revenge, firm in his conviction that violence can only be challenged with violence. Portraying him was indeed a big challenge.

In a compelling exchange when he is captured and is being taken in a cage to Delhi for execution, Bulleh Shah asks him, “What did you achieve by all that bloodshed? The sword of tyranny is still killing people.”

Banda asks a counter question, “And what have you achieved by your sermons of peace and writing poetry. Have you been able to stop the tyranny? My gurus may never forgive me for my violent actions, but now whenever a despotic ruler raises his sword of oppression, he will fear that a Banda Singh can rise from the submissive oppressed and fight back.”

Banda Singh’s relationship with Bulleh Shah is of anger and admiration at the same time. He listens to his men singing Bulleh Shah’s Sufi poetry at night and proceeds to kill and burn in the morning

His relationship with Bulleh Shah is of anger and admiration at the same time. He listens to his men singing Bulleh Shah’s Sufi poetry at night and proceeds to kill and burn in the morning. This was not a one dimensional ‘bad guy’. I tried to understand his story, his conflicts, his pain and his innate search for peace.

He used to be a peaceful ‘Jogi’, engaging in peaceful spirituality. But then his beloved Guru, along with his children, were brutally murdered by Emperor Aurangzeb, buried alive behind a wall. Thus he vowed to avenge their deaths. He was of the view that singing lyrical songs and writing aloof poems in jungles did nothing for the masses. One had to face the realities of life and take action.

As an actor, I try not only to put a part of myself in character but embody the character’s spirit within myself as well, hoping to learn something new and enrich my repertoire. Banda Singh was a villain-hero, full of hatred outside but searching for peace inside.

For my preparation of Banda’s role, I drew from my own experiences, at the same time discovering new facets of the character and myself at each rehearsal. I was helped on my Punjabi by our Artistic Director, Madeeha Gauhar, and on the meaning behind some of the profound dialogues by playwright Shahid Nadeem. The rest was up to me.

The role required loud and forceful dialogues conveyed through wild and aggressive gestures, but it was vital for me as an actor to not upstage Bulha, who spoke softly and was calm. The purpose of making Banda and Bulha confront each other was to show that there are different ways to fight injustice and contribute to the contemporary debate on the use of violence to achieve legitimate objectives.

Both Bulha and Banda had the same goal: stopping oppression and alleviating the pain of the masses, but their methods were very different. For Banda, it was extreme love which generated extreme anger. As an actor, I had to juxtapose extreme hatred with extreme love; spiritual knowledge with worldly reality, Yin and Yang.

A compelling character, it took a lot out of me at every performance. But the energy I received from the audience spurred me to go on, even to outdo myself with every performance. I felt as if I was a split personality, two sides of human nature fighting against each other like Dr Jekyll and Hyde.

It required passion and skill. In one scene, Bulha opens his arms, and, as if in a trance, Banda moves towards him. His hands open just slightly, and reunification is possible.  But he moves away at the last minute.

Banda’s parting words, as he his taken to his death, or what he calls ‘The great throne’, are: ‘Bulha, why  more like you aren’t born; if they are why don’t they speak; if they speak, why don’t they speak with force; and if they speak with force, why isn’t their voice heard? Bulleh Shah, keep dancing, keep singing qawwalis. Don’t give up!’. Banda appears a reluctant villain in the beginning, but towards the end, the audience realises that he is Bulleh Shah’s alter-ego.  He appears a hero.

I wondered how this portrayal of Banda Singh would be received by the Pakistani audience who have been told that he was one of the worst enemies of Muslims. I was pleasantly surprised to receive applause. The audience was able to appreciate the inner goodness of the character and the circumstances of his rebellion against the Mughal rulers.

But when ‘Bulha’ was invited to India, there were some unexpected problems. We were told that Banda Bahadur was a revered personality and any representation of him on stage is not allowed by the Sikh clergy. The first show in Amritsar went very well, but after some press reports, the organisers in Patiala requested Banda’s scenes to be taken out.

The powerful Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee head Bibi Jagir Kaur wrote a letter expressing reservation about Banda Bahadur’s portrayal on stage. However, the Indian media and theatre community reacted strongly against such censorship, and the Bulha tour went on and received extraordinary applause. At a performance in Jammu (which was Banda’s birthplace), an extremist Sikh group protested during the performance but were physically thrown out by the audience and the organisers. In some sensitive places, we named Banda Singh as Joginder Singh, but everyone knew that it was Banda’s character. Now I am told that Indian theatre groups have been able to portray Banda Singh on stage. It seems the acceptance of Banda Singh on stage by Ajoka has opened the doors for Indian groups.

Recently, I performed the role at Helsingor (Elsinore) centre in Denmark, in front of the Castle made famous as the venue of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The thought came to my mind about the dilemma and psychological conflict of Hamlet, which had a certain similarity with Banda Singh. Both were wronged, and both sought revenge and were reluctantly pushed on the path of violence. The proximity to Hamlet gave me an added dimension for my portrayal of Banda Singh, a psychological aspect.

I have lived with Banda Singh for several years now. The debate between Bulha and Banda also goes on. I can spot many Bulhas and Bandas around me wearing suits, turbans and shalwars. They claim they are doing the right thing and question each other about the efficacy of their methods. The time of Sufis and sword waving warriors may have gone, but the issues and the challenges remain.

The writer is a director/actor; and a core member of Ajoka Theatre Pakistan

Published in Daily Times, February 9th 2018.