Vancouver Sath Theater:
Direction and Development
Sadhu Binning
 

 

Introduction:
Vancouver Sath was started as an informal discussion forum by a group of politically conscious Punjabi writers and community activists. Prior to Sath there was the Punjabi Literary Association in Vancouver, which provided the opportunity for concerned writers and intellectuals to discuss and explore not only literary and cultural matters but many social and political issues as well. However, during 1981-1982 period the atmosphere in that organization deteriorated to a point where no genuine discussion was possible. Also some of us had been struggling to keep Watno Dur, a monthly Punjabi literary and cultural magazine alive for the last few years. We wanted something else, something different, to happen in the literary and cultural circles. Moreover, we felt that numerous issues that demanded serious attention were arising as a result of the demographic growth of the community during that period. Those of us who eventually came together to form Sath were already actively involved in ongoing struggles such fighting against racism, and fighting for farm workers' rights. We shared a common ideology and were socially very close to each other.
Towards the end of 1982, we started informal but regular weekly meetings to discuss social, political and literary issues. The main focus of our community at the time was Punjab because the situation there was beginning to slip towards the present day problem. It was only natural that Punjabis living here would feel concern about the situation back home. However, the degree of this concern was, and still is, such that people didn't pay the much-needed attention to the problems facing us as an immigrant community in a different geographical, economical and social environment. There was an urgent need to understand issues like the problems faced by the younger generation growing up here; effects of racism on the individual and the community; the economic exploitation of new immigrants; abuse of women and children in our families and so on. We felt that if we didn't pay sufficient attention to these issues, we would eventually and in actuality become the very low ebb of this society, which was perhaps the hidden desire of the ruling class here. Thus, we wanted to direct people's attention to these issues at hand.
In order to work towards this goal, we decided to give a formal structure to our informal gatherings. We wanted to avoid all the structural problems that organizations usually encounter. We decided against having a conventional structure of presidents, secretaries and other hierarchical positions. We also decided against any formal membership for this organization. The idea was that whoever agrees with the goals and is willing to work towards them could join. Every member was entitled to equal credit for the work done. Our idea was that instead of working for the organization or some individuals we will work for our shared goals. As long as we shared a common goal we would work together. The only reason to come and work in this group would be that one wanted to do that work without expecting anything in return. There were no strings attached. Whenever somebody, for whatever reason, wanted to stop working he or she could simply get up and go. With these kinds of ideas in our minds we quite naturally thought about the Saths in Punjabi villages. They have no formal structure and everybody is free to say one's peace and is free to come and go as one pleases. We decided to call our organization Sath and for our local identification we added Vancouver in front of it. Thus, with Vancouver Sath we felt connected to our past and yet part of the contemporary place and time.
After formalizing in the beginning of 1983, the first task we collectively undertook was to produce a number of articles on the following issues: Punjabi immigrants and the type of employment they get, the B.C.'s Solidarity Movement against the anti-labor legislation of the Socred government, the growing dangers of the Punjab situation and its effects on the community here, video and entertainment in the Punjabi community. These articles were locally published in Watno-Dur, Canada Darpan and some were also reproduced in magazines and newspapers in Punjab as well. We, as a collective, also wrote reports and published interviews on the community's struggle against exploitation and racism. While we worked on these articles and tried to get a clear grasp of the issues faced by the Indo-Canadian Community, we were always debating the usefulness of the printed medium for communication. We realized that most of the Punjabis were not in the habit of reading serious articles in the best of times let alone at a time when they were simply too involved in their daily struggles to establish themselves in a new land. This realization led us to experiment with theater.



Towards a Clear Direction for Theater


The theatrical activities in the Indo-Canadian Community began in 1972 with a short one-act play produced by the Punjabi Cultural Association of Vancouver. Theater was kept alive by various organizations in the face of numerous difficulties. The pace, however, was very slow. The plays were produced periodically. People would gather strength to do theater but often exhausted themselves with one or two productions. Often, mainly due to the lack of resources and direction, there were rifts in the organizations and it took a long time to reorganize. Some of us involved in Vancouver Sath were directly or indirectly part of these efforts over the years and were aware of the difficulties involved. While working on Watno Dur for the last few years we debated about these difficulties. Numerous questions arose from these discussions. It was felt that serious attention had to be paid to a number of issues in order to do Punjabi theater in Canada on a continual basis. To build a solid base for theater in Canada it was necessary for an organization to have defined and declared goals and a very clear idea of its own strengths and weaknesses. Since we were aware of a host of past historical, economic and social obstacles, we concluded that there were very limited possibilities of building Punjabi theater based on the simple desire to entertain people. We had repeatedly witnessed efforts of many talented and genuine people in the community end in frustration. Some of the question debated were: why do theater; who is the audience; what were the limitations of available resources and which traditions should be followed.
The process of finding answers to these questions led Vancouver Sath people towards a relatively clear direction of Punjabi theater in Canada. It was obvious that there was no Canadian Punjabi theatrical tradition that we could follow. It also became obvious that we could not build theater solely based on either Punjabi and/or Indian tradition or the tradition of English theater in Canada. We needed to get direction, help and inspiration from both traditions in order to create distinct Punjabi theater in Canada.
The very first question that we faced was why go through so much pain to do theater? Why not simply wait for the time when the flow of economic fluency would make it possible for the professional companies to exist. It was not at all difficult for us to decide this matter. We could easily imagine the type of theater the professional companies, based wholly on the principal of profit, would do. We are part of a literary tradition, which believes that literature and art are, or should be, created for the betterment of humanity. As a group of conscious people, we felt that as our other activities were directed towards creating a better balanced, just society, theatrical and cultural activities should do the same.
We were aware of the criticism that we degrade art and literature when we say that art should be in the service of life. But, we were never fully convinced by this criticism. In our view, art and literature are subordinate to life. Life does not exist so that artists can create their art; rather art exists because of life. Art and literature depict beauty and coarseness of life in a way that it affects humans to become fond of beauty and ardent opponents of ugliness in life.
Whenever art and literature are discussed in this manner, the critics claim that it is an effort to lessen the importance of aesthetics in art and literature. How artistic a piece of literature or art is and how it affects its audience depends on many different things, such as the state of art in a given society in which the piece has been created, the artist's ability and knowledge, available resources for the creation and presentation of that piece and so on. Modern Punjabi theater was not possible three hundred years ago regardless of the fact that there may have been thousands of people who had genuine commitment to theater. In our view, instead of decreasing the significance of art and literature when seen in connection to life, it increases its importance. By declaring this, we as artists do not separate ourselves from life around us but become one with life. We can look at hundreds of thousands of examples of art and literature in the West which are alienated from life and are created by people who are themselves alienated from life. If we, as Punjabi artists, were not an intimate part of the life around us or if we were to become alienated while living here, then our views of art and literature would automatically change. But, until that unfortunate moment happens why should we, for the sake of fashion, create art that is alienated from our society. We understood that art and literature should be developed within the social context and the highly acclaimed art and literature of the world is a proof of this view. To our good fortune we found many people not only from the Indo-Canadian community, but also from the larger Canadian community who agreed with our view and who provided us with much needed moral support.
It was also clear to us that the absence of Punjabi theater in Canada also meant the absence of a Punjabi theater audience. One must remember that the majority of the immigrants in our community have come from Punjabi villages and until the mid - seventies there were not many opportunities in the villages where one was exposed to modern theater. With this in mind, the first thing that needed to be identified for building Punjabi theater in Canada was, the audience for whom theater was to be developed. It was not difficult to see that for the Punjabis the most important thing was the content and especially the language of a film or play. They did not pay much attention to modern techniques used in developing the film or play. The most entertaining piece for them is the one that they can directly or indirectly relate to. The more closely related the subject, the more they would enjoy the piece. This is why one can easily understand why a Punjabi audience is as much, if not more, delighted with technically primitive Punjabi films, as they are with technically superior Hindi or English films. The time has not yet arrived (perhaps still not arrived) when a Punjabi audience would accept or reject a Punjabi film or play based solely on its technical presentation. To say this is not to insult the tastes of a Punjabi audience, but to present a stage in its development. We need to develop our theater on sound foundations and we need to create a serious audience for that theater as well. The only way to achieve this was to begin at the very first stage.
We arrived at the conclusion that it is not necessary to go beyond one's means to use all the available theatrical techniques to produce Punjabi plays. If the resources allowed the use of certain techniques, then use them by all means. The experience of many small theater groups in and around Vancouver's larger community helped us to reach this conclusion. Like other large centers in Canada and America, Vancouver is full of theatrical activities of all types, sizes and shapes. One can go to a production that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars or one can also visit numerous places where the production cost may not be more than a few hundred dollars. The question for us was not whether to use all the available techniques, rather it was a question of being able to afford it. From other people's experience, we concluded that to become naked by stretching one's feet farther than the sheet of cloth allotted was not a very wise thing to do. We also felt that theatrical activities should not be delayed until we were in a position to use available techniques and more suitable venues. The whole point was not to fit the Punjabi theater according to the available techniques rather fit the techniques to the needs of Punjabi theater. Consequently, we decided that the development of theater should be undertaken based on our own strength.
As mentioned earlier, the structure and dynamics of the group were also discussed thoroughly. By keeping in mind the structural problems faced by other organizations, we came to the conclusion that all members should be at one level. There should be no 'star' or 'director' or any other kind of hierarchy. Each active member will share in the decision-making. As far as it was practically possible, each activity would be handled collectively. It would not be a conventional structure where some people carry chairs and others sit on them. The person sitting on the chair would also carry it. No participant should ever feel that he or she is working for someone else rather the feeling should always be that she is working for the common goal of the organization and to achieve her personal artistic goal. Whenever a member feels otherwise, he or she should raise this question in the organization. Each member was to be fully responsible for the well being of the organization in all its aspects.
While we were still at the stage of debating these issues we had an opportunity to meet the soul of Punjabi theater, Mr. Gursharan Singh. He was invited by IPANA to visit Canada with his theater group, Amritsar Natak Kala Kendar (Drama Art Center). We had a chance to see some of his plays and to discuss with him the various aspects of starting a community based theater group. We learned from him in detail how he had established his theater first in Amritsar and then took it to remote villages all over Punjab. We were extremely happy and surprised to learn that our concept of Community Theater was quite similar to what he had already done. He had also developed a theater that could be easily performed with the least number of props, since none were readily available in Punjab's villages.
Obviously, this chance to meet with him gave us enormous confidence in our conception of how to develop theater in the Punjabi community here. We were lucky to have some members of the Punjab Cultural Association join us. These people were involved in cultural activities, especially folk dance Bhangra, since 1971-72. And these were the people who had started the tradition of Punjabi theater in Canada back in 1972. With this addition, Vancouver Sath was ready to take on the responsibility of developing Punjabi theater. In the beginning of 1984 Sath decided to produce its first plays.

The Beginning and the Development of Sath Theater:


The difficulty we encountered was to decide which script to choose. Clearly our first priority was to do a play that dealt with the life here, but we had no appropriate script available to us. On the other hand, the Punjab situation by this time had taken a more serious turn and it was simply not possible to think about any other issue.
Finally, we decided on two plays. One written by a Sath member Makhan Tut, Punjab Di Awaz (The Voice of Punjab) and the second written by Gursharan Singh, Kursi Morcha te Hava Vich Latkde Lok (Chair, Battlefront and People Dangling in the Air). Both were presented at an elementary school auditorium in Vancouver in March 1984. The players who took part in both of these plays were: Makhan Tut, Sukhwant Hundal, Balwinder Rode, Gurcharan Tallewalia, Inderjit Rode, Paul Binning, Bhavkhandan and Sadhu Binning. The response from the community was very encouraging. Later Sath staged both of these plays in Williams Lake and Quesnel.

The Play 'Picket Line'


Sath members, as mentioned before, were also actively involved in the struggle of B.C.'s farm workers. In the summer of 1984, there was a strike by the farm workers in a lower mainland mushroom farm in Langley. Workers on strike were mainly Punjabi women who showed remarkable determination to win their rights from the employer. Along with many other progressive people from the community, we also joined these workers on the picket line on a regular basis. We had a first hand chance to learn about their problems. Those women were going through tremendous personal revolutions at the time. Coming from a feudal background it was a giant step for them to stand on a picket line with placards around their necks. It was a big change which meant throwing away values established centuries ago and to take on a new set of values of the industrial society. They were faced by many doubts and fears. The employers, who were also Punjabis, still wanted to deal with them as they dealt with women in the feudal society. In order to intimidate these workers, the employers were using all the old practices and means of force such as using relationships, regional loyalties, religious affiliations and so on. But, those women stood their ground by helping and encouraging each other on every occasion.
By observing them on the picket line and being part of their struggle, we (Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal) wrote our first play, Picket-Line. This play was staged in November of the same year. Also staged at that time was Gursharan Singh's play Havai Gole (Air-Balls).
Picket-Line provided us with the opportunity to test our theoretical views on a practical level. It was written and developed collectively. All decisions were made collectively. The people playing the eleven characters in this play helped each other in developing the characters and deciding on costumes and other matters. Each artist first worked on understanding his or her own character in relation to the other characters. Each person tried to develop the character on his/her own and the others pointed out any weaknesses and gave suggestions that would improve the character. In this production, there were five women, three of whom had never been on the stage before, one was a Canadian born and had difficulty with the Punjabi language. In total twelve people - Makhan Tut, Jagdish Binning, Rachpal, Anju Hundal, Jas Binning, Inderjit Rode, Gurcharan Tallewalia, Sukhwant Hundal, Amanpal Sara, Harjinder Sangra, Paul Binning and Sadhu Binning - were involved in the production of this play - eleven performers and one co-ordination. In the process of creating equality among participants, Sath experimented (it was definitely a new thing for us) with the direction of play. In the place of one director, a successful play was produced with a collective effort. Some contemporaries described it, contrary to our view, as a directionless play.
Picket-Line was a collective effort from the writing stage to its presentation. The understanding among participants and their genuine commitment to their work made an extremely difficult task relatively easy. Picket-Line was later staged in English at the 1986 Vancouver Folk Music Festival. The English production opened up many new doors for Vancouver Sath. The most important achievement was that we were able to involve a number of second generation people - Pindy Gill, Nick Sihota, Sital Dhillon and Bhavna Bhangu - in our activities. We also received one thousand dollars for doing this play, which was a totally new experience for us - getting paid for what we wanted to do anyway. Similarly, because it was in English, the media also paid some attention to our activities. On the national scene, a long interview with Sath members was published in the magazine Fuse. Locally, CBC and CJOR radio programs interviewed the writers of the play. Dave Barret, the ex premier of B.C., and the host of CJOR at the time made an emotional statement that Sath has made a qualitative addition to the Canadian culture.

Other Plays

In 1985 Gursharan Singh of Amritsar Natak Kala Kendar was once again invited to come to Canada. Vancouver Sath members had a chance to share with him the experience of past two years. Sath produced Tootan Wala Khoo (A Well With Mulberry Trees) under Gursharan Singh's direction at this time. This play was Gursahran Singh's adaptation of a novel of the same name by Sohan Singh Sital. Tootan Wala Khoo told a tragic tale of the partition of Punjab in 1947 based on religious politics. The play had direct message for the Punjabi people who were once again in the similar situation where they were being forced to divide the community again based on religion. The production of this play enraged the local proponents of Khalistan and its presentation on the local multicultural television channel was blocked for six months.
While the ongoing grave political situation of Punjab was a major concern to all of us and Tootan Wala Khoo was another effort to address that situation, our main focus was the problems of life in Canada. One of the most serious issues faced by the community was and is, the manifold exploitation of women, which often takes on a violent shape in many situations. In the fall of 1985 Sath produced a play called Lattan De Bhoot (Ghost that can only be handled with force) - written by Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal. The play was based on a very tragic but true story of a woman who was forced to sponsor relatives for immigration purposes against her will. She was made to work like a slave in the house and in a restaurant without getting anything in return. She was physically beaten on a regular basis. A coworker in the restaurant eventually learned of her plight and helped her escape from the clutches of her relatives. The play helped to intensify the on going discussion on this issue in the community.
Next two areas that Sath decided to explore were the problems faced by the elderly in their new surroundings in Canada and the ever-present matter of arranged marriages. To make people aware of the day to day difficulties faced by the Punjabi elderly, especially outside the home environment, a play called Havelian Te Parkan (Mansions and Parks by Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal) was written and produced in early 1987. At the same time a second play called Kihda Viah? (Whose Marriage? by Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal) was produced. The play questioned parents' attitudes concerning marriage. The views of the young people, whose marriage was being planned, were totally ignored. We intentionally poked fun at parents and took the side of the young. The stage production of the play was recorded on a video and aired on the local multicultural channel. As expected, it started a lively discussion in the community.
In the fall of 1987 the women members of the Vancouver Sath were invited to do a play in a conference on women's issues. Anju Hundal, Jagdish Binning, Harjinder Sangra and Pindy Gill collectively wrote and produced a play called Different Age Same Cage. They also played the male characters. It showed three different stages in the life of woman. While young, she is treated as a lower class of human being in comparison to her brother; in a marriage situation she is slave to her husband; in her old age she has to looks after her grandchildren and when not needed, pushed out of the house due to economic pressures on a immigrant family. The play was a hit with the audience and has been presented more than two dozen times at various locations since then. Originally written in English later it was translated into Punjabi and was done as a street play in the Punjabi market on Main Street in Vancouver in the summer of 1989.
In early 1988 Sath produced another play about the situation of Punjabi farm workers. The focus this time was the use of pesticides in the agricultural industry. Most of the immigrant farm workers had not dealt with these kinds of dangerous chemicals in their prior life experience, though most had come from an agricultural background. Numerous cases of pesticide poisoning and deaths were recorded in the Lower Fraser Valley including a much discussed case in the media was of Jarnail Singh Deol, a young man who had died as a direct result of pesticides. One major problem faced in educating workers about the dangers of pesticides, was the old values and loyalties held by them. The workers tended to downplay the dangers and put tremendous amount of trust in contractors and farmers who were mainly from the same background. The play entitled A Crop of Poison questioned these old feudal values and loyalties and encouraged farm workers to deal with these matters in a more rational manner. Both plays A Crop of Poison and Picket Line were performed in Mission, Abbottsford, Langley, Surrey and Vancouver as part of a tour organized by Deol Agricultural Education and Research Society and Canadian Farmworkers Union. At the end of the tour A Crop of Poison was also performed in English at the Vancouver East Cultural Center as part of the Mayworks Festival.
In the following year A Lesson of a Different Kind by Sadhu Binning was produced highlighting the exploitative situation of the immigrant janitorial workers. This production has been repeated a number of times since.
A second play dealing with the issue of violence against women Not A Small Matter was written by Anju Hundal, Jagdish Binning, Harjinder Sangra, Sukhwant Hundal and Sadhu Binning. This play has been staged both in Punjabi and English at a number of locations and also produced as a video play sponsored by People's Law School of Vancouver.

Epilogue

In 1988 Sath members translated Maluka, a novel based on the early experience of Indians living and working in B.C. The author Sadhu Singh Dhami, who lives in Switzerland, was invited to launch the book. A play based on this novel Maluke Da Paihla Vishav Vidialia (First University of Maluka by Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal) was produced and staged in Vancouver.
In 1989 The Indo-Canadian community commemorated the seventy fifth anniversary of Komagata Maru. Vancouver Sath prepared a photo exhibition. An entire issue of Punjabi magazine Watan was devoted to the event. A play Samundary Sher Nal Larrai (A Battle with the Sea Lion - Sadhu Binning and Sukhwant Hundal) was also written for this event.
Since 1984, Sath has produced more than a dozen original plays, which deal with the Indo-Canadian experience. Along with theater, Sath has continuously carried out other activities such as workshops, seminars, book launches, translation work and publications. All this has been achieved without any kind of funding from any government or private agency (except a grant to start the magazine Ankur) without having a permanent place to meet or rehearse and by people who have been holding full time jobs or are full time students.

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