Suresh Sharma. (Photo: Pavan Khengre)
Actor Suresh Sharma (pictured) is turning over the pages of history to April 13,1919, when acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer of the colonial forces opened fire on an unarmed gathering at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. Hundreds of men and women were killed and thousands injured. On Sharma’s table is the first draft of a play on the massacre as well as history books, not only of Indian scholarship but also by foreign academics.
Director in-charge of the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi, Sharma will direct the play with actors of the NSD Repertory Company, which he heads. “The young generation thinks of Jallianwala Bagh as a historic garden. We need to revisit this chapter of the freedom movement,” he says.
Sharma is a familiar face on the national stage, acting in plays such as Tajmahal ka Tender, in which he lays the shrewd Guptaji who traps emperor Shah Jahan in a web of red tape and corruption; and Ghashiram Kotwal, in which he essays the role of Nana Phadnavis, one of the important ministers of the Peshwas in Pune. But Sharma’s hallmark role has been Maulana Azad. He has enacted the freedom fighter in Azad Maulana, a play by Delhi-based Tripurari Sharma, as well as his own solo, titled Maulana. “It is rare that an actor finds a character he relates to so deeply. I was introduced to Maulana Azad by Tripurari ma’am. When I started reading about him, I became convinced that, if there was one secular leader in India, it was him,” says Sharma. His solo has had almost 50 shows and he plans to continue with it. “The audience needs to know,” he says.
It is the young generation that brought Sharma to Pune, where he was a part of a workshop on playwriting organised by Maharashtra Education Society. “I find that youngsters, today, are thinking in the right direction. The 13 students, who were a part of the workshop, have created scripts that range from expanding mythology to modern times to studying the changing nuances of relationships,” he says. “The culture of playwriting competitions in Maharashtra has encouraged playwriting, unlike in north India where a lot of people, who have written a play or two, start pushing for films or TV or web series,” he adds.
It was at another playwriting workshop, organised by UP Sangeet Natak Akademi in Lucknow in the late ’70s, that 18-year-old Sharma had stood up in class to disagree with an eminent playwright who was teaching them the structure of rasa. “I had said, ‘If we have to concentrate on lining up rasa, weighing how much rasa to add to which part of the story, wouldn’t our writing lose its creative spontaneity and become mechanical?’” he says. “In retrospect, I think, I was a bit brash. Writer Mudra Rakshas then told me the importance of inspiration, of letting the pen run loose, as well as the literary structure of storytelling,” says Sharma.
A number of stalwarts from Lucknow used to participate in plays at Sangeet Natak Akademi in the city. Sharma, a student of violin at the Bhatkhande Sangeet Mahavidyalaya in Lucknow on the same campus, would stop by to watch them. “At first, I would dawdle for a few minutes. As I became fascinated with theatre, the idea began to grow on me that theatre was a powerful medium to strike up direct communication with people,” says Sharma. Belonging to an upper middle-class family from Lucknow, he had joined violin lessons in 1977. By next year, his attention had begun to waver from music to theatre.
When he had participated in about half a dozen workshops and enrolled at Bhartendu Natya Akademi in Lucknow (earlier known as Bhartendu Natya Kendra), Sharma had an important conversation with his elder brother. “Ghar ya natak?” the latter had asked. “Natak,” said Sharma. He walked out of their large house to sustain himself on a scholarship of Rs 200. “I used to pay Rs 25 as fees and Rs 75 for the room under the steps at a hotel, where a lot of music students lived. I worked in the radio, reading out the cultural round-up of the city, as well as wrote. The cheques enabled me to pull through,” he says.
In 1982, his course at Bhartendu Natya Akademi over, Sharma was looking into the middle distance and wondering, ‘What next?’ Returning home was not an option, so he applied for further studies to a number of institutes and drama companies. He cleared NSD in his first attempt. He was second on the merit list and won a government scholarship of Rs 250. Today, a veteran of the stage and many plays, he is trying to give back to the premier institute. “I think my most challenging role is academics. NSD needs a lot of work in academics. We need to upgrade it according to today’s requirements. We need to equip the next generation,” he says.