Not hoping for much in this heat, I was roaming aimlessly around Dwarka for a good story. As luck would have it, I chanced upon a group of youngsters gathered around a man seemingly in his early sixties. He was sporting a French beard and seemed to be directing the group. As I moved closer, I learnt that they were about to put up a street play on the themes of health and education in Sector 12. After they finished rehearsing the 10-minute play, one of them told me that they had been putting up such shows in others parts of Delhi. I quickly gathered that the man directing them was Mahendra Prasad Singh, an eminent director, theatre personality, and social activist.
A writer, actor and director of Hindi and Bhojpuri plays, Singh is the founder of Rangashree, a social organisation working voluntarily on various social causes in the city. He is also an expert with the UNICEF Bihar on Behavioural Change Communication (BCC), Information Education and Communication (IEC) and Inter Personal Communication (IPC). He is also associated with the NCERT in the field of folk theatre in language education. Singh has been using the art of theatre as a tool to bring about change in the society, and several youths have been volunteering with him. One of his plays, Jago matdata, played a key role in increasing the vote count in south and south-west Delhi during the recently held assembly elections. Some of their stage plays and street acts such as Zindagi Zindabad, Munia Chali School, Paani Re Paani, Jara Doosre ki Socho, Ho Jao Saodhan, Jago Grahak Jago, Bach ke Rehna have created ripples in the social circuit.
City Spidey chats up with him about his long journey and his future vision.
Singh relaxing in his Dwarka house
Singh recollects, “I was interested in theatre since childhood, and would participate in folk theatre. During my school life and college days, I would actively write and act in plays, which later morphed into a passion during my professional life with the Steel Authority of India Ltd. And finally, in the late Seventies’, a group was founded in Bokaro. It comprised youths who were highly committed and sensitive to the cause of Bhojpuri art and culture, as well as to the social evils of economic backwardness, exploitation and poverty, particularly in the country’s Bhojpuri-speaking areas. In the year 1978, we named that group Rangashree. Since then, through my group, I have been working with the youths for the society.”
The turning point
In spite of a promising career in the public sector, Singh decided to quit his job in 2001 and plunge headlong into his passion for social theatre. He explains, “Theatre is the most effective tool through which you can move the masses. Through it, you can become a significant part of development. Since 2001, I have been trying to move mountains through Rangashree to bring about change.”
Rangashree enjoys strong support from the youths in the community. Most of them are in their twenties; they are either studying or are employed part-time. “The team gathers in the evening in this one-room office and plan street plays or other similar activities. I just make suggestions and direct them when required. They do their rehearsals here, and almost every weekend, they put up street plays in different parts of the city. My wife too participates in the plays to give a morale boost. Whenever there is a serious campaign and we need more volunteers, my wife is always ready to help.”
Singh setting the stage on fire
Singh elaborates, “We organise personality-development workshops for underprivileged children and women. We also make short films for them on different life skills and success stories. The community women are trained to act in the workshops, so that they can participate in the films. These films are then screened in the community, and the stories are discussed to generate awareness and sensitise viewers on different social issues.”
Singh has been working extensively on two campaigns in Dwarka — one is linked to disaster management and the other to water conservation. These two are burning issues for Dwarka, feels Singh. “A street play spanning 10-15 minutes has been scripted on disaster management and the theme of ‘save water’. We are putting up the plays in residential pockets, Metro stations, and markets. The act based on ‘save water’ is generally staged in the parks of various societies. We select one society every week by talking to the concerned Residents Welfare Associations. The subject of disaster management, too, is very important for the city. Our group will volunteer for this cause.”
Reviving Bhojpuri theatre
Originally hailing from Bihar, Singh has taken it upon himself to revive Bhojpuri folk theatre and art. Towards that end, he has been scripting plays based on Bhojpuri culture. He says, “My whole life is now dedicated to bringing Bhojpuri folk theatre into the mainstream. The theatre of other regions is very popular, but Bhojpuri plays still don’t enjoy as much spotlight. I need to do something for the next generation.”
In his journey of more than three decades, Singh has written several plays in Bhojpuri like Birjoo Ka Biah, a hilarious play on dowry and family planning; Basmatia Chaur, a moving take on disintegrating families; Lutki Baba Ke Ramleela, a comedy based on casteism and communalism; Kachot, based on electoral reforms and socio-economic issues; Prahari, on the theme of HIV/AIDS; and Daroga Jee Vah Vah, a comedy on corruption and lack of legal awareness.
Singh has been felicitated with several awards such as the Bhojpuri Bhushan Samman, Bhikhari Thakur Samman and several others for his contribution to Bhojpuri theatre and language.
The road ahead
Singh is determined to do something for women and environment. He shares, “Both the issues are of great importance in the National Capital. I need to work extensively in these two areas, and I am working towards that. In the coming years, I plan to bring in as much change as possible for the women in the society, and also give maximum efforts to saving the enviornment. When these two are achieved, I will plan my next goals.”