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Punjabi theatre’s first female artiste passes away

In the pre-Independence era, the erstwhile British Raj slapped a sedition case against her and six others, including her two sisters among them minor sister Pratima, in connection with a play ‘Hulle Hulaare’.




The first female artiste of Punjabi theatre, Uma Gurbaksh Singh, passed away in Amritsar’s Preet Nagar on Saturday. She was 92.

Uma, the eldest daughter of noted late Punjabi litterateur Gurbaksh Singh never married.

In the pre-Independence era, the erstwhile British Raj slapped a sedition case against her and six others, including her two sisters among them minor sister Pratima, in connection with a play ‘Hulle Hulaare’. The play was staged in village Chogawan in 1945.

The play had a verse “kadh deo baahar firangi nu, samundron paar firangi nu (Oust the British, oust them to other side of ocean).”

Hirday Paul Singh, her younger brother and a renowned writer and graphic artist, said that late legendary writer Khushwant Singh who practised as a lawyer at that time contested the case and Lahore court granted bail to Uma on the plea that Amritsar did not have any prison dedicated for women.

The case was eventually dropped as then administration withdrew the complaint. Prior to that, Hriday Paul Singh said, Uma spent about a month in Amritsar jail, in a barack meant for women criminals.

She was little over 12 when she made debut as “princess” in a play “Raj Kumari Latika” in Preet Nagar on June 7, 1939. The play was written and directed by her father Gurbaksh Singh. Gurbaksh Singh’s son Navtej Singh played the role of “prince” in the play.

Uma’s entry into the theatre at that time marked the entry of a woman in the plays when parents would not allow the women to act in the plays and the roles of women were performed by the male actors. Gurbaksh Singh broke the jinx by making his eldest daughter act in the play.

“Even though Punjabi theatre came into existence in 1895 with the play ‘Sharab Kaur’ staged at Temperance Hall, Amritsar, but it got due recognition with the first one act play ‘Suhag’ staged by I C Nanda in Lahore. Some Punjabi plays were being written and only a few were being performed, but no parents permitted their daughters to act in the plays. Even when S S Amol set up his theatre group Punjabi Natak Sabha in Amritsar, only boys were enacting the female roles,” said Amritsar based theatre personality Kewal Dhaliwal.

“The journey of Punjabi theatre got a novel swing when Gurbaksh Singh of Preet Lari established a new town Preet Nagar in 1938. He got an existing pond filled up and turned it into an open-air theatre. He wished his play ‘Raj Kumari Latika’ staged there. For the role of prince, his son Navtej Singh was chosen, but for the lead role of princess no girl was coming forward. Gurbaksh Singh was not willing to get this role performed by a boy, so he decided that his eldest daughter Uma will take up this role. The play was performed with great success,” as per Dhaliwal, who added that Uma then emerged as first female artiste of Punjabi theatre.

After that many more girls started participating in plays being staged at Preet Nagar, including Agya and Sampuran, the sisters of Jagjit Singh Arora, who later became Lieutenant General in the Army, and Rajinder Kaur who later on under the cine- name of Achla Sachdev became a well known actress.

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