Balwant Thakur, the pioneer of cultural identity in India is the youngest Indian citizen to have been bestowed one of the highest Indian honors – The Padma Shri for the year 2013.
1960 born, Balwant had an indelible impact on his early childhood where he grew up singing and dancing with traditional performers. His father Hari Saran Thakur, being a patron of traditional performers represented the State at many national events, inspired young artist further. At a very tender age he had developed the confidence to form a group with the help of his six friends ‘Seven Stars’ and staged plays like ‘Sabhya Saanp’ and ‘Kanyadaan’.
Later, he shifted to Jammu and graduated in Business Management and Economics from MAM college, during this period he started writing for Radio Kashmir, Jammu and presented talks, short stories, poetry, and short plays in their Yuva-Vani service. He continued acting, directing and writing plays for the inter-collage competitions and despite his ultimate ambition to do post graduation in dramatics, he was forced to join LLB (professional) to fulfill his parental aspiration.
Three years in the University turned out to be a turning point in his career where in quest of achieving excellence he strived hard, contributed in the renaissance and brought top honors in Dramatics for University of Jammu in Zonal and National events.
To avoid unnecessary interference and to have the creative liberty, Balwant, with the help of his theatre colleagues, established ‘Natrang’ in 1983.
In the first year of the inception of Natrang he surprised everyone by winning the State Academy award for best production ‘Chauraha’ directed by him. Within a short span of time, he was able to strengthen Natrang by producing and directing successful plays like ‘Neeli Jheel’, ‘Nanhen Kandhey Nanhen Pair’, ‘Singhasan Khali Hai’ and ‘Rang Nagri’. A new turn came to his theatre work in 1986 and he started exploring new possibilities in the themes rooted in his own soil and the language. Interestingly, he had not done any play in Dogri till 1986, though he directed plays in varied forms and themes and won State Academy awards for the year 1983, 1984, 1985, and 1986.
The first Dogri play ‘Bawa Jitto’ surprised everyone at the North Zone Theatre Festival at Kurukshetra organised by Central Sangeet Natak Akademi and was selected for National Theatre festival, New Delhi. Bawa Jitto, a premier play became a much vaunted production and he travelled with it to the whole length and breadth of the country.
In 1989 in search of exploring new alternatives to the set innovative conventions of theatre, he dared to experiment with Manu Bhandari’s popular novel ‘Mahabhoj’.
The idea was to transform the text into images, using actors bodies to have better and deeper communication across language barriers. He mounted ‘Mahabhoj’ with almost new actors and resultant work was declared best in the North zone and was selected for National theatre festival, 1990.
His first project with children ‘Mere Hisse Ki Dhoop Kahan Hai’ (Where is my share of sunlight) was supported by UNESCO. This play also broke the tradition of children’s theatre ‘Last rehearsal final show’ and the play was staged over fifty times at a stretch within and outside the state. Later its film represented India in Asia-pacific week at Bangkok (Thailand). In 1992, for his outstanding contribution to theatre he received the National ‘Sanskriti Award’ for theatre which is given to one theatre person in three years. Same year he got The Ford Foundation (USA) Grant Award for his work ‘Search for a new Theatre language’. He wrote plays like ‘Suno Eh Kahani’, Aaj Ki Aurat’, ‘Is Gran Gi Surg Banai Lo’, ‘Anpaden Da Hall’, ‘Jalo Khala’, ‘Mere Bi Ehen Kish Khaab’ and ‘Aag’ which were staged in 240 remote villages of J&K including in the most inaccessible areas of Udhampur, Doda, Rajouri and Poonch districts to shape up the rural minds through the magical power of theatre. On the other hand, his children’s theatre got a new momentum when he created the play ‘Aap Hamare Hain Kaun’. The play created vibrations and Natrang became the first group of the country which started travelling with a group of forty children to almost all the major cities of the country which included Chandigarh, Shimla, Delhi, Lucknow, Allahabad, Jodhpur, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Goa, and Bhubneshwar. After quitting the job of Secretary, J&K Academy of Art Culture and languages in the October 2003, he started giving full-time to his ultimate passion theatre and introduced two new projects in Natrang. The first was Natrang Theatre Festival- an annual event featuring the running repertoire plays of Natrang. In this series, the group broke all the records in 2007 and created a history in Indian Theatre by showcasing seventeen major plays by the same group of actors in Seventeen days and most of them were directed by Balwant Thakur. The second historic initiative was the starting of a weekly show ‘Sunday Theatre’ in the year 2004 which will complete non-stop 500 Sunday Theatre shows by the end of this year. History has never witnessed this kind of longest sustained regular theatre activity in this part of the world. Despite having curfews, Bands and disturbances in Jammu, Natrang actors sacrificed everything but never allowed this rarest weekly theatre happening to stop. There have been instances when the main group of actors was touring with productions, within the country and outside but Sunday Theatre series was never stopped.
One group of actors always stayed back to let this longest living weekly theatre show to continue.
In 2006, recognizing the importance of Balwant Thakur’s contribution to Indian Theatre, Chandigarh Sangeet Natak Akademi organized a retrospective of Balwant Thakur featuring five best plays written and directed by him with the title ‘Theatre Days with Balwant Thakur at Tagore Theatre, Chandigarh.
In 2009, he took the Dogri to International heights by making it to four theatre festival held in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Poland with his highly acclaimed Dogri play ‘Ghumayee’. His initiative of the revival of age-old theatre tradition of Kashmir ‘Bhand Pather’ is recognized as one of his major contributions to Indian Theatre.
In the year 2010 he took a major initiative to revive the dying cultural tradition of Kashmir. Involving over 1000 traditional Bhand Pather performers, Balwant Thakur with the help of eminent playwright Moti Lal Kemmu brought together twenty prominent Bhand Pather groups spread over the entire length and breadth of Kashmir Valley and trained them in new performatic idiom by infusing in them the latest developed techniques of play scripting, production and direction. The resultant work witnessed 40 new productions in Bhand Pather style which vibrated the entire Kashmir Valley through new innovations and attracted huge crowds. This initiative of Balwant Thakur not only revived the dying theatre tradition but is also seen as a major community mobilization effort which saw the participation of over two lac audiences.
For his most outstanding contribution he received the highest Indian honour in performing arts i.e, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for direction in theatre in 1999. He also has the distinction of having received All India Citizen Award for culture (1994), ‘Gurushree’ (1995), ‘Abhinayak Samman’ (1996), ‘Sapatrishi Samman’ (2001), ‘Kala Nidhi’ (2004), ‘Best Director Award Doordarshan Theatre festival’ (2005), and ‘Dogra Rattan’ (2006), Punjab Arts Council Honor-2007, Dogri Sanstha Award-2010, Maharaja Gulab Singh Memorial Award 2011, Rabindra Nath Tagore Award 2011 and many more.
Balwant is currently heading Natrang Jammu, which has the mission to become the ultimate destination of artists, writers, intellectuals and art lovers by making it one of the most happening place in the country. The institution is in the process of creating a theatre campus in Jammu housing a Theatre, Open-air theatre, workshop studios and a hostel. In addition to this he is working on a research project ‘Origin and Development of Dogri Theatre’ supported by Department of Culture, Govt. of India.