Who was the man behind the martyr we know as Bhagat Singh? Was he the macho nationalist of calendar art, all rippling biceps and luxuriant moustache? Or the jingoistic patriot as seen in Bollywood films? In dancer Navtej Johar’s latest work Tanashah, which debuted at the recent Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, we get a glimpse of an altogether different man: 23 years old, in prison, meditative and days away from certain death. This Bhagat Singh is an atheist-spiritualist, angry with the oppressiveness of religion, the dreamy-eyed lover of Waris Shah’s epic Heer, an admirer of Ghalib’s irony, passionate and courageous and, above all else, human and humane.

Scroll.in spoke to Johar about his thoughts on Singh, why he made him the focus of Tanashah, and the artistic rage evident in his work. Edited excerpts:

We usually associate Singh with muscular nationalism. What did your study tell you of the man behind the martyr?
I have never seen him as a macho nationalist. For me, he is a fiercely passionate young man, who actually looks innocent and shy. I gauged this from his picture [taken in] a Lahore prison. His slight frame, the tilt of his head, his pleasant demeanour as he converses with someone...it all speaks of gentleness...he confirms [this impression] in his diaries when he says, “I was a very shy boy, caught up with issues and problems concerning the future.” In no way [does] he look like a “broken man”...or exhibit any kind of machismo or bravado. Yet, we know that he is firm in his convictions and position. And he wears his determination very lightly.

I don’t even see him as a nationalist, and if he is, his nationalism is very different. The most distinguishing factor is that he [doesn’t] hark back to an imagined, glorious past… He is critiquing it ruthlessly and cutting through the dross. His fight is for freedom – at many levels. He is not only anti-colonial, he is equally vehement against caste and class oppression, which [he believes] is perpetuated through ignorance and blind faith.

Also, the loosely knotted hair on top of his head evokes a familiar sense of being. He could be any one of us Sikh boys. I have grown up on stories of martyrdoms, and in my mind none of the men were macho. In fact, many of them were poets – fierce, committed and gentle.

You’ve used him to speak about the perils of bigotry. How much of it is Singh and how much you?
I see a lot in common with him. Apart from the shared ethos and language, it is his trajectory of enquiry that leads him from being an earnest believer to becoming an informed non-believer that I strikingly identify with.

He was raised Arya Samaji by his grandfather – as a young adult he spent hours meditating and chanting the Gayatri Mantra, then he began to look into the folly of faith and turns yatharthavadi, or a realist, challenging religion and the very construct of God...and came to the conclusion that religious doctrine was not only baseless but a clever design of control.

And that has been my story. From being a devout Sikh (and Hindu), my misgivings took me to study Samkhya and the other non-idealist darshanas. That was when I realised the unrelenting ambition of Vedanta, of how, over the last ten centuries, it has systematically managed to monopolise other equally valid and highly sophisticated schools of thought, by cleverly co-opting, obliterating or silencing them into non-existence.

The Sarva Darshana Sangraha, a 14th century doxography drawn up by Madhvacharya, listed 16 prevalent schools of thought in the subcontinent. Where has all this plurality gone? It is this systematic obliteration of rich plurality that saddens and outrages me. And I sense the same disappointment and anger in Singh. When it comes to this supremist agenda, which is also inherently casteist and misogynist and has been silently at work over the last 10 centuries, our voices are in sync.

In Tanashah, you say Singh was fascinated by the seemingly contradictory idea of spiritual atheism...
His fascination for adhyatmik nastikta (atheist-spirituality) inspires me deeply as well. And it is within the gap – between being a firm non-believer and an open-minded wonderer – lies the fountainhead of poetry. To me, Bhagat Singh, like Guru Gobind Singh, is essentially a poet.

Heer and Ghalib, what was their place in Singh’s life?
It is said that Singh would sing Heer in prison, and he also kept a copy of Ghalib’s poetry. My father’s generation was completely into Ghalib. And it is difficult to extricate Heer out of a Punjabi-speaking Punjabi. I absolutely love Heer, the poetry, the idea and, most of all, the possibility. That was one thing that I tried to touch upon in this work. Heer and Ranjha are the Radha and Shyam of Punjab, except they are devoid of sentimentality. It is an unnameable, self-dissolving, dark attraction between two fearless mortals that is divine, sublime and ever-haunting. Which the poetry of Bulle Shah, Waris Shah and Damodar, as well as Gurbani, makes accessible to those closely twined with the ethos and dialects of Punjab. I cannot imagine a man, who sings Heer and loves Ghalib, to not have an access to that space of in-betweenness.

Where did the rage in your voice spring from?
That rage springs from my disgust in the system, the popular narratives, fear-based cultural beliefs and conformist doctrines that all aim to subjugate and sublimate desire. I am deeply disgusted by how religion and polity both work in tandem to ensure disparity – at multiple levels. And I’m aghast at the idea that we feel there are no spiritual options left to us, but to conform to conventional religiosity.

Singh also points out the two religious options left open to him by the 20th century: Sanatana dharma or Arya Samaj, either a supremist and regressive belief system, or else a reformist version of it. He vehemently rejects both these options, including Sikhism, or any other religion for that matter. In the same way...I am today a satkarvadi, a materialist and even a rasasvadi. And in my work and through Singh, I evoke the other options available to us – options that are valid and centring, that outright reject the idea of any religion or idealism...Singh stands for the abject, thus his vehemence against caste and class. The boldness with which he literally bares his chest to death is the power that stands unflinchingly against a self-robbing ideal. And that power is very angry for the moment.

Was it a deliberate move to keep out the high emotions that surround our feelings about his hanging?
Yes, also it is not of interest to me. I am more drawn to the person, his dream, his anguish, his enquiry and most of all his clarity. I don’t wish to look at the sentimentalised perspectives that have emerged around him. His outrage was equally divided between the British and the regressive, oppressive belief systems of his own people. The moustache-twirling Bhagat Singh is an image, nay, an idea that serves a nationalist purpose but totally defeats the man. And I don’t make a distinction between then and now, therefore the look: he wears a hoodie and track pants, just the way an athletic 23-year-old would dress up today.

All images courtesy Navtej Johar.