HARBHAJAN’S LAST CURTAIN CALL

Chaman lal Chaman pays a warm tribute tothe late actor, broadcaster and educationist Harbhajan Singh Preet

Some people remain with you even after they are gone. Their presence lingers on, though they are no longer in this world. Harbhajan Singh Preet, who died in March this year, is one such person.

It was around the mid-1950s, and Iwas newly arrived in Kenya from India. One evening I happened to tune in to aquestion-and-answer programme, ‘Aappoochhte hain’, on Nairobi’s Asian Radio, broadcast by Cable & Wireless Limited. The programme was presented by three school teachers, Dilbagh Chana, M Bashir AD and Harbhajan Singh Preet. This was my first audio encounter with Harbhajan, but I soon came to know that he was a regular contributor to the airwaves in Nairobi, broadcasting short stories, plays and features.

I was keen to participate in these programmes, so I wrote a short story and sent it in to Asian Radio. My story was accepted but, when I was called in to try readingitaloud on air, I failed the audition. Of course I was disappointed, but then Musa Ayoob, the producer, told me that Harbhajan Preet would read my story instead. It was a revelation. Harbhajan’s treatment of the narrative was highly professional, and I was elated just listening to him.Afterwards, he handed me a cheque for two guineas, amounting to Sh.42 in Kenyan currency. Flushed by this success, I wrote many more stories for broadcast and Harbhajan gave me lessons in how to project my voice and articulate words so that I was soon able to read my own stories on a regular basis.

Many contributors  to radio programmes in those days happened to be teachers who presented a wide range of programmes that were both entertaining and educational. Zafar Mirza, currently settled in Leicester, invented a character called Qazi jiwho specialised in presenting topical issues in a satirical style full of wit and humour.  Such was Qazi ji’s popularity that the then High Commissioner of Pakistan, Nawab Siddique Ali Khan, hosted a reception for the entire team behind the creation of this character. Listeners could not believe that Qazi jiwas played, not by a Muslim gentleman but by a Sikh one: Harbhajan Singh Preet.

Harbhajan could read and write Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi. When Joe Clement, Harbhajan’s lecturer at Teacher Training College, saw hisstudent presenting short sketches on stage, he immediately detectedthe young Harbhajan’sacting skills and selected him to play leading roles in Oriental plays in English. Joe produced and directed Lady Precious Stream, Kismet and The Singing Maid, which won Harbhajan a Best Actor Award in 1955. This was followed by the leading role in Noah by Obey and a monologue, Dr Faustus, that was televised by the Voice of Kenya.

With Joe Clement’s guidance and encouragement, Harbhajan travelled to the UK to study for a diploma in Teaching English as a Foreign Language at London University. On his return to Kenya, he was appointed a lecturer in Phonetics, Speech Training and Methodology at the Coast Training College in Mombasa, where he was soon promoted tothe position of Principal. Here Harbhajan continued to act, appearing in plays produced by the Little Theatre Club Mombasa.

Later, he was appointed Principal of Wajir Secondary School in the North Eastern Province of Kenya.  Even there, his love for the stage was infectious. Several of hisSomali students competed in the National Schools Drama Festival, where they won second place for the school.

On his return to Nairobi, Harbhajan collaborated with Harshad Joshi and Mukund Vyas of the Orient Art Circle. He also had various other productions to his credit, including Pushpanjali, a tribute to leading Punjabi poet Professor Mohan Singh, and Loona by Shiv Kumar Batalvi.

Harbhajan was something of a nomad but this never stopped him from becoming immersed in local eventswherever he happened to be. In Cardiff, Wales, he served on the Management Board of the Welsh Tagore Society, and the Ethnic Arts Team. As a founding member of NATAK drama group, he produced, directed and acted in Ramesh Mehta’s farce, Dhong and Uljhan.

Given his great talents, I felt humbled and honoured when Harbhajan directed and acted in my own bilingual play, Palam to Heathrow, and when he once again came to my rescue by lendinga helping hand to Dilbgh Chana, who directed my play Saare Jahan Se Achha, which celebrated 50 years of India’s independence. The late ‘Ghazal King’, Jagjit Singh, composed the music for that play.

My son Pinku – real name Rajiv – whom Harbhajan encouraged  to act in Palam to Heathrow, remembers him with these words: ‘In my first amateur dramatic role, I found Harbhajan’s direction and acting natural, effortless and with a professional attention to detail that inspired the entire cast.’

At Harbhajan’s funeral in Cardiff’s Sikh temple, I presented a poem dedicated to him, in which I tried to encapsulate my own memories of this staunch friend and respected colleague. It was written in Urdu but here I will give a couple of linesin English, kindly translated by my poet friend, Reginald Massey:

Rich memories of you are so bright,

They are so blessed and rich, so full of love and light. 

With the onset of age, it is difficult to find a friend;

Today, true friendship is almost at an end.   

Harbhajan is survived by his wife Harbans Kaur, son Ranjan, daughter Jyoti and two grandchildren, Hridaypal and Rasna.


Chaman Lal Chaman is a London-based Panjabi poet, lyricist and radio broadcaster who wrote the popular Panjabi song ‘Saun da mahina’, sung by Jagjit Singh in 1979. He also writes in Urdu and Hindi

 Related Post