On this day 39 years back the foundation of a global brand NATRANG was laid by Balwant Thakur. No one knew that one day this name will become household and will bring immense glory and pride for this part of the world. Today when we talk of the global identity of our language and culture no one can deny the fact that it is Natrang which gave this region a new recognition internationally through its highly magnificent theatre productions and artistic creations. Be it Russia or Germany, South Africa or England, UAE or Mauritius, Italy or China, people out there have started recognizing the intellectual and cultural strengths of this region all due to the earnest efforts of Natrang. The unique plays created by Natrang are analyzed and discussed in major theatre institutions of the world for their originality and new innovations. The Oxford press UK, South African Theatre Journal and Drama Review New York have special mentions of Natrang’s distinctive contribution to contemporary world theatre. Prior to Natrang no one had the opportunity to witness mega shown with hundreds of artists on stage creating electrifying visual imagery the way Jammu has witnessed in Natrang’s out of world productions like ‘Rangla Jammu’, ‘Gulab Gatha’ ‘Mata Ki Kahani’, ‘Colors of Jammu and Kashmir’ and ‘Celebrating Diversity’.
On 15th of May, 1983 the theatre lovers at Abhinav theatre were taken by a surprise when Natrang declared its emergence by staging two plays ‘Neeli Jheel’ by Dharamveer Bharti and ‘Nanhen Kandhey Nanhen Pair’ by Srikant Verma under the innovative direction of Balwant Thakur. The lead actors included Arvind Anand, Vijay Attri, Asha Arora, Prabodh Jamwal and Arun Sharma. 39 years have passed, the majority of them are still associated with Natrang in different capacities and interestingly the lead actor Arvind Anand still plays the lead role of iconic play ‘Bawa Jitto’. In the very first year of it’s inception, Natrang again surprised by winning the best play of the year in the annual drama festival of J&K Academy of Art Culture and Languages and continued this tradition of winning 1st position for the years 1984, 1985 and 1986 under the mindblowing direction of Balwant Thakur. Prior to Natrang no group could ever make it to any theatre festival outside from Jammu and it was Natrang which registered its presence at the National level in the year 1985 and continued winning top national honors for outstanding work till the year 1990. Fact remains that Dogri Theatre was brought into national limelight by Natrang. It was perhaps Natrang which has been instrumental in spreading the essence of Dogri language and culture throughout the entire length and breadth of this great nation India and beyond. In all these years Natrang never limited itself to the conventional approaches of theatre making but experimented altogether new innovative ways of the creation of outstanding art works. For that it opened new corridors by introducing multiple wings in Natrang which included ‘Natrang Theatre Camp’, ‘Natrang Theatre Laboratory’ ‘Natrang Children Theatre’ ‘Natrang music and dance repertory’ ‘Natrang Theatre Repertory’ ‘Natrang Script Bank’ ‘Natrang Resource Centre’ ‘Natrang Sunday Theatre’ ‘Natrang archives and documentation centre’. As of now Natrang takes pride in the fact that it possesses the entire repository of traditional folk performing modes of Jammu region in digital form in its archives and documentation centre. Rarest forms which have died down due to the continued neglect of the state have been preserved by this foresighted cultural institution. The longest living contemporary theatre plays of the country both by adults and children are the proud dynamic productions of Natrang.
In 39 years Natrang created all-time record of the country by staging 7114 shows. The credit of maximum number of participation as actors is shared by Neeraj Kant, Anil Tickoo, Suresh Kumar, Arvind Anand, Sanjeev Gupta, Vikrant Sharma, Sumeet Sharma, Pankaj Sharma, Juhi Singh, Sat Salarbi, Vijay Bhat, Dimple Sharma, Mohit Sharma, Mohd. Yaseen, Rahul Singh, Gaurav Jamwal, Subhash Jamwal, Gauri Thakur and Sajra Qadir and in these years over forty actors of Natrang brought National/International honours and acclaims. From National scholarships to International fellowships, these recognitions gave a distinct identity and pride to Jammu theatre. Prominent honours included International fellowships to Balwant Thakur (Ford Foundation USA) Harish Khanna (British Council UK) Ashish Nijhawan (Inlaks, USA), National Awards to Balwant Thakur (Padamshree, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Sanskriti Award, National Senior Fellowship, Gurushree Samaan, Abhinayak Samaan, UNESCO Recognition, World Theatre Day Honour). Anil Tickoo (Sangeet Natak Akademi Award & National Fellowship), Sanjeev Gupta, Sumeet Sharma, Ashish Nijhawan, Vikrant Sharma, Sunil Palwal (Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Yuva Bismalla Khan Award) Deepika B. Thakur (National Fellowship) Neeraj Kant (National Fellowship) Mohd Yaseen (National Fellowship and Scholarship), Rahul Singh (National Fellowship and Scholarship), Sajra Qadir, Shivam Singh, Gopi Sharma, Kritika Bhau, Rhythm Misher, Asma Gul, Vrinda Gujral (National Scholarships).
In these years, the plays which vibrated the theatre scene of the country included ‘Bawa Jitto’ ‘Ghumayee’ ‘Mahabhoj’ ‘Aap Hamare Hain Kaun’ ‘Chauraha’ ‘Poster’ ‘Mere Hisse Ki Dhoop Kahan Hai’ ‘Sainyan Bhaye Kotwal’ ‘Raktbeej’ ‘Comedy of Terrors’ ‘Suno Eh Kahani’ ‘Kanjoos’ ‘Holi’ ‘Mind Games’ ‘Richard III’ ‘Choona Hai Aasmaan’ and ‘Kaun Nachaye Naach’ etc. Natrang has produced over two thousand actors and many have made their mark in films and TV world as well. Prominent among them include Bhanu Goswami, Anjali Abrol, Sunil Palwal, Harish Khanna, Neelu Dogra, Tajasvi Sharma, Ekta Kaul, Mansi Sharma, Vikram Sharma, Mridul Suri, Nariender Sachchar, Arvind Anand, Mohit Sharma, Pankush Verma, Ashok Verma, (Vrinda Gujral and Satyam Mehra Child Artists). In addition to having Seven pass-outs of National School of Drama and Seven Masters in Dramatics, Natrang sent four artists for International studies which included Harish Khanna (London School of Acting and Speech), Aeishesh Nijhawan (London International School of performing Arts) Aarushi Thakur (University of Leicester, UK & Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, London) and Vikram Sharma (Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, Manhattan, New York USA). The outstanding contribution of Suraj Singh, (Music) Brij Mohan (Music) Suraj Ganjoo (Lights) Ankush Lakhnotra (Lights) Chander Shekhar (Publicity Concepts and designs) attributed immensely to the growth and development of this global brand Natrang. In the year 2016, Natrang brought yet another laurel for Jammu & Kashmir by presenting its cultural diversity at London where Natrang performances were cherished by more than 50,000 audiences at the historic Trafalgar Square. Natrang has an ultimate dream for Jammu and a mission to establish this place as an International destination of theatre. The Institution is all set to create an International level campus in Jammu housing an auditorium, two Studio Theatres, theatre residences, resource centre and an exclusive centre for children.
Fact remains that it was Balwant Thakur who dreamt, nurtured and gave an outstanding vision to this global brand Natrang but this also is a reality that he is on a foreign posting and is currently serving in Ministry of External Affairs as the cultural diplomat of India since last three years. Justifying his absence he once said that I want the second line of actors/directors/creators of Natrang to hold the flag and carry the legacy. But this is also the ultimate truth which has been summed up by eminent theatre critic Prof. Chaman Ahuja in the chapter Theatre of Jammu & Kashmir in his highly critically acclaimed book ‘Contemporary Theatre of India’ @ page 139 which reads like this “To sum up both Jammu & Kashmir hold out promises of a potential that is likely to be realized unless Kashmir regains peace and Balwant Thakur regains his priorities”
Let’s hope he joins back and accelerates it’s momentum manifold to take this brand Natrang to the ultimate heights of excellence.