The Liar Tells the Truth: Irshad Panjatan

“In pure mime, the artist has to depend entirely on his body on an empty stage to create an atmosphere around him, plus the characters he depicts, to tell the story without any dialogues, music, or songs, and without any external aids like props and decorations. He has to fill the stage like a painter fills his canvas.”

Irshad Panjatan is a well-known mime artist and actor. He is entirely self-taught. He began as an actor and realized that a story could be told entirely without words or props. (Full disclosure: Irshad Panjatan is my cousin.)

This book is his autobiography, told in a series of vignettes.

Panjatan was born in 1931 in pre-Independence Hyderabad—which at that time was a princely state—and was a teenager when India became independent. His memories of being a child in Hyderabad are evocative of a long-gone era. He grew up in a home with beautiful surroundings. The house was on “a plot covered with grass and blue flowers. It was fenced off on one side by a row of cactus plants… On the other side, flowed a small stream; the water was so clear that one could see the glittering, sandy, light-brown bottom. … A peaceful silence prevailed.”

He remembers taking the public bus, which would obligingly stop for people, even when there was no official bus stop. Everyone knew each other, and birthdays were celebrated by decorating the bus with paper flowers, and with sweets being given out.

Panjatan’s heart was always in acting. He quit a steady job as an aviation engineer in Hyderabad and took a train to Bombay.[1] Armed with letters of introduction to actors, producers and directors, Panjatan found work in the Bombay film industry (before it became Bollywood) with some of the greats of Indian cinema, such as director K.A. Abbas and actor Dev Anand.

The turning point came when Panjatan joined the Hindustani Theatre in Delhi, a theatre company that aimed to revive the plays of Kalidasa.[2] It was in this period that he discovered the art of mime by actually performing it. An art critic saw him rehearsing and gave him a book on mime. He used the book to teach himself, and staged his first solo show in 1962 to a full house in Delhi.

Panjatan took his act abroad, travelling on a shoestring budget around Asia and Europe. He eventually moved to Berlin to be with Ingrid, a young German woman whom he met in India. They married, and still live in Berlin. Panjattan has gone on to act in films, both Indian and German.

What comes through in Panjatan’s autobiography is his curiosity and openness towards the world. He sees the best in people and rarely criticizes anyone, and people respond to that. There is a simplicity throughout his book, which is refreshing. He is equally delighted at working with the renowned director K.A. Abbas and helping an unsuccessful street vendor selling plastic tablecloths to improve his sales pitch. In his early days in Bombay, Panjatan was more comfortable sleeping on the pavement with other homeless people than living in a smelly room above a garage. The accounts of his travels also reflect on his openness. Because of this, complete strangers help him out.

I enjoyed this book (partly also because I know a few of the people he writes about). Some of his stories had me laughing out loud. I loved the chapters where he talks about mime: his passion for his art really comes through. In terms of language, Panjatan makes it clear at the start that English is not his first language. My one gripe, though, is that we could have done with more dates in the vignettes.  

I remember seeing Panjatan—or Tom Bhai, as we call him (a childhood nickname)—on stage when I was a teenager. All these years later, I still remember his performance. As someone who loves reading, I was used to stories with words. But here was a storyteller who had my complete attention without a single word being spoken. Now, after reading his book, I know so much more about mime and his extraordinary life. 

[1] Known as Mumbai since 1995.

[2] Kalidasa was a Sanskrit author in the 4th or 5th century CE and considered one of India’s greatest playwrights and poets.

2 thoughts on “The Liar Tells the Truth: Irshad Panjatan

    1. suroor alikhan

      Yes, he is my cousin! My mother was the youngest of her siblings and I am the youngest of mine, which explains the age difference. 🙂 Irshad is an incredible mime and a very generous and warm person. His book should be on Amazon.

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