On March 27, as locked-down halls marked World Theatre Day, Usha Ganguli posted a message on Facebook, “No fears, no fears, be safe.” She accompanied it with an audio clip of her performance from the play Antaryatra, in which she says, “Mirabai has told us, ‘Even if the greatest calamity befalls me, Mira will not stray from the path of her Lord.’ To stay true to your quest and keep striving is to keep living. I will also live. I have also lived.”
On Thursday morning, Ganguli, a veteran actor-director of the Hindi stage, passed away in Kolkata. She was 74 —four months short of her birthday — and is survived by hundreds of members and admirers of her theatre group, Rangakarmee, as well as her son and other family members. Ganguli was cremated at the Keoratola Burning Ghat in Kolkata with only a handful people in attendance due to isolation measures. In December, the actor-director would have celebrated 50 years of life in theatre.
A recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1998, Usha Ganguli created plays in which subaltern protagonists confront their social realities of disenfranchisement and oppression. Her prominent works range from Rudali, adapted from a story by Mahashweta Devi, Mannu Bhandari’s Mahabhoj, Ratnakar Matkari’s Lokkatha and Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Holi to Swadesh Deepak’s Court Martial, a suspense drama about caste discrimination in the Indian army, and a trilogy based on the life and writings of Saadat Hasan Manto. In the solo Antaryatra, she plays some of the most powerful women protagonists of theatre, such as Nora from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Himmat Mai, based on Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. In 2019, Ganguli directed the National School of Drama Repertory Company in Bayen, based on another text by Mahashweta Devi about a woman from the Dom community that is tasked with burying dead animals.
Ganguli was born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, where she, reportedly, got her first glimpse of the Brahmin-Dalit divide in India. After her family moved to Kolkata, she was introduced to Bharatanatyam, Tagore songs and the power of the performed word. She studied Hindi literature in university and the great doyen of theatre, Tripti Mitra put her through her paces in theatre. Ganguli founded Rangakarmee in 1976. Before she retired to devote herself completely to theatre, Ganguli used to be a senior lecturer in Hindi language and literature at Bhawanipur Education Society college in Kolkata. The interest in literature and academic writings is evident in Ganguli’s plays as is her extensive training in dance. Rangakarmee is credited with creating a niche for Hindi theatre in Kolkata, where most theatre productions attract full house. The troupe is also one of the most well-travelled in the country, having presented shows in Germany, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the US, among others.
One of the people who spoke to her last was an actor from her group, Anirudh Sarkar. “Her brother, who she was very attached to, had died and ma’am was very disturbed,” he says. On Wednesday, Usha Ganguli attended a puja for her brother, where she complained of feeling unwell. “She was to travel to her son’s house but was too ill. She returned home and told me, ‘Yeh lockdown mein koi emergency hoga toh main hospital kaise jaoongi?’ I offered to take her to the hospital immediately, but she began to feel better after having some medicines. At night, she had a light soup and slept,” says Sarkar. He saw a missed call from Ganguli at 7.15 am and called back. She did not answer. At 8.22 am, a domestic help called him to say that Ganguli had passed on. “The doctor says that she had suffered a cardiac arrest,” he adds.
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