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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

When all the world was onstage

In the turbulent ’70s, even before the Emergency was imposed, the Calcutta Police was getting desperate to clamp down on the “Satu...

Written by Shantanu Datta |
August 30, 2004

In the turbulent ’70s, even before the Emergency was imposed, the Calcutta Police was getting desperate to clamp down on the “Saturday Shows” at Surendranath Park where groups of young men and women would stage an open air theatre performance, the content of which would naturally be provocative in nature. One such Saturday (July, 1974), in a particularly brutal show of might, a young spectator was killed and the performers arrested. There was an outpouring of anger with Calcuttans taking to the streets in a show of unprecedented solidarity. And five weeks later the right to perform at Surendranath Park was re-established and celebrated by yet another protest march of over 10,000 people that included all the leading lights of film and theatre. Those were the days when Calcutta cared.

At the ripe old age of 79 today, one of the founder practitioners of that evocative and soul-stirring theatre movement, Badal Sircar, was brought back into our — and hopefully Bengal’s — collective consciousness when celebrated actors from the Marathi stage chose to honour him at a two-day theatre festival in Pune. What was also particularly noble of Amol Palekar and the local Bengali community was the quiet way in which a purse was generated to help Badalda tide over his recent horrifying accident — an experience he narrates with a dose of his infectious humour as, “I got a rare glimpse of a truck’s underbelly as the wheels went over my arm”.

When Badal Sircar decided to step down from the proscenium, he did so because he no longer wanted to preach to an audience holed up in the dark. Michhil, Bhoma, Basi Khobor, Spartacus were plays that were performed in parks, street corners and remote villages with the audience sitting all around. His Third Theatre was theatre of the poor. Sans artificial lights, expensive sets, props and make-up, it was his way of freeing his craft from the “clutches of money” — his troupe, Satabdi, and all the others it inspired do not charge tickets. Instead, a donation box is kept at each performance for voluntary contributions.

Sircar is also one of India’s most translated playwrights. Though left to him, he is “just a theatre person who began with acting, then directing and because I wanted plays to my liking, I started writing.” During the time Sircar penned seminal works such as Ebong Indrajit, Paglaa Ghoda and Saari Raat, three others far away from Bengal were exorcising their own demons to write plays that were new, yet relevant to the present context — Vijay Tendulkar (Shantata Court Chaloo Ahe, Ghashiram Kotwal), Mohan Rakesh (Adhe-adhure, Aashad Ka Ek Din) and Girish Karnad (Yayati, Hayavadana, Tughlak). If there was a renaissance in modern Indian theatre, it was these four who made it happen.

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So when Palekar managed to gather the likes of Tendulkar, Satyadev Dubey, Pratibha Agarwal (she has translated many of Sircar’s plays), Nana Patekar, Amrish Puri, Sulabha Deshpande and a host of others, it was more than just a group of talking heads soaking in Pune’s glorious weather. It was a tribute to a quartet — Mohan is no more — that inspired a generation with its power to dream and its vision to fulfil that dream. It was also a happy occasion to revisit an old question: How relevant is theatre today? How can an Ebong Indrajit stir up a Gen Next so intoxicated with this age of cool? When the primary concerns of an increasingly self-serving society is to debate the pros and cons of, say, an international airport in Pune, how can the metronomic rendition of a theatre chorus without any background score provoke it? The ’60s and ’70s were naturally troubled times and the intellectual props used by dramatists to provoke the audience then may not be enough now.

These are tough questions. And thanks to the stage set up by Palekar, at least we got to addressing them. Being the guest of honour, Sircar was burdened with the task of coming up with answers. He did. “Continue doing what you are doing. I have no doubt about the methods we adopt. I also don’t have all the answers. But what I do know is that we must keep at it.”

Simplistic? Maybe. But that’s a start. It’s also something his protagonist, Indrajit, would agree with. For, as in the play, while walking on railway tracks, Indrajit looks back to see the lines meet in a dot far behind. It’s the same in front of him. The more he walks, the dot moves further away. But he must continue walking. That’s Indrajit. Among the run-of-the-mill Amals, Bimals and Kamals and their aspirations, there’s always an Indrajit, a bit of whom is in us all — that’s why they keep walking.

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