Spandan, a theatre group in Kolkata, sets up a website chronicling the legacy of the Indian People's Theatre Association and serving as a database for all socially committed theatre groups in the country.
On a rough count there are more than 15,000 theatre groups all over India. Without a proper chronicle, their activities remain relatively unknown in the country, let alone outside. Even the present generation may not be aware of the pivotal role played by the people's theatre groups in general and the IPTA in particular in the cultural awakening of India at a critical juncture of its history.
Although Indian history is not lacking in great dramas from the time of Kalidasa and Bhasa, the social milieu in which this classical culture developed did not endure till the modern times. In the 19th century, with the cultural impact of British rule and English education, modern drama made its appearance in Bengal, Maharashtra and South India. But even then it had no roots in contemporary reality, being mostly costume dramas drawing upon historic romances, Puranic tragedies and romantic stories from the Indian epics. "Social realism" was yet a far cry.
It required the cruel jolt of the Second World War, with famines and starvation deaths in the country on the one hand and repression by the colonial masters in the wake of the Quit India Movement and the aggression by the fascist powers on the Soviet Union on the other, to awaken the Indian middle class to the harsh realities. This found expression in the All India People's Theatre Conference in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1943 under the auspices of the IPTA. Its stated objective was to portray through the stage and other traditional arts the internal and external crises facing Indian society and polity and to enlighten the masses about their rights and the proper way to fight the twin evils of imperialism at home and fascism abroad. The conference set up not only an all-India committee, with N.M. Joshi, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), as president, but also provincial committees in Bengal, Punjab, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
The new movement was reflected in a wave of realistic performances in the field of theatre, music and cinema. The most important among them were the plays "Navanna" (New Harvest) by Bijon Bhattacharya, "Nava Jiboner Gaan" (Song of New of Life) by Jyotirindra Moitra and the film Dharti ki Lal (Children of the Earth) by K.A. Abbas. The common feature was the vivid portrayal of stark reality, especially of the toiling masses. Similar performances of varying degrees of excellence were reported from all over the country - "Desha Sathi" in Marathi, about the attack on the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany; "Prarabdhan" in Telugu; and "Zubeida", directed by Balraj Sahni and based on the story of a Muslim girl from Malabar.
"Navanna" was a turning point in the history of the cultural movement of Bengal. The play, directed by Shambhu Mitra, depicted in four acts the grim tragedy of the Bengal peasantry during the 1943 famine. The famous savant, Professor D.P. Mukherjee of Lucknow University, aptly summed it up by saying that he had only "imagined the presence of social realism in art", but after seeing "Navanna" in the People's Theatre he was full of hope for the future. This hope sprang from Karl Marx's famous observation that an idea becomes a material force when it grips the masses. The IPTA, through its performances, brought about a revolution in the awareness of the working class, thus fashioning a weapon of sorts for social transformation.
LEST this great legacy of the IPTA all over undivided India should fade into oblivion, Spandan has embarked on this venture. The total cost of launching and maintaining the website would be well over Rs.50,000, and the resources at the disposal of the group are modest, to say the least. But the group is encouraged by the spontaneous response of theatre-loving people in the country. "Already more than 2,000 donors from Kolkata alone have come forward to help us out," said Sangram Guha, dramatist and the director of Spandan. "We have resolved to set aside 25 per cent of our earnings from shows for the maintenance of the website," he said.
Even though the IPTA has been one of the most important and influential cultural organs of the Left, this effort is not just a political exercise. It is meant to serve as a social and cultural bridge across global barriers. Politically, it represents a unified stand of artistes against oppression and exploitation. Like-minded intellectuals and scholars are getting increasingly involved in this project. "We are getting hundreds of e-mails every month already. A new area has been opened. So many people have shown so much interest in the activities of the IPTA and our productions, that it is quite unbelievable," said Guha.
An e-mail message that the organisers received from France is a clear indication of the interest the Western world is beginning to show in the Indian theatre movement. It reads:
Dear friend, Thank you very much for this website. I was expecting for a long time about this type of organisation, and I am happy to see this. Could you please open one different comprehensive section regarding the history of IPTA and all of their progressive dramas? I along with some of my friends are really getting excited about your two productions "Operation Flush" and "16 Millimetre". Can you send a copy of this? Please keep in touch. Thank you again. With best wishes and love to you and your comrades. Janc Presso, Paris, France.
Sangram Guha and his team, comprising dramatist Samudra Guha, actress Shampa Sen, Arijit Upadhyay and Sumit Dasgupta, are also working on setting up a database of all the socially committed theatre groups in the country. "As many as 6,500 theatre groups all over the country have already been contacted for our search engine in the website, and they have already sent photographs and a synopsis of their works and their activities. Once this list becomes more complete, we will be putting it up on our website," said Sangram Guha. The website will also contain a discussion forum on issues related to terrorism in the last 15 years.
The project is an ambitious one. The task at hand - not just spreading Indian theatre, but also unifying artists under a common banner for a common cause - is daunting. It deserves the support of all right-thinking people, though the beginning is small. Many great achievements have such small beginnings.