A life in theatre

A useful work on Badal Sircar, the theatre stalwart whose plays initially took up the concerns of the middle-class youth of Kolkata but later articulated the deprivation and brutalisation of the poor.

Published : Jan 06, 2016 12:30 IST

BADAL SIRCAR’s entry into Bengali theatre was a fortuitous occurrence. A town planner by training and an amateur theatre enthusiast by inclination, he became, in the second half of his life, one of the most influential figures in Indian theatre. His contribution, both as a playwright and as a producer of non-proscenium street plays, is of considerable significance.

He burst into prominence with Ebong Indrajit in 1963. The play was published in the journal of Bohurupee, one of the most respected theatre groups of its time in Calcutta (now Kolkata). It took theatre lovers by surprise with its modernist approach, all the more because there was a dearth of good original plays written in Bengali. That it was written by an amateur, though of genuine talent, increased the pleasure. This play, translated into many Indian languages, became a staple fare of Indian theatre in the mid-1960s and remained so for a long time.

Anjum Katyal’s book Badal Sircar: Towards A Theatre Of Conscience throws light on a generous and unusual man and his unwavering commitment to his work.

The civil engineering graduate from Bengal Engineering College, Shibpur, earned his bread from town planning until 1975. He served a stint in Nigeria in 1966-67. In 1957, he went to London, leaving behind his wife and two small children, for a “mind-broadening” experience, after he received a fairish sum of money by way of dues from his employer, Damodar Valley Corporation, a Government of West Bengal undertaking. The money was just about adequate. He lived frugally but gorged on what contemporary British theatre had to offer. “England was not the rough seas he had feared. A year with a civil engineering firm was followed by a town planning assignment ‘which I always longed for’. Soon, Sircar was sucked into London’s bubbling cultural cauldron. Parallel to viewing a spate of movies at a film club.... Badal Sircar’s mind feverishly sponged the richness of the British stage. ‘Fortunately, people on shoe-string budgets could still buy the cheapest seats,’ he says with a smile. ‘It was quite a feeling coming face to face with theatre greats Vivien Leigh and Charles Laughton, among others, live on stage. London’s where I came across a theatre in the Round. An arena version of Racine’s Phaedre , with the unforgettable Margaret Rawlins in the lead’, he adds” (page 15; “Badal Sircar off Stage”).

Sircar’s London stint prepared him for a life in the theatre. For the proscenium theatre he wrote plays such as Ebong Indrajit, Sara Rattir, Baki Itihas, Ballabhpurer Rupkatha, Jodi Aar Ekbar, Tringsha Satabdi and Pagla Ghora . All these became a part of modern Indian theatre. In his later years, perhaps disenchanted by the so-called limitations imposed on him by the proscenium theatre, patronised mainly by the educated middle classes, he founded the Third Theatre, which broadened his horizons and his audience base. In the words of Sumanta Banerjee, social historian and theatre aficionado, the sociopolitical context was just right for this change.

“While his [Badal Sircar’s] plays of introspection were shaped by the concerns and conditions of the Calcutta middle class youth of the 1960s, the Third Theatre took birth in the tumultuous decades of the late 1960s-early 1970s period, when the Naxalite movement was shaking up the status quo by raising a number of fundamentally important political and social questions. It challenged the traditional interpretation of Indian history by questioning the role of the national leadership in relation to the rural poor during the anti-colonial movement. It exposed the opportunism and expediency of the existing political parties in the history of post-independence India. It defied the conventional middle class-dominated conservative social norms and values’’ (page 96).

The cultural climate of West Bengal was just ripe for a flowering of unusual talents such as Badal Sircar’s. He was drawn into the sociopolitical maelstrom that sucked in so many, particularly the youth.

“The 70s may be termed a decade of the theatre movement in Bengal, among other things. Alternative theatre [like that of Badal Sircar] crystallised into a definite movement during that decade. Because theatre is such a directly life-oriented art form, turmoils of everyday living get reflected intimately in this form, mirroring the frustrations and dreams of ordinary people. During the 70s, the frustrations were over the existing social situation and the dreams of revolutionary social change.... Most of them were powerful critiques of the contemporary administrative system and state structure. Naturally the state didn’t look kindly upon these theatre activists; repression and police torture was the fate of many. In 1972, Ashis Chatterjee of Theatre Unit died of police bullets while acting in Lash Bipani . Police atrocities killed Prabir Datta, another street theatre activist, at Curzon Park in Calcutta in 1974.... It was this kind of state and inter-party terrorism, and its reflection in plays, that turned the 70s into the decade of street theatre in West Bengal’’ (quote from Street Theatre in Bengal: A glimpse by Bulbuli Biswas and Paramita Banerjee; Seagull Theatre Quarterly , 1997; pages 35-36).

There was no going back for Sircar. Middle-class angst, real enough a decade ago, was no longer the most important issue, but people, especially the teeming poor, trampled underfoot by the state, were.

Michhil (1974) was one of his most admired plays from the non-proscenium theatre days, inspired by certain political happenings. Sircar remembered: “I have always had a love-hate relationship with Calcutta. In the early 1970s I had this idea of making a play on Calcutta in the form of a collage. As Calcutta is known as a city of processions, Michhil seemed to be an appropriate name as well as a suitable way of making the play. In the immediately preceding years, so many young people and adolescents were killed by the police, brutally and cruelly, secretly and openly, that the image of the man who is being killed every day was very strong in my mind, and I had a vague idea of a clownish old man, probably visualising myself in the role” (quote from Sircar; Voyages in the Theatre, On Theatre; pages 115-16).

“The Old Man and a boy, Khoka, set out to find a ‘new home, a new road —and to join a true procession, one that will show them the way.

Khoka—What procession?

Old Man—The procession to show us a way. The way home.

Khoka (tired)—I’ve seen so many processions. They never show you the way. It’s always the same road, the same...

“At the end, the Chorus enters in a procession, winding their way through the audience, singing a song;

“A song of hope. A song for the future. It is a procession of dreams. A song of dreams. Dreams that Old Man and Khoka have dreamt. The people in the procession are holding hands. Old Man holds Khoka’s hand and leads him up to the procession and finally they become a part of it, part of their song. The audience is invited to join. The procession continues” (pages 146-147; quotes from Sircar; Three Plays; page 18 & page 52).

The writer Sadanand Menon observed thus on the role of the Left and its shabby treatment of Sircar’s commitment to political theatre. “How the humiliated Left Front in Bengal might have benefited if only they had watched and listened and paid attention to half the things on rural poverty, deprivation and the brutalisation of the poor in the state that Sircar had dealt with in his plays through the 1970s and 1980s.... Instead, they conveniently dismissed him as a ‘middle class messiah’.... What they refused to acknowledge was that Sircar and his Satabdi group represented the cleanest example within modern Indian theatre of a group relentlessly questioning its own politics and, in the process, persuading its audience into intense self-reflexivity” (page 237; Menon; Badal Sircar (1925-2011): A Curtain Call for Political Theatre ).

Sircar was born a Christian, although he ceased to be a churchgoer in his 20s. Christian ethics, which he imbibed in his boyhood, stayed with him the rest of his life.

He was well versed in Marxism and was a man of the Left all his life, but his version of the ideology was leavened by the idea of rendering selfless public service; in his case it was the classless, truly democratic theatre space open to all, not just the privileged classes. In the first volume of his autobiography, Purano Kasundi (Old Mustard), he writes about his association with the Communist Party of India. He talks about it in an interview given when he was past 80.

“I had been a member [of the CPI] since 1943.... I left the party in 1951. Before that, I had been suspended for a year for criticising the party’s role in the railway strike.... I didn’t join the party under the influence of some dada. I—and many others like me at that time—came to the party from a feeling that this world had to be changed. Even after leaving the party, I feel I am still doing its work—I mean the work I was there for, in the first place. The work of changing the world. That is not finished and I am still doing it. Through theatre” (Page 219; Nilanjan Dutta; “Badal Sircar: Ideology has not failed me”; http:currentnews. in/2011/01/03/ideology-has-not-failed-me [accessed on October 10, 2013]).

Anjum Katyal feels: “Direct, human communication becomes primary to him and he forsakes the proscenium for what he first terms the Third Theatre, then the Free Theatre: portable, flexible and inexpensive. This is a political choice to dedicate himself and his group to socially meaningful theatre, which can play a role in bringing about a positive change in society” (page 223).

Sircar was Director, Planning of the Calcutta Area Development Corporation (CADC), a West Bengal government initiative, when he resigned from it in 1975, after being there for just under two years. He quit saying that he could not take a salary while his mind was increasingly diverted by his theatre commitments. K.D. (full name withheld), who had joined the CADC, met Sircar once through common friends and was deeply impressed by the playwright’s refinement and learning.

He remembers: “He was a very intelligent and sensitive man. When you read his plays in Bangla, his style and refined use of the language still evoke admiration.”

On learning that K.D. had recently come from Delhi, Sircar asked if the information he had got about flyovers coming up rapidly in the capital city was true. On being told that it was, he said, “they are treating the symptom not the disease”. His experience and training in town planning proved him right. Despite a proliferation of flyovers in Delhi, traffic jams are a regular occurrence.

It would be specious to say that Badal (born Sudhindra) Sircar’s Free Theatre lost its sheen in the last years of his life. The members of Satabdi, a group he founded, had lost their energy, and the performances in rural, semi-urban and even urban Bengal that in happier times had been full of panache had now become mechanical. There can be many reasons for this decline, principally advancing age and increasing disillusionment with the national and local social scene and the failure of the Left, which he felt had betrayed the have-nots at a fundamental level.

Anjum Katyal’s book serves an important function in trying times where the politics of the ruling dispensation is geared to divert public attention from many urgent economic problems by evoking religious issues relating to the Hindu upper castes and the upper classes. Sircar’s life and work can not only inspire those involved in the theatre and the other arts but lay readers as well.

There is, however, a small caveat: she fails to mention the names of Shishir Bhaduri, an influential theatre director and actor during Sircar’s growing-up years, and Prava Debi and Monoranjan Bhattacharjee, other major actors from that period. She does mention Girish Chandra Ghosh and Kshirodeprasad Bidyabinode, figures from an even earlier period. Nevertheless, Anjum Katyal’s is a solid piece of work.

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