Usha Ganguly, theatre legend and founder of Rangakarmee, passes away

Published : April 23, 2020 22:10 IST

Usha Ganguly, a file picture. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

On April 23, the Indian stage lost one of its most powerful figures with the sudden passing away of thespian Usha Ganguly, the founder of the famous Hindi theatre group, Rangakarmee. Ganguly, 75, had suffered a massive heart attack. She is survived by her son. Her husband Kamalendu Ganguly had passed away a few years ago.

Born in 1945 in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, in a family that hailed from Uttar Pradesh, Usha Ganguly was a trailblazer for women in Indian theatre. As a director-actor, she proved that in the male-dominated world of Indian theatre, she could not only hold her own against her male counterparts, but also carve out a space for herself without compromising her artistic vision for commercial success. With productions like Mahabhoj, Lok Katha, Holi, Court Martial, Rudali, Himmat Mai, Manto aur Manto, and Kashinama, her place in the pantheon of the greats of Indian theatre is assured.

National award winning film and theatre actor Sohini Sengupta believes that Usha Ganguly paved the way for future generations of women to make their mark in theatre. “Like every other place, the theatre is also a very patriarchal place. But Usha Ganguly was like a warrior. There were many who tried to bring her down, but could not. She never gave in. Hers is truly an inspiring journey. She had a larger-than-life personality, and there was much one could learn from her,” Sohini told Frontline.

After completing her Masters in Hindi from Shri Shikshayatan College in Kolkata in 1971 Usha joined Bhowanipur Education Society College as a Hindi teacher, from where she retired in 2008. However, academics could never overshadow her passion for theatre, and alongside teaching she was acting in plays. In 1976, she founded the theatre group Rangakarmee, and from that point onwards began to chalk out her own path in the world of fine arts. Although her plays were in Hindi, her audience was by no means confined to the Hindi-speaking people. She drew inspiration from various sources, her subject matter was diverse and her message universal. From Rabindranath Tagore to Saadat Hasan Manto to Mahasweta Devi to Bertolt Brecht, Usha Ganguly had a wide-ranging repertoire, and every production had her unmistakable touch of aesthetic beauty combined with a powerful socio-political message. Her training as a dancer was reflected in her presentation, with its touch of choreography and delicate stage design. A Leftist throughout her life, each and every production of hers was an expression of her political ideology and testament to her social commitment. In fact, Ganguly, along with Shyamanand Jalan, opened up the scene for Hindi plays on the Bengal stage and broke down language barriers.

“Her early productions were almost completely political in their subject matter and presentation. Later the subject matter changed a little in the 1990s, and we see her message becoming more social in nature. Her productions were so powerful that we see no other woman director coming even close to her,” academic and theatre personality Sampa Sen told Frontline. According to Sen, Ganguly’s Hindi productions also helped put Bengali theatre on the national stage. “Even if the language was Hindi, her art had its source in the tradition of political Bengali theatre, and her plays are seen as an integral part of the Bengali theatre movement,” said Sen