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The theatre and class contradictions

Print edition : Jun 09, 2001

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T+T-

The Mirror of Class: Essays on Bengali Theatre by Himani Bannerji; Papyrus, Calcutta; Rs.200.

IT is a pity that this remarkable text on 20th century Bengali theatre - its ideology and practice - has remained confined within the shores of India. This book is not merely an evaluation of Bengali theatre through the linked prisms of class formation and class awareness but also a penetrating sociological study that explores the emergence and advance of the urban Bengali middle class whose contradictions, aspirations and compromises have been adequately reflected on the stage. In this sense, the very last chapter "The Mirror of Class - Class Subjectivity and Politics in 19th Century Bengal" forms an integral part of the book. This class in question, ironically, preceded the "bhadralok" Communist of later years and, as a result, the high-pitched dramaturgy of Girish Chandra Ghosh also anticipated the sensational epic theatre of Utpal Dutt. The author has examined these links between the past and present at the levels of attitude and creativity with incisive clarity. In fact, the last sentence of the book "Both ruled and ruling, a kind of Janus at birth, the colonial middle classes through their reorganisation of cultural and intellectual life captured moments of class experiences and desires", prompts us to recall the dramatisation of the "captured moments" that followed in our contemporary world. No wonder, Utpal Dutt decided to focus on this fragmented colonial psyche by writing a play on Michael Madhusudan Dutt who was ambivalent enough to sway between "colonial" admiration and "anti-colonial" revolt.

All the seven chapters of this book are excellent examples of Marxian dissection of the Bengali theatre and mind. But if I were asked which two chapters score over the others, I will mention, unhesitatingly, "Representation and Class Politics in the Theatre of Utpal Dutt" and "Nation and Class in the Communist Aesthetics and the Theatre of Utpal Dutt". The author deliberately chose Utpal Dutt because he strode like a Colossus over the realm of Bengali theatre staging one production after another and, at the same time, trying to evolve a comprehensive theory of Epic Theatre which, the indefatigable Thespian hoped, should serve as a model for others.

Utpal Dutt, of course, borrowed the expression "Epic Theatre" from Bertolt Brecht, though his own praxis of "Epic Theatre" was poles apart from, indeed explicitly opposed to, Brecht's concept of the same. It is high time that we underlined this intrinsic difference because critics in India, often too glibly, draw a straight line from Brecht's "Mother Courage and her Children" to Utpal Dutt's "Barricade". Himani Bannerji is simply superb when she pinpoints the differences between the two dramatists and producers. In her words, "Utpal Dutt's Epic Theatre, unlike Brecht's Epic Theatre for class struggle, is first and foremost a nationalist theatre with an added on rather than intrinsic socialist agenda" (Page 13). When one elaborates this basic difference one concludes that whereas Utpal Dutt, closer to his own theatrical tradition and Stanislavsky (the Russian theatre director and actor), aspired to raise his Epic Theatre based on the reinvigorating power of myths, the wily Brecht formulated his vision by subjecting this very myth to question. One was anchored in his rich and vibrant epic-mythic mode, and the other delighted in sabotaging the myths from inside. Utpal Dutt needed colourful heroes, Brecht longed for a society which did not need heroes. Brecht's "Schweyk", "Mother Courage" and "Galileo" have nothing heroic about them in the Aristotelian or Elizabethan sense. Quite correctly, the analyst has traced the genesis of Utpal Dutt's epic-aesthetic to his admiration for (Josef) Stalin. In a trenchant sentence which closes the last chapter on Utpal Dutt, Himani Bannerji proposes in combative spirit, "His scheme of mythic realism is an aesthetic manifestation of his nationalist bourgeois socialism, whose code name could be Stalinism" (Page 118).

The succinct comparison leads to the unavoidable question: Why have Brecht's examples of Epic Theatre ("Mother Courage" and "Galileo") turned into classics and why are plays of Utpal Dutt - even those texts such as "Tiner Talwar" and "Dushapner Nagari" which mesmerised the audience - no longer read? Utpal Dutt could have claimed that his theatre sought to expedite revolution and did not seek immortality. But one could pose the counter-statement, namely, Brecht was no less a political being than Utpal Dutt and his plays were also devoted to the cause of Communism, unflinchingly? No doubt, the critic's sympathy lies with Bertolt Brecht. But her fairness also ensures that Utpal Dutt's ceaseless commitment receives the accolade that is due to it. In all his productions, some of them were breathtaking, Utpal Dutt achieved what he wanted to - "reaffirm the violent history of India, reaffirm the material tradition of its people, recount again and again the heroic tales of grand rebels and martyrs" (Page 70, Utpal Dutt's own words).

The basic question that the author has raised and also answered without mincing words is: To what extent has the politicised and progressive theatre of West Bengal dominated by the middle class since "Nabanna" (1944), the path-breaking production of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) in the 1940s, till our times been able to fulfil its essentially political function of drawing in the exploited to the auditorium and expediting the cause of a socialist revolution? In other words, has this theatre been the "child of changing, restless, crisis-ridden and violent times"? (Page 19). Unfortunately, the playwrights, directors and other theatre-workers, in spite of being fired by the dream of liberation, have remained rooted to their middle class anchor. And because of this class-conscripted attitude which shackles the Being as well as Consciousness, even the historic "Nabanna" ("The New Harvest") "gives us little or no indication of the social forces that structure and surround the lives" of the famine-stricken peasants. Indeed, what the critic highlights as the failure in "Nabanna" has turned out to be the paradigmatic curse of the Left Theatre of Bengal. The words she has employed to define the severe class-limitation of "Nabanna" could easily be applied again and again in the context of many other plays we see regularly at Academy of Fine Arts, Sisir Mancha and other auditoriums: "It was the middle class playwrights, with sympathetic observations of the miseries of the people, who wrote the plays, and it was middle class actors and actresses who put on tattered clothes, carried begging bowls or sticks and spears and spoke in dialects, carefully erasing the traces of the "proper" and "high" Bengali they had spoken all their lives" (Page 48).

This intrinsic, class-dictated deficiency created a tough barrier when the middle class theatre-workers attempted to cross the border and stage the Bengali adaptation of Maxim Gorky's Mother in a lower middle class, proletarian settlement. The theatre group "Chetana", helped by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), staged "Mother" in a field where red flags fluttered, but the mothers and daughters who constituted the audience hardly received any political education from the performance. They simply could not identify themselves with the "Mother" on the stage as was evident in the comment, "that mother is not like you and me. It's white people's mother" (Page 44). Above all, the Bengali version of the play, instead of tracing the emergence of the mother as a steel-hard proletarian figure who has realised the essence of class struggle and declassed solidarity, offered a typical Bengali mother, sentimental and moral in the bourgeois sense of the term. The play was highly normative, not in the least dialectical. And the author, who saw it all with her own eyes, had to conclude, "It seemed like a garish, over-coloured political poster... The image of the working class came from book to life, not the other way" (Page 42).

Even when this same group under the able direction of Arun Mukherjee staged a remarkable play like "Jagannath" where "class became palpable as a social relation in each episode" (Page 36), the audience remained strictly middle class. In what is possibly the most revealing section of the book, the author describes how the tea vendor's boy, classless by birth, prefers to sell tea to the theatre-going babus in place of seeing the play himself, ostensibly meant for him. His simple words expose the terrible gap that has grown between the classes: "These things are for you people, for the gentle folk. Don't understand what's going on, what's being said"(Page 33). What follows from these words is no less terrible - we, the middle class, view these artistic productions of the middle class to experience a catharsis of sorts. The more the sensation on stage, the more the intensity of our purgation. Hence we return after seeing "Tiner Talwar" as "relieved" human beings enwrapped in our own web of bourgeois moralism. Our alienation is complete. Hence, neither the performance nor our participation should be equated with the sensuous and liberating activity about which Marx spoke in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.

But we need elevating, creative labour even more urgently at this point of time when fascist-fundamentalist forces are hellbent to vulgarise and appropriate that very national history which inspired Utpal Dutt. Moreover, this labour should uphold the cause of social justice by forging a link between the oppressions and class, gender, caste and the new element of "race". Himani Bannerji, in "One Woman, Two Women, Without Women", shows how the class question is intrinsically linked with the feminist perspective. Her excellent interaction with Sobha Sen, one of India's great actresses, emphasises how in a semi-feudal, patriarchal set-up "class is engendered and gender classified" (Page 156).

It is doubtful if any other text on Bengali theatre has linked the history of dramatic performance with the history of the Bengali middle class with such scholarly verve, analytical brilliance and in so lucid a style. Using class as the defining prism, Himani Bannerji has focussed on the inherent limits of a class-defined creative enterprise whose Utopian resolve has not been nourished by the energy of classless activism. While reading her text, one is reminded of Louis Aragon's fervent query directed at Pablo Picasso: "Pablo, my friend what of our dreams / what of our dreams".

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