Radical modernist

Print edition : June 17, 2011

BADAL SIRCAR IN a 2004 photograph. One would like to think that the playwright will continue to dominate the theatrical landscape for a long time to come. - SAMPATH KUMAR

Badal Sircar (1925-2011) liked his theatre to be representative of people's desires and experiences and to be with them and among them.

BADAL SIRCAR was the complete modernist in Indian theatre, carefully treading through the huge repertoire of devices realism brought to the 20th century stage and emerging on the other side and, at the same time, skirting the seductive richness of a vibrant people's culture, which the urban intelligentsia was gradually discovering. Internationally speaking, the modernist had by then ceased to be the elegant flaneur, a slightly decadent stroller through the angst-ridden cityscape, celebrated by Walter Benjamin in his account of Baudelaire's Paris. After the two World Wars of the 20th century, he turned into a stalker in the 1950s, grimly moving through the aimless scuttle of unheroic creatures, all waiting for a whimpering end.

Sircar discovered this new inflection of modernism in the mature phase of his career, starting with Ebang Indrajit ( And Indrajit, written in 1963 and staged in 1965) and then going on to develop both performance and stagecraft indices that would sustain this discursive sensibility.

Spiritual restlessness in the text, Sircar increasingly felt, should have an objective correlative in the movement of bodies on stage and the constrictions of the proscenium stage must go. The viewer must be a part of the performance. His theatre moved from wordy sprawls confined within space separators to actually existing social spaces that people were comfortable with. It is not surprising that he found deep affinities with Joan Littlewood, Yury Lyubimov and Jerzy Grotowski though his concerns were deeply rooted in the milieu he was most used to, the troubled city of Kolkata and its middle-class Bengali life.

He knew very well that modernist work in a poor, vast, multilingual, post-colonial country under oppressive ruling classes meant a great deal more than catching the winds of change among the intelligentsia. His commitment, therefore, was far more political than that of many of his European and Indian contemporaries.

But this rootedness was neither unconditional nor static. There was an immense restlessness in Sircar's external itinerary of life: changing jobs, moving house, going from one part of the globe to another, running away from secure havens to unknown locations. This was matched by an inner dynamism in his career as a dramatist and director.

The young Sircar was only intermittently docile. Born Sudhindra Sircar in a convert Presbyterian family of north Kolkata, he went to school like a good son but read only what he liked and just about managed to get reasonable grades. He attended church with his family, but one day, while still a schoolchild, announced to his shocked parents that he had lost his faith. He fell in love with a cousin on the Hindu side of his family and married her in spite of family opposition and an uncertain income.

Strongly attracted to the liberal arts (his father was a Professor of History), Sircar nevertheless chose to be a civil engineer and town planner and did very well at his various jobs. Much later, in his sixties, he decided to go through an academic course in comparative literature at Jadavpur University. His decisions to travel outside India in the early part of his career were made on the spur of the moment. But Britain and Nigeria taught him a great deal about both sides of colonialism, apart from helping him further his career as a town planner.

A brief sojourn in France exposed him to rich cultural influences. He worked hard at his jobs everywhere: training assignments abroad; short stints in the private sector; teaching stints in various institutions, including Jadavpur University; and planning jobs at the Damodar Valley Corporation, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and the Kolkata Metropolitan Planning Organisation. But his work as a dramatist, director and actor went on everywhere, aided by a devoted band of friends and followers.

The other vital element in Sircar's early life was his association with the Communist Party of India (CPI), particularly on the trade union front. This was his preferred terrain of radical politics, rather than the cultural front, which was dominated by the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). The relationship with the CPI lasted a number of years and eventually waned, largely because Sircar became busy with career, family and the theatre, but the political tone of his work and abiding personal friendships showed up in his preferred intellectual environment. This bond with the organised Left is not very often stressed.

Instead, Sircar was misleadingly thrust into the absurdist mould of post-War modernism, which is marked by narrative inconsequence, split subjects and ideological scepticism, conveniently at hand in the climate of the Cold War battle of ideas. He is definitely not in the company of Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Edward Albee and Harold Pinter, nor can he be classed with Vijay Tendulkar and Mohan Rakesh.

Sircar's "Ebang Indrajit "(And Indrajit) being performed by the Madras Players and Evam in Chennai in May 2005. He wrote the play in 1963, and it was staged for the first time in 1965.-R. RAGU

One problem the conventional Left intellectual had with Sircar was that his leftist convictions did not take him on the high road to radical realism or socialist realism. This was the main thrust of the Progressive Writers' Movement and the IPTA, and one must remember that this powerful model of artistic work was being globally exported to left-wing cultural movements by the prestigious Soviet Writers' Congress.

Theatre in West Bengal owed a great deal to this current of realist creativity. Bijan Bhattacharya and the early Shambhu Mitra and Utpal Dutt are unthinkable without it, and subsequent drama has largely followed in their footsteps. Sircar was different. He was restless, footloose, innovative and experimental. Therefore, he took his time arriving at the domain of radical modernity.

His early work in the theatre, mostly private affairs in the company of family and friends, reflected the eclecticism of the time. He adapted well-known bestsellers, historical romances, thrillers and comic stories mostly, and revelled in putting together production after production in the conventional proscenium mode of the day. He wrote or adapted, directed and acted in all these plays. These were mostly one-off affairs. But he had always aimed to write original plays himself. Solution X of 1956 was loosely based on Howard Hawks' Monkey Business (1952) and Borho Pishima ( The Elder Aunt) was written in London but first produced in 1960 in Kolkata, with the participation of friends and family.

At this time Sircar founded a cultural circle called Chakra and regularly organised discussions, readings and rehearsals of plays, often without any subsequent staging. Shanibar ( Saturday) was written after he returned from London and staged almost immediately. Experiments were going on all the time. Finally, Ebang Indrajit was written in 1963 and was first read to a small circle of friends and acquaintances, mostly left-wing intellectuals. It did not lead to anything much. Bohurupee, led by Shambhu Mitra, had booked the play, but another group, Shoubhanik, came to an arrangement and staged it for the first time in Kolkata in 1965. Sircar saw the production when he came back on leave from Nigeria and was livid. But it created an immediate impact, whatever the quality of production.

Shattering illusions

I was a young lecturer at Jadavpur University when I saw the play at Muta-Angan, the small open-plan auditorium regularly used by Shoubhanik. The group had obviously spruced up the production after the playwright's outburst, but the quality of the performance was still rather poor, and part of the audience came away unsatisfied and puzzled.

What stood out was the power of the text. Much of it is loosely strung free verse from the writer, but what comes from Amal, Bimal, Kamal and Indrajit and Manasi are so integrally related to the rhythm and tonality of what the writer offers, often directly to the audience, that the theatrical experience not only shatters the cherished illusionism of generations of theatregoers but also makes them participate in a dialogic exploration of urgent existential questions.

The technique is based on the constant evocation of the allusive power of ordinary language, much used in both modernism and folk poetry, moving instantly from the utterly mundane to the profoundly philosophical. A reminder about dinner, a job interview, a courting at the park, a litany of family woes things that are repeated trillions of times on the terrain of the quotidian evoke sharp interrogations of the conventions on which such speech-acts are based and lay bare the purposive illusions of facticity. And this is done by baring the device of artistry itself.

The Russian formalists used to call this ostranenie, or defamiliarisation, which shatters the facade of the familiar and makes it strange. Bertolt Brecht's estrangement effect is something very much like this, and both Vsevolod E. Meyerhold and Erwin Piscator and, later on, Ariane Mnouchkine used the principle to marvellous effect.

Sircar's particular take was to make each character a shifting subject with actors easing into different roles and interchanging them at will so that representing the world of human beings became a universalising exercise. Each character is multiple over space and time and, therefore, ungraspable and at one with the indeterminacy of the world. Sircar's puzzles traversed the known contours of middle-class life in India with intent, as so many signposts of waste and frustration, bringing home to the audience that thinking out things meant a constant clash of ideas and identities, a continual questioning of certainties.

Among the people

From this point onwards, the Badal Sircar we all know started making his impact on the Indian stage. He set up Shatabdi, the group which performed most of his plays, went abroad on delegations to further enrich his experience of world theatre, and wrote and produced play after play, which has become part of the repertoire of theatrical modernism in India.

Pagla Ghoda, Bhoma, Michhil, Basi Khobor, Spartacus, and Sukhapathya Bharater Itihas were collaborative texts, mostly performed in the open, with minimalist appurtenances and no publicity. It was people's theatre, happening in the thick of other events in busy corners of towns and in the country. Sircar liked his theatre to be not only representative of people's desires and experiences but to be with them and among them, crossing artistic and social boundaries. One would like to think that he will continue to influence the theatrical landscape for a long time to come.

Professor Mihir Bhattacharya taught English Literature and Film Studies at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor