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Issue No: 63    February 15, 2013


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Activist Theatre: Recovering a Tradition - an extract

by: Samik Bandopadhyay

This is an extract from the transcript of the XVII Safdar Hashmi Memorial Lecture, 2009 delivered By Samik Bandopadhyay. The original appeared in Jana Natya Manch's 'Nukkad' journal.

Those were the days, the early 80s, mid 80s. Things looked fairly rosy in those days with the thought that the Left in India was making steady progress towards political power; may be the whole of it couldn't be available to the Left that easily or that soon but there were prospects of steady advancement, greater progress, greater achievements. It would be the role of culture and the role of people like us to contribute to the development of a broader culture, a culture of awareness, a culture of sensitivity, a culture that opened up areas of experience and create a whole body of knowledge that would not be made available to us by the media, by the institutions of power, even by the institutions of learning. There had to be an alternative activist agenda to create a different body of knowledge to which we made contributions and brought different languages and experiences of the local to the view of the people of other cultures within India. In the early 80s the horror of the Emergency was over. For the first time in India, an alternative political force had emerged to replace the Congress at the centre. In some states at least, the Left was coming to power in a more stable manner. It would not be easy any longer to throw out an elected communist government, the way the first such government was thrown out in Kerala in 1959. These were the hopes, these were the promises around. In 1977, the Left Front in West Bengal had come to power and till now has been holding to that power. But slowly things started changing. And even as things started changing, it was necessary to take a longer historical view of the tradition of activism in culture and theatre. A fresh view!

A fresh view was necessary because at that point of time, there was this feeling of complacency; that the democratic process will take its course comfortably slowly, smoothly, and gradually things will change. So meanwhile we could go on doing things the way we liked. There was a general feeling of freedom that you could do what you like. In West Bengal for example the Left front in power allowed opportunities. There was a whole new art cinema complex, new theatre houses were opened; theatre houses that allowed people to perform at extremely moderate rates. There were all kinds of facilities - awards, grants, opportunities galore. Things were settling down. Things were extremely comfortable.

Somehow the activist agenda was dissolving and evaporating in the bastions of the Left. The Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) was nowhere in view. It was a lost, old, bleary tradition. Occasionally there would be survivors of the IPTA of the 1940s or the 1950s who would be felicitated and would go on trips of nostalgia to which the newcomers in the field may be empathizing with, but nothing more than that. Even the whole image of the IPTA, the history of the IPTA was being reconstituted, recast. Certain experiences were being allowed to be obliterated.

There was a thing that happened initially in West Bengal, and then it became the pattern for Indian theatre activity as a rule as a fallout of the IPTA. The Communist Party and the IPTA were banned in 1948. At this time several members or people involved in the IPTA moved out; some slightly before, more immediately after the declaration of the ban. A new construction of organization came into being. In Bengal, there was this term which emerged 'Group Theatre' which for me doesn't make sense really, because theatre is a group anyway. So what do you mean when you call it group theatre? Can you have a single-man theatre? You can have a single man performance. But even for a single man performance you need a theatre group, the technicians; you need people around you. So even the term 'Group Theatre' became something that did not have any meaning, any ideological substance, any cultural meaning other than 'away' from the IPTA. And how was the 'Group Theatre' really defined? The 'Group Theatre' would have a single director. In most cases it would be an actor-director and there would be a group of loyal members, loyal actors, 'workers' who are not good enough to act and therefore they would have to carry out the more uncomfortable 'responsibilities' of the group. Go to the newspaper, hand in the advertisements, raise funds, and sit at the ticket counter because they are not good enough actors. And the actors constituted a class by themselves. In this new institutionalization, one of the starting points, one of the principles that some of these directors started pronouncing was that the artist should have his total freedom, a freedom that the IPTA did not allow.

Obviously it was a choice away from activism in theatre to theatre for the heck of it. So there was this cult of freedom, the cult of independence. Freedom almost immediately took this strange identity of the dominance, the supreme dominance and control of the director; when in most cases, the director was primarily an actor and only secondarily a director, that is the transition through which he comes to take his position and play his role in the group. The whole question of the actorial ego comes into play. This actorial ego is reconstituted in terms of a certain notion of freedom, absolute freedom and artistic freedom. It became evident soon even in the choice of the plays, in the choice of the image of the organization that is projected, in the mechanics of the daily operation of the organization. At every level it was really projecting the supreme actor; the actor unfettered by responsibilities, ideological or otherwise.

The first group which became a kind of a model, the post-IPTA model of the so called 'Group Theatre', the independent theatre, was the group Bohurupee started by Sombhu Mitra. It began in 1948, the very year when the IPTA was banned and it was not safe to go on working in the IPTA any longer. The first split in the group came in 1952. About six important actors left and formed another group. There was no ideological split, no split on issues, over the kind of theatre, of the kind of theatre practice or the ethics or the ideologies of theatre. It was a split absolutely on the personal plane. And one of the considerations, not the sole consideration was that there was in the group an actor who was a wonderful, powerful singer-actor, with a solid grounding in the tradition of mass singing, community singing, songs of the nationalist period, songs of the popular uprising, militant singing. He was quite keen to break off. He wanted his place in the theatre and he could score best if he could sing and act and sing so powerfully in his wonderful voice. Sombhu Mitra was musically extremely weak. That was one of his weaknesses- music in theatre. He wouldn't accept it. So the break really came at that point; not so much from a conscious understanding or need of the different kinds of theatre. And again it was the actor at the centre, an actor who would like to use music. There were several other actors in the group who had great mastery over regional dialects and they would like to bring the dialect into play in the theatre. So these actors formed a group. Dialect and music amounted ultimately to a different layer of theatrical expression; where rather than the institutionalized world, the literary text, the poetry of the standard idiom, you break into a different kind of voice, the voice in the dialect, the voice in popular singing of songs that have grown out of movements, out of the freedom movement particularly, in different regions. This was the point of the first break.

Sombhu Mitra

Most of the groups which came into being broke away on such considerations later on also. Somehow the Bohuropee model became the model where the supreme director-actor would choose the plays by the values of his own histrionic prowess, the way he could act best. Other actors developing other styles, who are stronger or expressive in other words would break off and form another group. So the groups get their identities from actorial styles, actorial modes, not ideologies, not visions of theatre, not social political activist groups. This becomes the pattern more and more. Even in the reconstruction and rewriting of the history of the IPTA, there was very little attention given to the making of the plays and the sensibilities that went into the making of the plays, the texts that were created and the way the texts came into being, the histories of the text. These became marginalized. What became prominent was the role of the individual, the actor, the singer, the composer - who are now felicitated, recognized, adored, institutionalized as 'Artists'. But the entire activist fabric is disinterred, dismantled.

To project them in a different manner, I have had the joy and privilege of interacting closely with Bijon Bhattacharya, the playwright of the first IPTA classic Nabanno, who co-directed it with Sombhu Mitra. I also had the opportunity of interviewing Tripti Mitra who did one of the leading roles in Nabanno. The stories of the making of these plays have never been really inscribed in history. They've been left out of yesterday. They have become anecdotes. They have become tales. They have become stories. But we must critically examine the making, why they were made, how they were made. I'll share with you some of these anecdotes that I gathered from Bijon Bhattacharya and Tripti Mitra.

In 1943, the famine was raging in Bengal which left at the end of it, according to official British records 300,000 people dead. The unofficial record cites a higher figure. The famine had multiple causes - hoarding of food stuffs, food grains for the war for the British army, a cyclone in Medinipur, terrorist acts in 1942 which had cut off parts of the state from the administrative hub and the policy of the government to teach these rebels a lesson by not providing them with food. All these factors combined to create this terrible famine, the man-made famine of 1943-44 which drew hundreds and thousands of people from the villages coming to Calcutta, literally dying in the streets of Calcutta.

Bijon Bhattacharya recalled in a long conversation with me his memories. At that time he lived in a house from where every morning - he used to work as a journalist in a newspaper at that time - when he came out from his house, he had to walk up to the tramway station to the end of the road. He had to pass by a small plot of land, a sort of park where some of these famine stricken migrants from the villages had taken shelter. They lived under the open sky with no shelter, nothing at all. Bijonda tells me - "Every day when I passed by that park, I felt so ashamed of our incapacity to feed these people, to save these people who'd come for shelter. We can't cope with it. My helplessness made me feel so utterly ashamed that every day when I passed by, I wouldn't lift my head. I couldn't. I wouldn't look at them. I looked down as I passed by. But I could hear them talking. One day I heard a couple talking. I didn't know who they were. But they were not talking about hunger. They were not talking about death that loomed in the future. They were talking of the happy time of the harvest ceremony and fun and games that they had the year before. They were talking about these and they were laughing." Three days later, Bijonda was passing by and he saw a dead body lying covered in a piece of rag. I remember him telling me - "I didn't know but I noticed that when a man dies, especially after starvation, the body becomes somehow smaller. And these were small bodies of the people. This is something that I learned for the first time." As he passed by that dead body, he suddenly had this feeling that maybe he was the man who was talking to his wife three days ago about the harvest ceremony of the year before. Who knows? "I felt this urge, this thought, this passion that somebody should write about it. But I can't. I don't have the right to write about it. They have to speak for themselves. And yet how can they?" Bijon Bhattacharya a man who'd never written a play in his life, a committed communist journalist, story writer, song writer, composer of songs, but never written plays, had never seen the big historical, mythological Bengali plays in the big theatres, never cared for that, felt no special love or concern for theatre. He suddenly felt that if they have to speak for themselves, it has to be a play where they speak.

So a man becomes a playwright not from an aesthetic choice but more from the compulsion of an experience, an experience which he felt on his skin, underneath his skin. And for the first time he tries writing a play. Nabanno was his third play. He'd written two shorter ones before. For his second play, Jabanbandi, which was in a way also on the theme of famine, he decided right in the beginning that he wouldn't choose actors. He needed people with different kinds of experiences. He chose a close relation Tripti Bhaduri (later Mitra).

When I spoke to Tripti Mitra, she said she'd never thought of theatre as a career, as a profession. She told me, "I'd always thought I'd love to be a doctor. And if I was not good enough, if I didn't have the proper academic results, then maybe I'll be a nurse. And I'll be happy with that." She was studying in Calcutta, dependent on an uncle. Bijonda drew her into the theatre. She had no acting experience, no great passion for theatre or acting. Triptidi recalls, that when she was a member of the Students Federation at Ashutosh College they had organized a langarkhana. The starving people would come once a day and be served a sort of gruel. One afternoon, Triptidi was serving the gruel from a sort of a bucket to the women who had small tin bowls. She suddenly noticed that one of them had a strange look in her eyes. She dropped the bucket, walked up, and held out her arm. The woman just fell on her arm and died in front of her. She hadn't obviously had anything to eat for some days, had come for her first food and couldn't take it.

Tripti Mitra in 'Nabanno'

There was yet another incident that Tripti Mitra would recall. She lived on the second floor of a house where many people lived together. Rice for all was cooked in the same kitchen. Around one o'clock in the afternoon, after the cooking was over, the remnant water of the cooked rice would be poured down a pipe which went to the road and fell in the drain. On the pavement across the house was a small settlement of famine stricken migrants. Triptidi saw that everyday the women would come up and before the rice water could fall into the drain, they'd hold their bowls at the end of the pipe. That was their only food. One afternoon, she saw a woman with three little children rush with the bowl to gather the rice water. She collected it, went over to the pavement, lifted it to her lips and drank it up. She pushed away the children and went on drinking. They were shocked into silence and sat there bewildered, looking at the mother. Only when she had finished drinking, did she realize what she had done and looked at the children, hugged them together and wept. So Triptidi would tell me that every day when she acted in Nabanno those experiences and memories taught her how to act. She felt that if the people watching were moved to contribute some money, she and her friends would get the resources to cook the gruel for the next day. That was the motivation. Now this making of theatre we so easily erase and turn it into the act of performance, the act of acting ultimately. Most of the reviews of Nabanno in 1944 said that it was a moving experience but it was not theatre. It didn't have a proper plot. It was too amorphous, it was too loose. Sensitive people, many of them seasoned Marxists could still be controlled, led, ruled by an aesthetics which has nothing to do with immediate reality, the experience, the making of this theatre.

More and more, as this whole story was erased, IPTA was regarded as just something that led on to the so-called 'Group Theatre', the independent free theatre groups. This whole history of the making of an activist theatre out of lived experience was something that did not exist. There is another part of the IPTA story which has not even been chronicled properly. While the IPTA remained banned from 1948-51, the IPTA functioned. There were IPTA groups which performed fairly regularly. During a ban or a legal prohibition, if you are dealing with print material, you can clandestinely print and circulate and still be safe. But when you're performing in a public space with an audience around you the risk factor is tremendous. Yet you take the risk, though not from any kind of adventurism. The IPTA had an organization between 1948-51 in the cities, in the small towns, even in villages, where in spite of the ban, there was a support system, an organizational support where a section of the audience would take care of the security of the performance and be on watch. There were occasions when the police would come to know of the performance but even before they could arrive at the spot, the news would go around and the actors would be shifted. A lot of these experiences remain in the memories, barely recorded. It is strange, because the Communist Party later came to criticize and in a way condemn the party politics of 1948-51, so that part of the history of the party also seemed to go out which looked at this wonderful history of a secret clandestine IPTA functioning with an audience that provides the performance and the actors with support; the risk shared by the performers and the audience alike. A community grows out of the risk and within the risk.

Now more and more these histories get erased as the Left comes to power in West Bengal in 1977 and holds on to power so securely over the years. Activist theatre virtually vanishes. There was this general feeling of complaisance that things are fine. The parliamentary process would take its course and we'd reach the goal somehow someday. Until then, we can just go on functioning along the line. The culture and the politics of the group theatre become more and more safe, secure, extremely comfortable, comfort seeking. There was no cultural policy; a policy that at least takes the initiative to tell people, to ask people within and around the party, around the left forces to create an activist agenda, identify issues. It is not a question of just paying lip service and supporting the ruling party. Even the party became enormous, a large mass party which had at the moment 300,000 members officially. But what are these members doing? What are the theatre workers doing? They are following the general route. Of course people who don't care have the freedom. Who are we to deny them their freedom? They have the freedom to enjoy, have fun, and live and be comfortable.

The Left government spends much more money on theatre than any other non-Left government in the country. The West Bengal government maintains about 62 theatres spread all over the state, owned by the government directly or through the municipalities. The rentals are reasonable. There is a State Natya Akademi and a State Literature Akademi with resources and funds. In the city of Calcutta itself, the government has 5 theatres of its own. It has an Art Cinema Complex with 4 cinema halls. But there has never been a conscious activist cultural agenda in any of these fields, whether theatre, whether cinema, whether the arts, whether literature. What has happened in the mean time is this blind unquestioning faith in a supposed democracy, to go on pursuing it and to seem to forget that the fascists came to power in Italy in the 1920s through democratic means. The massive demonstration and the march to Rome were led by Benito Mussolini. In 1933, Hitler came to power in Germany through the democratic process.

So can you really remain so comfortable, so cushy about democracy? There should have been an initiative. There should have been an activist agenda for theatre which should have drawn from the IPTA, building theatre, building the issues, educate, act the local, not always addressing the larger global issues, the national issues.

The issue of democracy, the role of the media in virtually desensitizing a large constituency, even the question of justice, the blind faith in the legal system, in the judicial system so that when there are deviations, when we see glaring instances of the letter of the law at the twists and turns, of not allowing the people their rights - it has to be the job of an activist theatre to raise the question of justice, legality, the rightness of things, the wrongness of things, the misappropriations of power, and the contentious applications of power. These issues become negated and erased. So we start getting scared at the recent result in the elections and get a fright, an honest fright as to the immediate future and prospects of the Left.

I think it is time to take a look back at culture, at theatre and the need for a fresh activism; almost the kind of activism out of which the IPTA emerged in 1943-44. At that time the Left or rather the communist party, was isolated by choice from the national movement, from the then national current by its choice of a position, the anti-Fascist position in World War II. It was isolated from mainstream politics. It chose a course of activist culture where it felt that it may not be time right now to get into the national mainstream because that would involve compromises in our ideology. Let us choose an activist culture as a decisive component of our politics so that a different sensibility, a different conscience can be created. Bijon Bhattacharya late in his life would say - "All that we were supposed to do was to prepare the ground, to smoothen and water the ground and then the time will come to plant the seeds. But we were happy with our job. We were dedicated to that - just prepare the ground."

Samik Bandyopadhyay is an eminent film and theatre scholar based in Calcutta

Fly on the Wall

After being around for more than two years, e-Rang has attracted several peripatetic flies on the theatre walls across the country. They keep buzzing around and sending us little nuggets of information, hearsay and theatre gossip.

The Madras High Court recently declared as unconstitutional certain provisions of the Tamil Nadu Dramatic Performances Act, 1954. Our Fly on the Wall stumbled upon spontaneous Facebook posts - some of which we share with you, as we join the cry for more such decisions.

Status update by RK
No more police permission required to stage plays in Tamilnadu with the Madras High Court declaring as unconstitutional certain provisions of The Tamilnadu Dramatic Performances Act 1954, an offshoot of the Dramatic performances Act 1876. This is in response to a petition filed by by Gnani Sankaran, jounalist and theatre director of the group Pareeksha. A big salute to him and to all those who fought against this draconian law.

Comment from NR
Congratulations: Technically it was just West Bengal where DPA was repealed, and now TN. Delhi and Maharashtra should follow in TN's footsteps. In Karnataka-though it exists on paper-it's virtually non-existent and therefore not (really) in effect.

Comment from SS
Congratulations. Hoping that Maharashtra will follow suit...

Comment from PM
Great news! When someone took the script of 'Twelfth Night' to the police for approval, the idiot wanted to know who Shakespeare is and where he lived. When the person concerned replied that Shakespeare is dead, the official asked, "How are you connected to Shakespeare?". Amused, our man replied, "I am his nephew". The police guy promptly stamped approval on the script.

Comment from BR
Gr8 news need to run around with the script to the people who NEVER understand a bit about theatre..Oh what a feeling!!!..Great work Gnani.Ok..time to do some real plays without thinking of getting the cops permission.

Comment from NR
Theatre people in Delhi and Maharashtra: Please file PILs(or other writ petitions) to repeal the DPA-1954. Quote the HC order in TN as well as the HC ruling in WB that recognises the DPA of 54 as Draconian.

Comment from HPK
Disturbed by state ban on a film already passed by censors because some marginal group claims it hurts its sentiments? On the same day that the High court decrees that you do not need Police permission to stage a play!!?? Anybody know what's going on?

Comment from HPK
The nation seems to have been handed to the small right wing groups with a penchant for violence and suppression.... Remember the poem, The Second Coming?


Call for applications for M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2014: Art and the People

The M1 Singappore Fringe Festival announces the call for applications for the 2014 festival. Themed 'Art and the People', the last date for receiving proposals is 8 March 2013.

Job Vacancy at Kattaikuttu Sangam

The Kattaikkuttu Sangam is looking for a Manager General Operations who will undertake a strategic role that includes the responsibility for efficient day to day operation of the organisation and reports to the President and Executive Director of the organization.


Part-time Job for Drama Instructors in Delhi

A message from Jehan Maneckshaw of Theatre Professionals, Mumbai.

We are beginning operations in Delhi in April, and are currently looking at hiring a few qualified individuals to teach Drama in Schools for us, and be a part of our exciting growth in this new city.

We run a Drama in Schools Program here in Mumbai, that now has 13 instructors teaching Drama within the timetable as part of the school curriculum across 21 schools here in Mumbai. Working to a professional process and methodology that we developed as a group, learning together. Our team of instructors are all passionate about theatre, and love working with Children, and love growing and learning together.

If you would like to know more details, please see the Job Description of here, or contacts us on

Puppetry and Storytelling - workshop for adults

Katkatha Intensive workshop for adults titled "Puppetry and Storytelling" is now from March 25-31 daily from 10.00-6.00 at the Katkatha studio at Meethapur. Pick up from Badarpur metro at 9.30 every morning will be organised. For more details of curriculum e-mail us at

A fortnightly theatre e-journal from the India Theatre Forum
Co-Editors: Vikram Iyengar, Joyoti Roy

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