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Badal Sircar (1925-2011): A Curtain Call for Political Theatre

A tribute to Badal Sircar, the radical theatre personality of Bengal, who over four decades rewrote the language of political theatre in India.

COMMENTARY

Badal Sircar (1925-2011): A Curtain Call for Political Theatre

Sadanand Menon

through to the 1990s – almost all dealt with the continuing asphyxiation caused by “colonial violence” in a free nation. Frantz Fanon, in his The Wretched of the Earth had described most artists and professors as disorientateurs (obfuscators) who continually propagated “respect for the established order”, thereby separating and insulating the exploiters from the

A tribute to Badal Sircar, the radical theatre personality of Bengal, who over four decades rewrote the language of political theatre in India.

Sadanand Menon (sadanandmenon@yahoo. com) is a writer, photographer and stage-lights designer based in Chennai. He is also currently Adjunct Faculty, Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

B
adal Sircar was no politician; neither was he a teacher. However when he set out on the second phase of his theatre-making in 1972 with his group Satabdi in Calcutta, he was to inaugurate the most historic artistic programme in contemporary India of educating and “conscientising” theatre audiences on the travesty – nay absurdity – of their contemporary postcolonial deprivation.

A significant section of his audiences came from the urban middle or working classes. But he also made unforgettable interventions with the rural poor, like in the Sundarbans and in the Santhal villages. His was a theatre that relentlessly and self-consciously chose to operate as a Paulo Freirean kind of “pedagogy for the oppressed”. Sircar had internalised a dictum that to wash one’s hands off the conflict between the powerful and the powerless meant not neutrality but a tacit siding with the powerful.

Outraged by the idea of “selling” plays to audiences, Sircar and his group evolved the notion of a “free theatre”. He was among the initiators of the Curzon Park open-air theatre expression from 1974 – subsequent to massive protests after a young spectator, Prabir Datta, was killed in a brutal lathi-charge there. The collective protest by theatre practitioners of Calcutta drew over 3,000 people crowding the park every Saturday to witness half-a-dozen groups enact volatile plays in an intensely charged atmosphere. The only time that activity was suspended was during the 19 months of the Emergency.

A Site for Resistance

Badal Sircar’s 50-odd productions, cumulatively performed over a thousand times by his own group and multiplied many more times by other theatre groups in other linguistic regions of India – setting up a sort of relay transmission from the 1970s

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exploited. Fanon had proposed that a true artist, rather than colluding with this order, could only contest it – turning theatre, for example, into a site for resistance. This was a strategy most consistently explored in postcolonial Indian theatre by Badal Sircar.

In an insightful chapter on Sircar’s work in his 1983 book on Bengali political theatre Rehearsals of Revolution, Rustom Bharucha makes a lucid point: “His theatre does not pretend to be militant... It is content with disturbing the consciousness of its spectators... Sircar focuses on the callousness of the middle class and their capacity to watch the suffering of people without doing anything about it.” In fact, a recurring chant in one of Sircar’s most performed plays Bhoma, is: Akhon manusher rakta thanda/thanda, thanda, tha nda (Today human blood has turned cold/ cold, cold, cold).

Sircar’s search was never for something as abstract as coherence. He was to say, “I live in a fragmented world, a chaotic world full of contradictions; is it not absurd even to seek coherence in such an absurd world?” Instead, he made a virtue of disjointedness. For his themes he adapted liberally from available and already published material. He took random passages from his own extensive notebook entries (Book of Feelings). He employed cut-andpaste methods. He revelled in montages and collages, both verbal and physical. He made a fine art of the short, punchy vignette. He freely jumped from idea to idea, concern to concern. He pooh-poohed the overhyped virtues of structure and form and technical virtuosity. He dismissed the importance of sets, props, costumes, lights. To an extent, he even questioned the need for learning any acting or performing technique. He had no need for continuing with that mainstay of naturalistic theatre – the creation of the illusion of reality.

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Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

He jettisoned the English language as alienating. He militated against the artificial divide between the actor and the audience, a fire-wall that was intrinsic to the proscenium stage. He genuinely regarded money as irrelevant and profit as vulgar. His basic concern, till the end, remained exploring the untapped energy of the individual and collective body to create a transformative experience for both, the performer and the spectator – an idea he elaborated in his slim 1978 volume The Third Theatre.

Choreographing the Audience

But one resource Sircar did not abandon was his own training and early career as a town planner. He remained acutely aware of dimensions, planes, elevations, entrances, exits and movement flows. Space was his forte and he was comfortable with planning the spatial algorithms of human agony. Sitting alone one day in 1974, in the small hall (capacity of 60 to 75) above the Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta, which had become his group’s main performance and work space and thinking of the mise en scene for his newly written play Michhil (Procession), he casually began rearranging the benches meant for the audience in a manner that would distribute the spectators and set the players right amidst them. He suddenly realised he was, in fact, choreographing the audience. Henceforth, his audience would have no other choice but to be in the thick of the action, to “participate”. There could be no neutral voyeurism or disavowal.

Earlier too, in his plays like Sagina Mah ato (1971) and Spartacus (1972), Sircar had begun exploring the unconventional use of space, entirely rejecting the proscenium idea of the “invisible audience” that sits in the dark at one side of the auditorium, merely consuming the play. Many of these ideas crystallised after a Nehru Fellowship enabled him, in 1972, to travel to the United States and spend time observing the training and performance methodologies of the East Coast avant-garde groups like the Performance Group of Richard Schechner and Joan Littlewood, the Living Theatre of Julian Beck and Judith Malina and La Mama of Antony Serchio. He was also taken aback, when he saw in Poland, the intensity of Jerzy Grotowski’s actors in Apocalypsis cum Figuris.

From the derivative existentialism of his early scripts like Evan Indrajit and Bagh (Tiger), Sircar took a more affirmative direction in 1966-67 in his “antinuclear” trilogy Baki Itihaas (Remaining History), Tringsha Shatabdi (Thirtieth Century) and Shesh Nei (No End). To date, these remain the only critique in Indian theatre of the country’s demented nuclear pursuits. Sharadindu and Sumanta, the protagonists of these plays, are simply unable to accept the violence and bestiality of the 20th century’s potential for mass destruction and exhort their audiences to reflect on how much they themselves might be implicated in the perpetration of crimes against humanity like the atom bomb and what their own complicity might be in calamities like Hiroshima.

Open-ended Dialogic Character

Learning from the experiences of Schechner’s Environmental Theatre and Groto wski’s Poor Theatre, Sircar created the idea of the

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COMMENTARY

intimate Anganmancha (courtyard theatre) in 1972 and, typically, created plays that would have an open-ended, dialogic character rather than something dogmatic or deterministic. Many of the plays were constructed in the format of Tarja, a Bengali folk form of debate between two poets with opposite points of view. Prastab, Gondi, Basi Khabar, Pagla Ghoda, Solution X, Hattamalar Oparey, Ekti Hatyar Natyakatha, Khatmat Kring, Churna Prithvi, Sukhapathya Bharater Itihas, Bhanga Manush – all tested out the strategy of creating internal resistance to the propositions within a play. This resistance corresponds to the initial scepticism within audiences, who are then won over through a judicious marshalling of arguments from the opposite flank.

Sircar explained this to me in an interview published 25 years ago:

We set out to expose commonly held myths.

Quite often, therefore, our plays acquire a

documentary nature. But we have to make it

theatre, for it is the art form we have chosen.

For example, it is said that India’s agricul

tural produce has doubled since Independ

ence. It is true. But if you stop there, it gives the impression we have developed economically, become wealthier. But there’s another figure: that the number of landless agricultural labourers has also doubled during the last decade. That means poverty has also increased. You have to couple these two bits of information to arrive at the reality. That is what we do. We put both facts together and let audiences decide what is true.

However, as Sircar elaborated in the Sri Ram Memorial Lecture in Delhi, in 1993, all this is done with “an unforgiving anger towards those who cause poverty and hunger as well as to those who remain indifferent to them”. To achieve this, of course, each performer needs to be aware of the subject and be “immersed in the content” even as he abandons the route of conventional “enactment” and strives to attain a “state of being” during the play.

Day of Passing

Eventually, it was ironic that after almost five decades of exploring at the frontiers of critical theatre work, Sircar (aged 86) chose his final curtain call for 13 May, the day the Bengal electorate decided on a new experiment in the theatre of politics. The Left Front government conceded powe r after 34 years. The victors called it a “New Independence Day”. No Badal Sircar script, saturated with the angst and agony of his times, could have captured the cacophonic confusion of the moment, laden with inverted symbols of “liberation” and replete with degenerate slogans with pretentions to “peoples’ power”.

Badalbabu would have winced in his civilised sort of way at this evacuation of meaning from language. He would have been aghast at this ironic “revenge of the spectators” in real life. The legendary Brazilian theatre activist Augusto Boal, during the staging of his plays of the Theatre of the Oppressed constantly warned against such “false” or “magical” solutions masquerading as “real” solutions. But Badalda knew “the play’s the thing” where strategic exits are important and eased himself gently into the night.

Of course, it is tantalising to reflect now on how much the humiliated Left Front in Bengal might have benefited if only they

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EPW
Economic Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

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. Being more alert and receptive to an artist’s voice might, perhaps, have never brought them to this pass. Instead, they conveniently dismissed him as a “middle class messiah”. They ranted and raved against him, called him names, briefly restrained him from performing outdoors and dubbed him an agent of the decadent American avant-garde. In their typically bureaucratic manner, the party-Left shut its eyes and ears to the signposts of concerns this sensitive playwright was laying out for them.

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 audiences also into intense self-reflexivity. What the flagwavers of the organised Left failed to see was that while they themselves picked up issues that concerned a narrow bandwidth in India called the “proletariat”, Sircar was speaking about a much more capacious bandwidth called the “poor”.

A cardholding member of the undivided Communist Party from 1943 to 1951, he left the party when he found it “making too many compromises”. As he told Nilanjan Datta in an interview last year (Current E-paper):

I did not join the party under the influence of some dada. I came to the party from a feeling that this world has to be changed. Even after leaving the party, I feel I’m still doing its work – the work of changing the world. That is not finished and I’m still doing it through theatre. I am still a Marxist, though outside the party.

The radical postcolonial theatre activity of the 1940s-50s epitomised in the directly political intentions of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) was to suddenly run dry in the 1960s, to be replaced by the more existentialist preoccupations of the newly emergent “urbanistas” like Mohan Rakesh, Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad and Sircar himself. Preoccupations turned inward and psycho-social rather than outward and political. It was as if the idea of resistance had bypassed modern Indian theatre, as if it was to serve no more as the voice and expression of the oppressed. No wonder a more powerful theatrical impulse

– disguised as a mass movement called Naxalism – overran the moment, proclaiming its own catharsis of violence to counter the brutalities of rampaging state violence. Overnight, Indian theatre had lost its agency.

Bridging the Chasm

It is to Badal Sircar’s credit that a decade down the line, he could bridge the chasm and recapture this strand of political engagement in theatre. He built upon this in an even more significant way by embarking on a tireless schedule of short workshops across the country whose main purpose was the removal of psychological blocks and inhibitions in the participants. For Sircar, that was the primary goal. He had a series of elaborate trust exercises and improvisations to achieve this. He also provoked the participants to try writing short 10-minute plays as an exercise towards sharpening their ideas. In 30 years he would have easily conducted over 300 long and short workshops and catalysed the work of a large roll-call of prominent theatre personalities – from Heisnam Kanhailal in Manipur to Prasanna in Karnataka; from Probir Guha in Bengal to Madeeha Gauhar in Pakistan.

The first time I met Badalda was in 1970 when, still an undergraduate, I dropped in on the late choreographer Chandralekha’s lovely home in Madras. He was there smoking a beedi even as he elaborated his idea of a physical theatre. What I remember is the merciless teasing Chandra subjected him to, about his ignorance of Indian performance traditions and training disciplines. Chandra was on strong ground here and one could see Badalda wilting under her taunts. After some time she asked me to drop him at his hotel on my scooter. Immediately Badalda went “No, No, No” and recoiled in protest. Later I learnt he was sitting on a scooter for the first time. Forty years later, last year, I happened to be on the jury of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) which selected Badalda for the first Ammanur Puraskaram (2010) for lifetime contribution to theatre. There was a hefty purse with it too. I called Badalda to congratulate him and also to convey that there was provision for an escort to travel along with him for receiving the award. Promptly, from the other end came the exclamation “No, No, No”. I laughed and reminded him of the same protest I had heard 40 years ago and said, “Now don’t tell me you are travelling in a plane for the first time”. He chuckled and agreed to bring an escort.

Much of Badalda’s personality was formed by his Protestant Christian background and its work ethic. Spartan in his personal life, he was frugal and forever on a guilt trip about spending money. His only indulgence was the smoke which he enjoyed. On two occasions during workshops in Chennai, one at the Kalakshetra dance school and the other at the IIT, Madras, I had to drive down on my scooter every two hours to bring him out of those sprawling and strict campuses so that he could have a relaxing puff outside the gate, before being deposited back in the workshop.

Involvement with Esperanto

His other little known passion was, of course, Esperanto language of which he was a pioneer in India and an important figure in the international Esperanto community. He acknowledged the guruship of the Polish physician L L Zamenhof, who had created this international auxiliary language in 1887. It was particularly significant to Badalda that it afforded the possibility of breaking the barriers of language. He told me once that he responded to the meaning of Esperanto – to live in hope. One of his treatises Theaterer Bhasha (The Language of Theatre) is also available in Esperanto as Thiye Tarera Bhasha (1990).

My last meeting with Badalda was three months ago, in February, when I called on him in his second floor room in the little “red building” on Peary Row, off Beadon Road in Manicktala. We were meeting after almost a decade and he leapt from his chair for the customary embrace. He had been busy scribbling the final segment of his autobiography Purano Kasundi (Stale Mustard Pickle). The cramped room had a cot in the middle, two Godrej steel almirahs cleverly de-commoditised by being pasted over with a profusion of multicolour paper cuttings from illustrated magazines and his table and chair overlooking the window.

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COMMENTARY

After some quick reminiscences of Chandralekha and Dashrath Patel and expressing his condolences over their passing away, he said: “I have two important things to tell you. One is that I’m feeling 25 years younger. I have never felt better. The second is that I’ve recently come into some money through some awards which have substantial monetary value (for one of which you too are responsible). I am feeling rich. Now, I have no intention of saving this money. I plan to spend it well. So I have decided to go on a world tour for six months and once again meet up with all those friends I

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made around the world. I have no worry because my Esperanto community will look after my boarding and lodging in various cities.”

He then proceeded to rattle off a breathless itinerary of cities and people he intended to visit spanning Europe, England, North and South America, Japan, Korea, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and then back to Kolkata. I said rather amusedly, “But Badalda, there’s a big black hole in your tour plan – you have missed out on Chennai”. He chuckled and said, “Yes, of course. Long time since I had that lovely filter coffee you make”.

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However, like many of his plans, all this will remain unfulfilled. The big dream he had was part of his unique Third Theatre manifesto:

The ultimate answer… is not for a city group to prepare plays for and about the working people. The working people – factory workers, peasants, the landless labourers – will have to make and perform their own plays… This process, of course, can become widespread only when the socio-economic emancipation of the working class has also spread widely. When that happens, the Third Theatr e will no longer have a specific function and will merge with a reformed First Theatre.

That awaits the lifetime’s work of another Badal Sircar.

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may 28, 2011 vol xlvi no 22

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