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Rise and Fall of Calcutta's Group Theatre

There is good reason to believe that there were telltale signs in West Bengal even in the late 1970s, at the moment of the left's greatest triumph, that there was something intrinsically wrong in the process through which the left had come to power and retained it. This article attempts to establish this through a brief examination of Calcutta's Group Theatre movement, which since its inception was largely driven by left-democratic ideals. A strong movement in the 1960s, by the 1980s it had begun to fade away. It is possible to see the crisis in the Group Theatre movement as a fallout of the much bigger crisis in the constitutional left movement of the country.

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Rise and Fall of Calcutta’s Group Theatre

The End of a Political Dream

Parimal Ghosh

all that. For the first time in its history, Bengali theatre became a vehicle for expressing the angst of Bengalis, in this case arising from the second world war, and the devastating famine of 1943-44. Bengali theatre was now fi rmly situated as a component of civil society, a space in which political battles would be reflected and a future dreamt of. In the

There is good reason to believe that there were telltale signs in West Bengal even in the late 1970s, at the moment of the left’s greatest triumph, that there was something intrinsically wrong in the process through which the left had come to power and retained it. This article attempts to establish this through a brief examination of Calcutta’s Group Theatre movement, which since its inception was largely driven by left-democratic ideals. A strong movement in the 1960s, by the 1980s it had begun to fade away. It is possible to see the crisis in the Group Theatre movement as a fallout of the much bigger crisis in the constitutional left movement of the country.

I am grateful to Arun Nag, Debraj Bhattacharyya, Rajat Sur and to the late Anjan Ghosh for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay. Regretfully, Anjan did not get to see the present version. I am also indebted to Natyasodh Sanstha, Kolkata, for crucial archival assistance. Needless to add, I remain responsible for all the shortcomings of this essay.

Parimal Ghosh (parimalghosh52@gmail.com) is with the department of South and South Asian Studies, University of Calcutta, Kolkata.

Prologue

T
he 2011 defeat of the Left Front in West Bengal has predictably triggered a spate of enquiries as to what went wrong after 34 years of apparently popular rule. This has been traced to different reasons, but observers are generally agreed that the slide became unstoppable when the left began to move away from “the basic classes”. This is obviously true, but it is also important to realise that things did not begin to go wrong only in recent times. There is good reason to believe that there were telltale signs even in the late 1970s, at the moment of the left’s greatest triumph, that there was something intrinsically wrong, a weakness in the process through which the left came to power and retained it. We shall try to establish this through a brief examination of Calcutta’s Group Theatre movement, which since its inception was largely driven by left-democratic ideals.

The Group Theatre movement was born in the aftermath of Nabanna, produced by the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in October 1944. Until then Bengali theatre on the professional stage or when performed privately, generally dealt with mythology, overly Hindu nationalistic themes drawn from history, besides romance based on anecdotes about the Mughals or the Rajput princes. Social themes with contemporary relevance occurred sometimes through adaptation of novels of Rabindranath Tagore and Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, and there had been occasional brilliant interventions by powerful authors such as Dinabandhu Mitra and Madhusudan Dutta, but the productions generally aimed at entertaining the audience. Nabanna changed

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process theatre became different, and was no longer just an aspect of Bengali community life lived in the city’s neighbourhoods. In this article we shall see that the public sphere that was thereby constituted carried within it its own compulsions. And when circumstances inhibited its fruition, the theatre movement became the victim.

The Sisir Years

It is customary to consider that the fi rst step away from the conventional ambience of Bengali theatre was taken when Sisir Bhaduri joined the professional stage in 1921. It is, however, probable that the context in the early 1920s was set by the massive political transformation that the city of (what was then) Calcutta, and India, were experiencing around the time. Those years witnessed the fi rst all-India nationalist movement under the leadership of the Congress. Gandhi had appeared on the scene. The 1920s also saw the emergence of two other major trends which have left their mark on Indian history – the arrival of hard line communal political practices and the emergence of an organised left movement. It seems likely that all these upheavals left their imprint on the cultural scene in Bengal. In Bengali theatre, the noticeable change was that the stage now became an acceptable vocation for at least some sections of the educated middle class. In Santiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore had already started experimenting with his plays and dance dramas in which students of his school took part.

Sisir Bhaduri, the doyen of modern Bengali theatre, had been a lecturer in English in the Metropolitan College. He made his first appearance on professional stage in Alamgir (1921), written

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by Kshirodeprasad, yet another college teacher of chemistry who had resigned from Scottish Church College. A year after, Bhaduri’s friend Naresh Chandra Mitra, a Calcutta University law graduate, joined the Minerva theatre along with Radhikananda Mukherjee. Mukherjee belonged to a respectable bhadra family and had been a central government employee who again had resigned his job. A host of bright young men followed: Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri, Monoranjan Bhattacharya, Tulsi Charan Banerjee, Rabindramohan Roy, Sailen Chaudhuri, Lalitmohan Lahiri, Amitabha Basu, Jiban Ganguly, and Sisir’s own brothers

– Biswanath and Tarakumar. Ahindra Chowdhury, from whose writings we have cited above, Durgadas Banerjee, Nirmalendu Lahiri joined around the same time.1

This was also the time when there were noticeable changes in other respects, marking the departure from previous practices. The structure of the auditorium began to change, transforming the theatre houses into more formal places. The galleries gave way to rows and balconies. Women sat with men, seats were numbered and the lowest ticket was priced at Re 1 which obviously was aimed at keeping out the rowdier elements.2

No less important were the changes in theatre craft. Much later, in the 1960s, another master of modern Bengali theatre, Sambhu Mitra, recalled that he fi rst realised the significance of the role of the director by watching Sisir Bhaduri in Digvijayi (The World Conqueror, based on Nadir Shah’s invasion of India in the twilight years of the Mughal empire).

In that production, the way in which Nadir’s commands, spoken in an ordinary voice, were obeyed by others with respectful attention, the alertness and the military smartness that exuded from the movements of the actors, all this was almost unimaginable to me. There could be no comparison at all with the typical lazy style of the Bengali heroes in mythological plays. In contrast, the intelligence and bravery of Nadir Shah seemed to find expression in his quick tigerlike movements. That was when I fi rst realised that in theatre production there is need for someone who would keep in mind all the details of every character.3

Mitra also acknowledged that it was from the third act of the same play that

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he got his inspiration for the fi rst scene of Nabanna.4

Civil Society in Theatre

The process of transformation was further accentuated from 1939-40. The impending war, the growing appeal of leftist ideology, and subsequently the devastating Bengal famine of 1943, all came together to bring this about.

By the 1930s Calcutta had become the seat of an influential Marxist literary circle, which functioned around Porichoy, a journal started by the avant garde poet Sudhindranath Dutta. To start with, it was a meeting point for liberal-minded Bengali intellectuals, and by the early 1940s, especially of those with a Marxist leaning. Jyotirindra Moitra, the wellknown poet and composer of Nabajibaner Gaan (Songs for the New Life), published in 1945, was among those who were involved in the production of Nabanna. He recalled afterwards that the gathering at Porichoy’s office was attended among others by Hiren Mukherji, the Communist Party of India (CPI), Susobhan Sarkar, the legendary history professor from Presidency College, Bhupen Dutta, the wellknown leftist thinker and a brother of Swami Vivekananda and Bishnu Dey, who later matured into one of the foremost poets of Bengal in the post-Tagore age. Among the committed Marxists and party whole-timers, Sudhi Pradhan and Chinmohon Sehanobis were there. Moitra himself became a party member from 1942, and was involved in the cultural cell along with Pradhan, Sehanobis, Bijon Bhattacharya, Sambhu Mitra and some others.5

Recalling the times, Sambhu Mitra would later write:

It all happened some 16 years ago. But long before that there was the feeling that things should change. …We felt all the time that the story to relate and see was the one in which human beings were involved in gigantic struggles in the context of the entire society.6

Thus, the ground was ready for a new kind of experimentation in Bengali theatre in which the conscious objective would be to go beyond the present situation, and to consider the prospect of social change. Nor was this confi ned to Bengal. All over India, generally, the

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left-minded thinkers, writers and artists, increasingly came to feel a need to identify themselves with the political project of transformation. On 10 April 1936, the first conference of the Progressive Writers’ Association, which included notable littérateurs like Mulk Raj Anand, Prem Chand, Sajjid Zahar and others was held in Lucknow. Some years later, when towards the end of 1943, the fi rst open session of CPI was held in Bombay, and a conference of progressive writers and artists was also convened. Thus, the IPTA was born.

In Bengali theatre, the process was triggered when a group of young men and women, all from outside the world of theatre, decided to do something different. In 1939-40 some of them had just returned from England after their higher education – Jyoti Bose, Nikhil Chakraborty, Manindralal Biswas, Mohit Bandyopadhyay, and in 1940, along with a group of postgraduate students of Calcutta University, they were instrumental in setting up the Youth Cultural Institute in Kent House on Mission Row. To begin with, the activities were limited to debates and discussions, very interestingly in English, on international issues. Gradually, others joined in, many of whom later came to dominate Bengal politics and culture: Debabrata Biswas, Chinmohon Sehanobis, Uma Chakraborty (later Sehanobis), Ramkrishna Mukherji, Ambika Ghosh, Sanat Lahiri, Saroj Dutta, Kamal Bose and Subrata Sengupta. It was decided that if the institute was to become broader based, then it should widen its activities – and produce plays.7

Thus, a new practice of political plays was initiated, which achieved a certain peak with the IPTA, and more specifi cally, with the production of Nabanna in 1944.

The subsequent history of IPTA, the sordid tale of its break-up, the developments which finally produced its present-day futile existence, is wellknown and does not bear repetition.8 We shall only recall the initial objective that IPTA had set for itself, as it has a bearing on our later discussion. Rustom Bharucha notes:

The model of the IPTA was the folk theatre of India, that rich and diverse field of primitive theatrical forms including the jatras, the tamashas, the kathakals, the burrakathas, and the jarigans that flourished in the rural areas of India. The members of the IPTA had noble intentions of learning the art of theatre from the people but they faced many problems.9

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Bharucha mentions in particular the alienation of middle class intellectuals from the realities of village life. Besides, there was the barrier of languages across the length and breadth of the subcontinent. Most of their early plays had therefore an urban perspective, though there were exceptions.

IPTA’s finest achievement, at least so far as Bengali theatre is concerned, was of course, Nabanna. It was first staged in end-October 1944 at the Sri Rangam Hall (later renamed Biswaroopa) in north Calcutta and immediately created excitement among the Bengali intelligentsia, especially the theatre workers. This was a tale of a group of destitute villagers, devastated by famine and fl ood, fleeced by moneylenders, land sharks, profiteers and corrupt offi cials, who come to Calcutta to somehow survive, and who at the end, finding the city totally indifferent to their plight, return to their village to rediscover their inner strength, symbolised through Nabanna or the harvest festival. Representing the reality of Bengal then, nothing of the sort had been seen before on stage. The theme was light years away from what was on offer on the professional stage, and nobody had ever thought that such a representation was at all possible. A new mentality was coming to be associated with theatre. Gangapada Bose, one of the actors, would later write, “When we worked for Nabanna, it never seemed to us that we were doing just theatre”.10

Bijon Bhattacharya, who along with Sambhu Mitra had scripted and directed Nabanna, later remembered:

I was shaken by the (Quit India) movement in 1942 and the famine in 1943. I saw young boys trying to cut telegraph wires being shot, and dropping like a stone. I myself was badly assaulted one day. Then came the famine. I did not have the power to express the depth of the tragedy and its origin. Then I thought, if only they (i e, the ordinary, common people) could tell their own stories… I knew how they spoke, how they recognised and understood things. If I based myself on that I would be able to do something.11

We are not going to devote too much attention to Nabanna, much already has been written on it, on the excitement it created, the changes it signifi ed in Bengali theatre, and even on its shortcomings. It is now a legend in Bengali culture, almost a yardstick by which to measure the excellence of production and political honesty. The Bijon Bhattacharya-Sambhu Mitra duo established themselves as an epitome of these virtues for all time to come. What is perhaps more important is that a new discourse was founded which proposed an alternative to the old style of theatre. It brought about a near permanent split in the theatre world of Calcutta – there would be on the one hand, the professional stage located generally in the theatre houses in the north of the city, in which the staple diet would be middle

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class family dramas for which there was always a sufficient audience before the advent of TV serials; and on the other, located in the halls to the south, a more experimental, politically aware theatre, which would somehow get the name of Group Theatre. Initially, the idea was perhaps to break away from the star system of yesteryears when actors like Sisir Bhaduri, Ahindra Chowdhury and others had been considered the main draw for the audience. Now the emphasis was supposedly on the group. But as we shall see this attempt at a more politically correct approach did not survive for long.

Nabanna, thus, created a new genre of theatre in Bengal, Gononatya (people’s theatre), which gradually would give way to another expression of the new understanding of Bengali theatre, Nabanatya or the new theatre, to distinguish it from the common fare available in the halls in the north. An important distinction that was often made forcefully was that this theatre was by non-professionals, people who came to do theatre out of love for it, and not in order to make money. It would be thus free from market compulsions. Indeed, for a long time to come actors or directors only rarely accepted payment, most being engaged elsewhere for their living.

At the same time, the nomenclature also suggested a new twist in the tale, a certain conscious distancing from IPTA’s Gononatya. It is difficult to identify when this new name came into use, but it is clear that even openly left leaning theatre workers after a time came to believe that theatre under the direct control of a political party was not such a good idea. Utpal Dutt, the noted actor, director and an avowed Marxist, who joined the IPTA in 1951-52, stayed on for only 10 months.

It should also be mentioned here, that while the division between the common north Calcutta theatre and the south Calcutta Nabanatya was always cherished by the cognoscenti, for the Group Theatre artistes and the playwrights this was not a particularly satisfactory arrangement. It does seem that there was always a lurking suspicion among some of them at least, that the real audience, larger and

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in their fl esh and blood, were out there. Sambhu Mitra once lamented – “With the advent of western education, the language of the 90% of the people and that of the artistes has gradually drifted apart”.12 He believed that Rabindranath Tagore alone could have brought about a proper mix:

With his extraordinary creative powers he could have introduced in his plays techniques to bring together the ideal and the popular, and thereby sustain the Bengali stage for many years.13

Utpal Dutt, in his turn, took the north Calcutta hall, Minerva, on lease in 1959, and for long continued to produce his plays from there. It has to be admitted though that Dutt, in spite of his differences with the IPTA, was always a darling of the party faithful and his theatre substantially benefi ted from their support.

But having said that, let us move on to the late 1970s and early 1980s to try and find out about the end results of the discourse that Nabanna founded.

What Happened After?

It is possible to agree that the journey that started with Nabanna established Bengali theatre as one of the finest in the subcontinent in the 1950s and 1960s. There were many instances of brilliant stagecraft and intense depth of production in the subsequent decades, that had the right mix of democratic politics – with certain groups drifting towards a revolutionary rhetoric – and humane ideals, based on literature drawn from the world over. The notion of a theatre movement, natya andolon, derived from Nabanna, held the activists and theatre workers together, as if they were all on a mission. Over time this became delightfully vague, undecided as to whom or what the movement was directed against, or where the mission was headed, but perhaps at that time it did not really matter. Sambhu Mitra was once reported to have said the movement was aimed at, or should aim at, doing the right kind of theatre in the right way. Imprecise as this may have sounded, perhaps this was one common mark which identifi ed the Nabanatya. This was the bhadra theatre at its best. There were political differences

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and bitter infighting between various groups, and also within individual groups, but that took nothing away from the vigour of different productions and the interest of the audience.

However, gradually, and perhaps inevitably, things began to change. The democratic ideal, Nehruvian, and sometimes boldly left, and reflecting the political ambience of the decades after Independence, carried within it its own compulsions. The rhetoric of the theatre drew its sustenance from politics, and it was this relationship which at a certain point of time forced theatre workers to question their trajectory.

It should be appreciated that the overwhelming majority of the theatre workers came from the educated middle class, and were idealistic and left leaning, fundamentally the bhadralok.14 After the split in 1964, it appears that at least to begin with, the majority of the intellectuals within the party, the littérateurs, the artists and theatre workers, tended to side more with the CPI than with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)). Gradually, however, the rhetoric of the CPI(M) came to have an appeal which was only strengthened with the growing electoral successes of the party, and the evident pragmatism of the party so far as actually conducting a revolution was concerned. In 1967, for the fi rst time since Independence, a left-oriented government came to be instituted in West Bengal, and after a decade-long interregnum, and in the post-Emergency resurgence, this dispensation was reconfirmed through the establishment of the Left Front government led by the CPI(M) in 1977. Apart from other things, this was in a way a fruition of the longdrawn cultural struggle since the days of Nabanna of the majority of art activists in West Bengal – theatre and fi lm workers, musicians, writers and poets. There was an idealistic belief in the need for a revolution, and a simultaneous hatred for the Indian National Congress, which was held responsible for everything that had gone wrong. Perhaps inevitably there was also a tendency to see – the everreceding prospect of the revolution being replaced by the goal of ousting the Congress government through elections.

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And when this was achieved fi nally in 1977, a kind of ennui set in. The question was what the role of the theatre workers should then be.

We can recall here Bharucha’s experience with Utpal Dutt’s Barricade, which dealt with the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Bharucha saw it when it was fi rst produced in 1972, and then again in 1979, i e, after the Left Front government had come to power. In 1972, Bharucha recognised, that there was an immediacy to it because of the murder of Hemanta Basu, a prominent leader of the Forward Bloc Party, and also the rigging of state elections by the Congress Party. This was paralleled on the stage by the murder of judge Zauritz by the Nazis and their subsequent rigging of the 1933 elections in Germany. The allusions were wellappreciated by the audience; the production was excellent and everything went like clockwork. By 1979, Bharucha noticed, things had begun to creak: neither the rigging of elections by the Congress Party nor the murder of Hemanta Basu carried any meaning.15

Questions about the Movement

Almost anticipating this, much earlier in the late 1960s, serious questions had been raised about the purpose of the theatre movement. Samik Bandyopadhyay, the noted theatre critic, pointed out a basic fl aw in the thinking of theatre workers.16 If theatre is fi nally meant for the audience, then should it offer exactly what the audience desires, or should it not reach for higher standards? The fact was even the so-called progressive theatre was the theatre of the middle class,17 and any honest attempt to bring in the world of the peasant in theatre alienated the same middle class. Bandyopadhyay noted that Bijon Bhattacharya, who by this time was increasingly becoming isolated from the fashion that the Group Theatre was turning into, was one man who had tried to bring the village to the city stage. This he did, not out of a middle classmindedness, but through an application of the intellect of the middle class. Bandyopadhyay cited some examples to make his point. The fragmented, scattered form of Debigorjon, and more so of MorachaNd, the manner in which songs, almost undramatically, forced apart the strands, the way in which love, lonesomeness, greed were juxtaposed with the fraud of religion and the chicanery of the jotedar (the settled, big cultivator, therefore, a man of power in the rural society), altogether created a different and a special kind of theatre. The images emerged directly from folklife, and yet were enriched by intellectual signifi cance.18 This is where we may recall the initial objective of IPTA.19

Further, Bandyopadhyay says, the performers of Bhattacharya’s group, the Calcutta theatre, in their speech and in their movement reproduced the rural body, but alongside that the poetry that Bijon created over and again – in Debigorjon, Mongla’s fairy tale dream sequence, or in MorachaNd, the painful experience of listening to the bird’s cry in a stormy night – transcended the reality of rural life and arrived at somewhere else. And at this point, the urban, middle class audience became so involved, and suffered, that they were able to enter and become a part of the play.

Yet, commercially Bijon Bhattacharya’s experiments were a failure. According to Bandyopadhyay, this proved that there was serious incongruity in trying to do theatre of the peasant and the worker with due honesty while remaining a part of the urban theatre.

On the other hand, Bandyopadhyay pointed out there were productions which refl ected the romantic fondness of the middle class for revolution, theatre in which the middle class appeared in the garb of the working class. In that theatre, the middle class, defeated owing to its own inability and lack of education, or the upper middle class, suffering from a guilty conscience because of its privileges came to achieve a temporary release and attained a theatrical courage.20

Indeed, it was around the late 1960s, almost in response to the feelings articulated by Bandyopadhyay, that a new experi ment had started in Bengali theatre. In 1967, Badal Sircar set up his group, Satabdi, in Calcutta. Thus was started a new style of theatre in which the proscenium was discarded, along with the whole notion of sets, lighting and costumes. His argument was all these props

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were meant to approximate theatre to reality, but in fact, they only served to distance the audience from the theatre that was performed. Further, these objects only rendered theatre more expensive to produce, which therefore, passed beyond the reach of the most. This was exactly where, Sircar believed, the Group Theatre was failing to deliver. In an essay written in 1978, Sircar agreed that the Group Theatre had started with the promise that its theatre would not be for sale in the market, and neither would it be for empty entertainment.21 But as things turned out, for their very survival the groups had to place themselves in the market. Selling tickets, touting for call shows or soliciting advertisements and sponsorships, became inevitable because of the costs involved in the proscenium form. Inevitably, he believed, the Group Theatre had to become commercialised.

There is no doubt that Sircar’s experiment for some time continued to attract the younger generation of theatre workers in substantial numbers, but somehow

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this style of theatre never came close to seriously challenge the proscenium form.

The crisis within the Group Theatre became more evident after the Left Front was re-elected in the elections of 1982. Indira Gandhi by that time had come back to power in the central government and there was a fear that she would use every means to oust the left from West Bengal. On the other hand, the left had, during its first term, initiated the Operation Barga, ensuring that sharecroppers may not be evicted without going through legal procedures, and that guaranteed it of substantial support among the poorer classes in rural Bengal. This was the context in which the left-oriented Group Theatre activists massively participated in the election campaigns of 1982. In the aftermath of that, however, questions began to be asked.

Natyachinta, the theatre journal, around this time brought out a collection of opinions22 of prominent theatre personalities on this subject of the election campaigns of 1982, which refl ected the anxieties plaguing the theatre world. Tapas Sen, the legendary light man of the Bengali stage, and also a confi rmed Marxist, wondered if the plays and songs actually inspired the people during the campaign, and that they did not come to see the star artistes. This was not what used to happen previously.23 Jocchon Dastidar, another noted actor and director of the Bengali stage, also agreed that the spirit of opposition had probably mellowed. Yet the economic problems had increased, there was now greater opportunity for a more powerful struggle. Was there then some weakness on “our” side, he queried.24

There were others who believed differently. Indranath Bandyopadhyay, for instance, argued that the election campaigns were actually derived from the propaganda that the IPTA used to engage in.25

It is interesting to see that in the list provided by Bandyopadhyay of the various themes of the plays performed during the campaign, only at the end came the achievements of the Left Front in rural uplift. Clearly for the left, the more important aspect of their campaign was to highlight the threat they thought was

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coming from the Congress-led central government, and not so much the ongoing class struggle in the agrarian sector of interior Bengal.26

Arun Mukherjee was another actordirector who felt encouraged by what he experienced during the campaign. “The ground is ready. We should now advance,”27 he said. Groups should now go out on small tours in the villages, and because for a long time to come the villages would not be able to pay for this, the bigger groups should take the initiative to organise such tours.

Declining Interest

Mukherjee in a manner was indicating another aspect of the question. The Group Theatre was not making money. Only a handful of groups at the top were able to square their accounts, the rest were just hanging on. There was a palpable lack of public interest in theatre, shown up by dwindling audience. It was believed in certain quarters that actors of the Group Theatre should now turn professional, i e, to do full-time theatre, and to depend on it for their living. The obvious assumption was that this must dilute the political content of the theatre, but with the increased money fl ow serious theatre would be possible. In January 1982, a seminar was held in a hall in south Calcutta to discuss this question, which Natyachinta reported in its March number of that year. The meeting was poorly attended and the editors of the journal lamented that there was a clear lack of interest among theatre workers:

We speak of the theatre movement in West Bengal at the drop of a hat, of the love for theatre in West Bengal, the militant role played by the theatre workers. Yet this seminar proves how much the theatre workers have become alienated from each other.28

The speakers had the same concern working on their mind. To some the problem stemmed not so much from politics in theatre as the wrong kind of politics. Alok Roychoudhury argued that a big section of the Group Theatre was alienated from the core of the Indian society, and while theatre workers spoke of progressive theatre they actually offered popular entertainment. In a remarkably

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frank assessment of the overall political situation Roychoudhury said,

In the absence of movements in keeping with the spirit of the times in Left politics, the size of the audience is going down – because the main theme of progressive movement is complementary to Left politics.29

Anil Dey spelt out the question more clearly:

Against whom we were fighting, where we were trying to arrive, all these today perhaps has become a little confused. Things have become a little disorderly.

Further,

We thought that the audience would listen to what we have to say. We shall lead them to the desired goal. But if we have to make money – theatre has to provide what the audience want to see.

And that,

The theatre groups which are surviving are able to do so only by virtue of call shows. They never can expect full houses when they perform on their own. Which means there is no audience for their plays.30

There were groups, he said, who were not able to pay their members even their travel expenses, not even Rs 15-20, and that because they were making no money at all. And besides that, there was an erosion of ideological commitment which made it difficult to continue in spite of this:

The reason for this lies in the political and social situation. If this situation had some promise in it, and if we were not so disunited, then may be our ideological commitment would have been stronger. There is anarchy and restlessness in different areas. Consequently, there is erosion in our ideology. And perhaps that is why we now wish to take up theatre as a profession.

It should be clear from the brief survey above that by the early 1980s the socalled Group Theatre movement, or the Navanatya movement, whatever the name we may give to it, was in a crisis of sorts. As long as the left was in the opposition, it seems, the activists thought there was a point to it. After 1977, and more so after 1982, it appeared to many among them that the exercise had lost its raison d’etre.

There were others who thought in terms of a more radical critique. Electoral success had created in the left a greed for power. If at the beginning, there had been an honest desire to utilise power

INSIGHT

for providing some relief to the toiling masses, it now had transformed into a desire for power for the sake of power. Bibhas Chakraborty, a noted actor-director, thus wrote:

Politics of the present day has a very dirty look about it. The so-called progressives are carrying on just as they please. What is called ethics has been deleted from the practice of politics. The result is that today’s society has become bereft of moral values. Unprincipled activities are easily passed off as political tactics. In other words, what I am trying to say is that in politics, whether it is with the leaders or with the party, no ideology is left any more. And this has left its impress on the whole society. Neither are we true to our own beliefs, and have turned into self-seekers.31

Further, Since the question has come up, let me be very frank about it. We all have turned escapists, just like our Marxist leaders. Just as they don’t want to waste time over revolution, and only want to secure their life tenure over power, so are we anxious only to ensure, somehow, the survival of our groups. Theatre movement remains confi ned to our speeches and to our writings.

The cultural sphere, at the end of the day, was only an adjunct of the political sphere. The former cannot prosper as long as the latter does not provide a clear-headed direction to it.

We have seen, and we know, that though up to a certain point, the struggle of the cultural fronts has a relatively greater importance in people’s movements, it ultimately has to follow the lead of the political struggle. If at that point of time political movement and political leadership fail to provide the right directions, the cultural front becomes aimless, and ridden with doubts. The political sphere, therefore, has to be more prepared. Its goal, its ways of achieving that goal, and above all its honesty – these are the important questions. … A corrupt political sphere cannot give rise to an honest theatre movement. For that matter, it cannot produce any movement at all. And if there is no movement, politicking and backstabbing will continue.32

This was then where the discourse founded by Nabanna had arrived at.33

Epilogue

The Group Theatre, the theatre which wished to be different – different from the common fare – did not disappear. The name still survives though its mention in the media has become rare of late. The movement is all but fi nished.

Groups are known separately and only occasionally they come together.

How should we read this phase in Bengali theatre? If politics had been more “honestly” revolutionary, would this “movement” have survived with the same vigour as before? Or, was it perhaps the other way round, that the left ceased to be leftist enough was an indicator of changing times? The old fervour was dead, or at least dying. After all in their own times Bijon Bhattacharya could not make it either and Badal Sircar remained a marginal fi gure.

It is possible to see the crisis in the Group Theatre as a fallout of the much bigger crisis in the constitutional left movement of the country. The rhetoric began to sound empty, meaningless, as a political practice inevitably veered round towards pragmatism with all its unpalatable consequences. One of them was that the romantic bhadralok fantasy of a revolution gradually faded away.

Notes

1 Sushil Mukherjee, The Story of the Calcutta Theatres: 1753-1980,K P Bagchi & Co, Calcutta 1982, p 157.

2 Ibid: 155.

3 Sambhu Mitra, Sanmarga Saparja (Travelling Together on the Right Path), M C Sarkar & Sons, 1989. “Sisirkumarer Proyogkala Somporkay (On

Sisrkumar’s Theatre-craft)” (1966), pp 104-06. 4 Ibid: 105. 5 Jyotirindra Moitra – “Amader Nobojiboner Gaan”

(Our Song of a New Life), Bohurupee, No 49, 1 May 1978, “Smaran: Bijon Bhattacharya O Jyotirindra Moitra” (Bijon Bhattacharya and Jyotirindra Moitra Memorial number), pp 119-33. Original publication in Saradiya Kalantar, Calcutta, 1974.

6 Sambhu Mitra, “Natyasanskritir Noboporjyaer Proyojon” (The Need for a New Phase in Theatre Culture) Bohurupee, No 10, 1960, Calcutta, p 20.

7 Sunil Chattopadhyay, “‘Anjangarh’ o ‘Kerani’ Natoker Bhumika” (The Background to Anjangarh and Kerani), pp 127-30, Bohurupee Nabanna Smarak Sonkhya (Nabanna Memorial Number), No 33, October 1969, Calcutta, p 127.

8 See for instance Kironmoy Raha, Bengali Theatre, National Book Trust, 2001, Chapter XIV.

9 Rustom Bharucha, Rehearsals of Revolution: The Political Theatre of Bengal, Seagull Books, 1983, p 40.

10 Gangapada Bose, “Nabanner Agay (Prelude to Nabanna)”, pp 142-47, 146, Bohurupee Nabanna Smarak Sonkhya, No 33, October 1969, Calcutta.

11 Bijon Bhattacharya, “Natyachinta (Thoughts on Theatre)”, pp 1-2 (published posthumously). Natyachinta, Calcutta, Year 1, No 1, November 1981, p 1.

12 Sambhu Mitra, “Maheshay”, Sanmarga Saparja (Travelling together on the Right Path), pp 5-8, 1989. The essay was originally published in 1949.

13 Ibid, “Nobonatyer Bichar (Judging the New Theatre Movement)”, pp 56-61, 57.

14 To be sure, not all bhadralok were leftist, but the streak was there in bhadralok psyche. See

MARCH 10, 2012

my article “Where Have All the ‘Bhadraloks’

Gone?”, EPW, 17 January 2004.

15 Bharucha, pp 107-08.

16 Samik Bandyopadhyay, “Aro Dorshok? Na, Minorityr Theatre? (A larger audience or a theatre of the minority?)”, Bohurupee, Calcutta No 27, Special Number, September 1967, pp 26-32. Also see Samik Bandyopadhyay, “Nobonatya Prosonge Apriya Bakya” (Some unpleasant truths about Navanatya), Bohurupee, 28-29 joint number, June 1968, pp 109-11.

17 Samik Bandyopadhyay, 1967, p 27.

18 Ibid: 28.

19 We can get some idea of what Bijon Bhattacharya was aiming at from one of his last essays: “I have to do my plays most of the times in the city where middle class artistes ape the artistes of the proletariat. If only I had the support of some organisation, I would have gone into the interior of the country. I would have discovered the history of their struggle, and then would have made them do their own theatre. I cannot do this without some help. ...Petty bourgeois players parodying the people of the country, this cannot continue for long”, Bhattacharya, 1981, p 2.

20 Banerji, 1967, p 29.

21 Badal Sircar, “Theateray Bechakena (Commodification of Theatre)”, Nanamukh, 1988, pp 191-97.

22 “Nirbachan ’82 O Group Theaterer Obhijan (Election ’82 and the Campaigning by Group Theatre)”, Natyachinta, Year 1, Nos 6-8, April-June 1982.

23 Ibid: 9.

24 Ibid: 10.

25 Indranath Bandyopadhyay, “Nirbachoni Sanskritik Obhijanay Group Theatere Bhumika (The Role of Group Theatre in the Cultural Campaign in the Elections)”, pp 4-6.

26 The themes were as follows: (1) Centre-state relationship; (2) the Congress-sponsored terrorism of the 1970s and the crisis in democracy; (3) a petrol bomb attack on a bus on a busy city road on 3 April 1981 by the Congress goons to enforce a strike call; (4) the attempt to stop elections on the very eve on the part of the Congress by raising the bogey of false voters, and the trial in the Supreme Court; (5) the education policy of the Left Front; (6) the crisis within the autocratic force led by Indira Gandhi, and the evil conspiracy; (7) ESMA, NASA, i e, national security laws, and the International Monetary Fund loan; (8) the achievements of the Left Front in rural uplift, ibid.

27 “Nirbachan ’82, etc”, p 11.

28 Natyachinta, Year 1, No 5, March 1982. “Gosthigoto Bhabay Group Theaterer Peshadari Hobar Proyojoniota; (Group Theatre’s Need to Turn Professional)”, p 3.

29 Ibid: 4.

30 Ibid: 5-6.

31 Bibhas Chakraborty, “Adarshohin Rajniti Ar Bhandami Mul Karon (Politics Bereft of Ideology and Hypocrisy Are the Main Reasons),” Natyachinta, Year 6, I-III combined number, November 1986-January 1987, p 5.

32 Ibid: 6.

33 It should be remembered though, that professional theatre – outside the Group Theatre movement

– was not doing well either. The crisis of the missing audience was equally felt and perhaps the impact was worse, inasmuch as the people involved were more dependent on it for their sustenance. The question of politics here did not figure as much as the growing shoddiness of production, the boring repetitiveness of themes which no longer held the interest of the paying public. TV soaps were knocking on the door. In 1984, the Hindi serial Hum Log made its appearance on the national network, then the only channel available to the Indian audience, and it was soon to be followed by others of the same genre.

vol xlvii no 10

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