On 27 November 1795, the curtains were raised at the Calcutta’s Bengally Theatre for a Bengali version of Richard Jodrell’s comedy, The Disguise, produced by a Russian named Gerasim Lebedeff, and with an ‘all-native’ cast. Many historians consider this the first instance of a Bengali play on a proscenium stage in Bengal – theatre in which the audience sits in front of the stage and actors face a single direction, rather than moving around the stage performing for a 360 degree audience. However, it would be a bit myopic to credit the first theatre production in this part of India to Lebedeff’s ground-breaking act alone. From the 16th century, with the modernist trend in Bengal ushered in by Sri Chaitanya Dev, Sanskrit plays were performed after being translated into Bengali. An important aspect of Gaudiya Vaisnavism – a religious movement initiated by Chaitanya Dev that gained dominance at that time – was the devotional worship of Radha and Krishna via songs called Leela Kirtan. These songs were introduced to the theatre of the time to reflect their devotional narratives. The tradition of songs in Bengali theatre continued, though the nature and content of them evolved over time.
As the East India Company committed atrocities in India – from the Battle of Plassey in 1757 to the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 – paving the way for the British Crown to assume direct control of India, ‘enlightenment’ came to the Bengali elite through European culture and education. Sanskrit theatre, which largely relied upon the mythical elements of Hinduism, was soon too dated to portray the social realities of the times. Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt, for instance, experimented with European dramaturgy and started writing farces. In 1860 he wrote Ekei ki bale Sabhyata (Is this Civilisation?) and Buro Shaliker Ghare Ro (The Old Fool’s Fads), both of which became famous. In the same year, Dinabanadhu Mitra’s Nildarpan (The Mirror of Indigo Planting) showed the brutal exploitation of peasants working on indigo plantations by their British employers. With the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century, a sharp divide between the rural and urban cultures arose. The European-inspired proscenium theatre emerged in Calcutta, although rural cultures moved closer to the folk theatre-based Jatra, which even today is mostly staged in the open air with the audience seated on all sides. Jatras continued to thrive, modestly, dwelling mostly on social themes concerning Hindu-Muslim relations, as well as historical and mythological stories.
During the second half of the 19th century, religious revivalism rose in tandem with European liberalism. This was the context in which the first Bengali theatre star, Girish Chandra Ghosh, emerged. Ghosh soon became an institution unto himself – writing, directing and acting in plays, with people thronging the theatre to watch him. Many of Ghosh’s plays were based on the lives of historical characters, such as Chaitanya Dev, or were mythological stories. The nature of the content of these plays re-introduced songs into Ghosh’s theatre. For example, in plays like Chaitanyalila or Nimai Sanyas, which dwell on the life and spiritual awakening of Chaitanya Dev, references to Vaishnavik Leela Kirtan became a subject on its own. To his credit, Ghosh chose different song forms for different genres – mythological plays would include Kirtan, for example. This dynamism is why Ghosh could cater to audiences with different tastes and still fulfil expectations.
As this was taking place, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote a number of plays with profuse song-and-dance sequences (often referred to as Rabindra-Nritya, for their unique minimalist and non-classical form). Tagore infused a European form and structure into his plays, building climax and portraying psychological conflict between the characters. Tagore’s plays were mostly performed at Jorashanko, his house in Calcutta, or at Santiniketan. However, they failed to generate interest from general audiences. This changed dramatically once Sombhu Mitra’s group ‘Bohurupi’ began performing Tagore’s stories and plays.
With the dawn of the 20th century, at the popular commercial theatre space called the ‘Sadharon Rongaloy’, content and form became increasingly naturalistic. A section of the educated Bengali elite entered the world of theatre, and along with them came the subtle nuances of European acting methods. Set design, lighting and acoustics were utilised more, and experimentation ensued. In the 1920s, actor Sisir Kumar Bhaduri emerged and swept the Bengali audience off their feet with some scintillating performances in Chandragupta (written by D L Roy) and Raghubir (written by Kshirod Prasad Vidyavinod). In 1931 he staged D L Roy’s famous play Sita in the US, to rave reviews.
As the Indian freedom struggle reached its zenith in the 1930s and ‘40s, a number of groups of artists evolved, whose main impetus was to voice an opposition to the politics of the state. The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) was formed in 1943, the same year in which Bengal was devastated by a famine that left five million rural Bengalis dead, and the streets of Calcutta thronging with millions of refugees. Bijan Bhattacharya’s Nabānna (1944), about a family that moves to Calcutta during the famine, was influential far beyond the immediate attention it drew. For the first time, true political theatre was written and performed on the Bengali stage.
Rise of Group Theatre
The emergence of the political theatre with Nabānna, the freedom of India and the partition of Bengal slowly rang the death knell of commercial Bengali theatre in the 1950s, though it was already dwindling since the decline of Sisir Kumar (who died in 1959). Group Theatre emerged in Calcutta, with the intention of imbuing their plays with a political identity independent of any existing parties. They were ideologically motivated, with a subtle leftist undercurrent. Heavily influenced by Russian theatre, modeling its acting techniques primarily on the Stanislavskian school, and relying on adaptations of Chekhov, Bernard Shaw and Bertolt Brecht, Group Theatre soon became popular with the urban, middle-class Bengali intelligentsia. However, Group Theatre was not economically viable, and most of the actors had alternate professions.
From then on, Bengali theatre mostly relied on the Group Theatre for its experimentation with form and content. Soumitra Chatterjee remained a notable exception, from the mid-1970s until the mid-‘90s, producing, adapting, acting and directing his plays within the commercial theatre domain with considerable success. However, much of his success can be attributed to his star power (he had been a leading star of Bengali cinema in the 1960s and ‘70s), coupled with his entertaining, detailed and wholesome scripts and the superb acting in his plays. With the decline of the golden age of Bengali cinema in the 1970s and ‘80s, Chatterjee moved more and more towards the stage.
Group Theatre produced three maestros in Sambhu Mitra, Utpal Dutt and Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay. Distinctively different in style, form and concept, they represented the holy trinity on the Bengal stage, the best thing to happen after Sisir Kumar. In theatre the trio holds the same importance and reverence as their filmic counterparts, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Both Mitra and Bandyopadhyay had limited success in cinema, but their contribution to the Bengali stage is yet to be surpassed. During the 1980s and ‘90s, Bengali theatre produced quantity, but the quality is debatable. Perhaps understandably, theatre culture started to decline with the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s, when Indian television channels privatised.
Problems in contemporary Bengali theatre
An 1873 review of Kiran Chandra Bandyopadhyay’s Bharatmata (1873) in the newspaper Amritabazar Patrika reads: “The audience at National Theatre has returned with an unforgettable feeling and education. The stage is both a social reformer as well as social education. We hope that National Theatre will able to perform both the great duties”. The social reform role expected of Bengali theatre started to outweigh its role of ‘entertaining’, and therein lies the root of its current situation. Bengali cinema began to decline after the 1960s, coinciding with the revolutionary politics of the 1970s, in the form of the Naxalite movement mostly propagated by middle class youth. Anger and intolerance became more prominent in the imaginations of the Indian population. The ‘angry young man’, a product of 1970s India, emerged in the popular cultural space.
In Bengal, with a new breed of film directors in the 1970s, a sharp divide between commercial/mainstream and parallel/art cinema surfaced. However, the Bengali theatre scene was somewhat different. Commercial theatre had already disappeared, with a few exceptions. Group Theatre became the equivalent of ‘art cinema’. Some Group Theatre productions became didactic, preachy and, ultimately, disconnected from the audience. The main problem lay in the way the ideology and philosophy of the productions were perceived – many became a space for extreme experimentation, at the cost of satisfying the general audience. Perhaps this was because theatre was considered ‘high-art’, whereas cinema was ‘popular’. Therefore, many theatre practitioners thought that this dissociation from the audience was natural, even sometimes desirable to satisfy the auteur’s intellectual instincts. Bengali cinema, on the other hand, thrived on being ‘commercial’ and entertaining, yet continued to produce ‘art’ cinema within its fold.
The problems of the Bengali Group Theatre were compounded by the fact that most theatres were based on a non-indigenous concept, with storylines borrowed from outside – mostly Russia or Germany. The translations of plays were either poor or irrelevant to the contemporary Indian/Bengali context. None of the popular Bengali writers of the 1970s and ‘80s – such as Samaresh Bose, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Sunil Gangopadhyay or Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay – wrote plays. The infrastructure of theatres (especially compared to cinemas) lacked vision and proper maintenance. The distant and non-communicable subject, the discomfort of seating and the growth of domestic television serials soon pushed theatre out of fashion, starting in the mid-1990s. Whereas cinema went from strength to strength, theatre audiences diminished. Productions kept their ticket prices low, in an effort to draw audiences, but this did not seem to help. For actors, Bengali theatre was a stepping-stone on the way to television serials, as theatre was barely able to sustain actors, let alone earn them good money.
Despite all of this, the number of productions and theatre groups is not declining. The themes of plays have moved from histories to adaptations of Western plays and biographies. Since, compared to cinema, theatre is inexpensive to produce, the revenue returns expected are far less. This perhaps gives the theatre auteur more license to experiment. However, as most of these experiments don’t engage audiences, the theatre alienates contemporary audiences and revenue becomes even less – a vicious cycle.
The newsprint and web media, along with television channels, are celebrating and supporting the ‘star’ more than ever before in the Bengali cultural scene. Even within theatre, productions involving current theatre stars – such as Debshankar Haldar, Goutam Haldar, Bratya Basu, Suman Mukhopadhyay or Koushik Sen – have a better chance of drawing crowds, irrespective of the merits of the production. However, whereas a Mumbai or Delhi-based theatre can set ticket prices at INR 500-1500, a Kolkata-based production can, at most, charge INR 200-300, with many tickets going for INR 50-60, or less. There are only a small number of theatres charging higher prices. The general trend among theatre professionals is to keep prices low, in order to allow ‘everyone’ access. However noble this idea, no art form is enjoyed by everyone. The target audience for theatre is usually elite, educated and middle-class, those who will currently pay more to go to the cinema or eat at a mid-range restaurant than to attend the theatre.
Theatre is a product that needs to sell. This understanding has worked for cinema. Trying to isolate theatre as an ‘art’ which need not sell is a predominant attitude within Bengali theatre. In the days of Sisir Kumar and Ahindra Choudhury, when theatre was treated as commerce, theatres were abundant. Today, interest must be generated for private organisations to develop theatres, moving away from a reliance on government halls or a handful of dilapidated private ones. But to do this, the benefits of promoting theatre need to be gauged. Talking to many theatre practitioners it becomes apparent that there is a fear among many of them that the ‘privatisation’ of Bengali theatre would mean the necessity of catering to the hall owner’s wishes, including choice of subjects, actors and themes, the same charge that is leveled at mainstream cinema. However, often ignored is the fact that within popular cinema there have been examples of successful artistic experimentation and creation. More importantly in a liberal market economy, the money and power lie squarely with the crowd. It is important to tap that for the benefit of Bengali theatre, instead of relying mostly on inadequate and sparse government grants. This hypocrisy in the ranks of theatre practitioners actually breeds from a sense of aloofness, an isolation from the common man, a divide that perceives Kolkata as different from the villages of West Bengal.
Like cinema, theatre needs to spread its wings, to go back to its roots not only for content but also for form. The decline of commercial Bengali theatre from the 1940s and ‘50s should be analysed, and the lessons learnt and used in developing a sustainable revenue model for the Bengali theatre of today. Only then can theatre remain a viable place for experimentation and entertainment, and become a collective cultural space that thrives on difference, yet hold on to its unique tradition.
~Amitava Nag is an independent film scholar and critic residing in Kolkata. He has written extensively on cinema for the last 15 years, including a book on Indian cinema – Reading the Silhouette: Collection of Writings on selected Indian films, and as editor of Silhouette magazine. He can be found at amitava-nag.blogspot.in.