A recent book on Badal Sircar puts the spotlight on the inner life of his works.
In the trajectory of West Bengal’s modern theatre, Badal Sircar is one of the figures who stand out as mavericks. Anjum Katyal’s book Badal Sircar: Towards a Theatre of Conscience is a much-needed comprehensive endeavour towards an ‘authentic’ and contextual study of the playwright’s work.
Katyal begins by discussing the challenges of building a “thick” description of a theatre process of which the final performance is only a fragment. In search of “authenticity” she draws on many resources for her book – play texts, her own experience of watching his plays, theoretical essays and autobiographical pieces by Sircar, literary criticisms, scholars and journalists who have written about Sircar, interviews with his colleagues, audience members and contemporary theatre workers who have been influenced by him.
Katyal alternates between anecdotal, critical and descriptive voices to produce a book that is accessible to the casual reader as well as the academic. To grasp the significance of Badal Sircar’s trajectory as a ‘play-maker’, towards what Katyal calls ‘a theatre of conscience’, it is very important to understand the social-political scenario in which Sircar is developing his work. Almost equally important is to place him in relation to his contemporaries or immediate predecessors in theatre.
Badal Sircar was born in 1925. At the time of India’s independence, he was already 22 years old. He was, in fact, an impressionable young adult during some of the most significant and disturbing political events in the Subcontinent’s history – the Quit India Movement, 1942; the Great Bengal Famine, 1943; and the Tebhaga movement, 1946, to name a few. In 1944, eminent theatre practitioners Bijon Bhattacharya and Sambhu Mitra staged Nabanna (New Harvest), the path-breaking play based on the 1943 famine. It was the most notable play produced by Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA), a left-leaning theatre organisation, which reached the masses in the villages and cities alike. The protagonists, for a change, were poor peasants whose political consciousness emerged directly from their lived conditions. Despite criticisms of being myopic in its dealing of ‘class’, one has to acknowledge that it nevertheless made a space for the working class in the play.
Badal Sircar followed IPTA productions and was a member of the Communist Party of India from 1943 to 1951. However, as Katyal points out, Sircar does not trace the influence of these events in his autobiographical pieces.
Even though Sircar was undoubtedly interested in theatre from his early days, the interest was mostly limited to theatre for entertainment. It is understandable from Sircar’s accounts that the process of theatre-production attracted him a lot – his description of the enjoyment in the rehearsals of amateur plays, especially that of the Rehearsal Club (where plays never meant to be staged were rehearsed with much enthusiasm) are telling. While he did not show an explicit interest in political theatre, neither did he associate himself with board theatre, which was flourishing at that time.
Sircar wrote Solution-X, a comedy which he considers his first play, in 1956. It was staged in 1961. The play is a comic take on how the endeavour of an obsessed scientist to invent a solution that reverses ageing leads to utter chaos. Most of his earlier plays were in this strain. To understand his journey from such entertainers to political plays in West Bengal at that time, let us take a look at Utpal Dutt, who was four years younger than Sircar but was already in the prime of his career by then. Although he is remembered as an outstanding figure in political theatre, Dutt’s interest in theatre, to begin with, was not political either. He began staging William Shakespeare’s plays in St Xavier’s College, Calcutta and later toured with actor-manager Geoffrey Kendal’s theatre company Shakespeareana to deliver performances all over India. However, Dutt’s inclination towards political theatre came much earlier. In Amar Rajniti Amar Theatre (My Politics My Theatre), Dutt writes:
In 1948, the Communist Party was banned (in India). Arrests, persecution and bullying became rampant. And the sheltered theatre pursuits of the Little Theatre soon appeared to be a laughable and trivial pretence. In June, ’48, we ended up publishing a tremendous socio-political essay in the programme of Romeo-Juliet. It began quoting from Gorky’s letter to Stanislavsky and ended in a protest against the throttling of IPTA’s voices… And then the essay started making faces at us, making fun of us.
Compared to this, Sircar’s journey towards political theatre seems much more introspective as it was primarily the journey of a playwright (this later crept into his theatre practice as a form in itself). This phase is well developed in Katyal’s book as Sircar’s ‘shift’ from comedies to serious, often abstract plays, in a sometimes repetitive narrative. Sircar’s most discussed play, Ebong Indrajit (And Indrajit, 1963), which has been called ‘the Waiting for Godot of Bengali theatre’, emanated from introspective ruminations. “During my two years in London various thoughts and feelings, bits of poetry and diary entries would come to me,” writes Sircar in his autobiographical writing Probasher Hijibiji. These were later developed into Ebong Indrajit. Katyal provides a comprehensive discussion of the landmark play in the chapter ‘Ebong Indrajit: The Game Changer’, analysing it on the basis of excerpts from the play and bringing together criticisms from theatre personalities and academicians such as Sumanta Banerjee, Satyadev Dubey and Rustom Bharucha. Describing it as a “central referent” in Badal Sircar’s creative life, the chapter discusses the playwright’s craft in depth and also describes different productions of the play. The chapter smoothly breaks the one-dimensional, almost mythical aura surrounding Ebong Indrajit in the 1960s by describing some ‘terrible’ productions of the play as well. Katyal traces the productions of the play in various Indian languages – an English version directed by Girish Karnad; a Hindi version directed by Shyamanand Jalan; a Gujarati one, directed by Praveen Joshi in Bombay, among others.
Between 1963 and 1964, Sircar switched between genres as he wrote Sara Rattir (All Night, 1963), Ballavpurer Rupkatha (The Fairytale of Ballavpur, 1963-1964), Kabikahini (Poet’s Tale, 1964) and Bichitranusthan (Variety Show, 1964). This is indeed, a crucial time of Sircar’s life, as Katyal points out, supported by ample sections from Probasher Hijibiji, Sircar tries to accommodate both his comedy-writing self and his new-found frenzy of writing plays which are much more rooted and personal. While writing about the newly evolving Sara Rattir, he says, “I don’t feel like talking about this piece to many people. I’m not even sure it it’s a piece of ‘writing’ or my ‘diary’.” He wonders in Probasher Hijibiji if he’d be able to write a comedy like Boro Pishima (Elder Aunt, 1957), one of his earlier plays, again. He does, of course, begin Ballavpurer Rupkatha soon afterwards and finish writing Kabikahini in a surprisingly short span. Following this, he starts writing more political plays including Baki Itihash (Remaining History, 1965), Bagh (The Tiger, 1965) and Tringsha Satabdi (The Thirtieth Century, 1966).
Notwithstanding his connection with political parties, Sircar’s plays go out much beyond the ambit of any party politics. He writes: “I… came to the [Communist] party from a feeling that this world had to be changed. Even after leaving the party, I feel I am still doing its work… The work of changing the world. That is not finished and I am still doing it. Through theatre.” His leftist orientation is clear and consistent but he was never restricted by party lines.
A number of his plays, for instance, are based on, or at least have references to the nuclear threat, which was not a commonplace subject at that time. Tringsho Satabdi is based on human suffering caused by the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki while Porey Konodin refers to the Hiroshima incident as the “end of creation because of something that man created”. In another play, Bagh , a little girl converses with a tiger:
Girl: … Violence, war – why? They could just sit at home and go blah blah. But they also want to attack and wage war – that too not with simple guns, but with the atom bomb!
Tiger: Atom bomb! They’re making the atom bomb! They want to annihilate the world! And then? Where will they live?
The implied ethical need for the Bengali middle class to feel and to act in response to events that do not affect them directly is a call for a global solidarity, beginning from the socially, economically and geographically-defined community in which he himself belonged. The journey that begins in introspection, with the restlessness captured in Ebong Indrajit, and the attempts to understand the meaning of life in Baki Itihash, seem to build up to serious works like Spartacus (1972) or Michhil (1974). As Katyal rightly noted, the critique of the Bengali middle-class penchant for security, convention and its blindness and acceptance of inequity and injustice that first took shape in Ebong Indrajit permeated to his later plays. The descriptions of the plays work better in the concluding chapters of the book perhaps because they are no longer summaries of the plays, and they incorporate the actions, visuals and experiences of the audience. Personal accounts of critics and academics like Ananda Lal, Probir Guha and Samik Bandyopadhyay also enrich the discussion.
The politics of Sircar’s work is intertwined with its form. His group, Satabdi, performed in open spaces and organised gram-parikramas (village tours). They performed amidst the audience and collected money after the performance instead of selling fixed-price tickets to break formal and artificial barriers between the performers and the audience. This was one of the major aspects of what came to be termed ‘Third Theatre’, arguably Sircar’s biggest contribution to Indian theatre. Apart from Satabdi, the Third Theatre form was adapted by fellow theatre groups Pathasena and Ayna. Katyal quotes Sircar’s own writing:
The dichotomy in the cultural field cannot be removed without a fundamental change in the socio-economic situation, and I have no illusion that it can be done simply through theatre. But I do believe that theatre can be one of the many facets of a movement that is vitally needed to bring about the desirable change, and that makes the idea of the Third Theatre meaningful to me.
Though this form essentially challenges the physical and hierarchical barriers between the audience and the performers and necessitates the exploration of actors’ bodies, the uniqueness of this way of theatre is more in its approach rather than specificity of techniques. The most authentic ‘guide’ to Third Theatre is possibly through Sircar’s writings. Theatre workers across India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and beyond came to be inspired by Sircar’s ways of theatre and adopted it to their suitability, including acclaimed directors of our times, such as Heisnam Kanhailal, Subodh Patnaik and Tripurari Sharma in India, Madeeha Gauhar and Mohammed Waseem in Pakistan and Nishat Jahan in Bangladesh.
Since reading theory is not a popular practice for theatre workers and given the dearth of formal theatre education, at least in West Bengal, it is fortunate that there were many takers of Badal Sircar’s legacy who kept it alive in their adaptations and practice. For instance, my reading on Third Theatre theory was mediated and expanded by my experience of works by theatre practitioners like Odisha’s Subodh Patnaik and Manipur’s Heisnam Kanhailal – their reception of Sircar’s theatre being mediated by their specific contexts.
Katyal’s descriptions and analysis of Sircar’s workshops could be especially helpful for young theatre practitioners. The book follows a loose chronology of Sircar’s career – often stepping aside to take up a play or look at a particular aspect in detail, which makes it a lively read.
It seems that in Badal Sircar’s theatre, men and women had an equal platform to create. His plays do not always concentrate on women, but when they do, they bring out complex and intricate shades of relationships, as in Sara Rattir or Pagla Ghora. Katyal quotes theatre director Abanti Chakraborty saying that women vanish from Sircar’s plays after one phase. On the other hand, Sibaji Bandyopadhyay points out that in his later plays, every character itself shrivels up “to become mere datum”. That is to say, a large number of plays of Sircar explore politics which is supposedly not related to gender. If one agrees that a play is not a research paper and need not necessarily include all possible politics, then according to Katyal, a feminist reading of Sircar’s individual plays needs to take that into account. Katyal stresses this point towards the end of the chapter ‘Woman Question’ – devoted to the treatment of gender in Sircar’s plays and the presence of women in his process of theatre making. She places Sircar among his contemporaries:
Badal-da can be read in conjunction with his contemporaries Mohan Rakesh, Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad… At this time… traditional mores regarding women are under attack, but there is ambiguity over what the desirable alternative may be, even in women themselves… However, despite this turmoil and confusion, there is no doubt that at this time women characters and women’s issues are becoming part of the discourse in these plays. Is this true of Badal-da’s plays as well? How significant are concerns about women and gender parity in his oeuvre?
The author’s interviews with the women in Sircar’s group and with workshop participants attempt to give a glimpse of what happened ‘backstage’ but the responses sometimes fail to capture the nuances integral to the situations. Sircar’s rehearsal/workshop space required and encouraged women (and men) to ‘shed their identities’ and enter an arena where all were equal, but what about the decision-making procedures that are integral to the group? A more grounded discussion of this phenomenon would have been helpful.
In the chapter ‘Talking Politics’ Katyal discusses, among other things, how a rural-urban bridge was created in Sircar’s plays like Bhoma and Basi Khabar (both are set in rural West Bengal) and were performed both in cities and villages. The ideology that led to such productions and the way of Third Theatre is discussed in this chapter. The reader is reminded that Katyal has been steadily building up to the subtitle of the book ‘Towards a Theatre of Conscience’ – which at this point seems apt and justified. Anjum Katyal makes her thesis without haste – that Sircar made his plays essentially for the middle class and mostly about the middle class. But since most of his play are rooted in the ‘personal’, more insights into his life, the choices made by him (which the first part of Katyal’s book does offer) could have been useul in understanding his practice.
The book treats its readers with a good collection of photographs of Badal Sircar and stills from his plays. The most interesting ones are from shows, manuscripts and production sketches in chapter ten. Other useful appendages of the book include the list of plays in the appendix and the bibliography is comprehensive and invaluable for an interested student.
Theatre personality Amol Palekar, in the Foreword, writes this book “will inspire the tenderfeet” who have not had the luck to witness the man himself. Anjum Katyal’s book is a very welcome read indeed, but it is best not read in isolation. A reader who simultaneously refers to the original plays, Purono Kasundi, Probasher Hijibiji and other allied materials (to which the appendix of the book has ample clues) can form a constructive dialogue with the book. It is of crucial importance for young theatre artists to know how much of what appears to be new even today, has already been done by Sircar in his prime. And an easy, attractive read about Sircar is definitely a beginning.