Tagore is read much less nowadays: actor Soumitra Chatterjee

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : Veteran Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee believes that Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore is very much a part of our present, but he is being read much less these days.

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“It is inescapable. For a Bengali, getting away from Tagore is very difficult because his works reflect a gamut of creative experiences. You listen to his songs every day in some form or the other,” Chatterjee told IANS in an interview here.

“But Tagore is being read much less these days. His poetry is not so popular any more, but strangely whenever people want a quotation to add literary flourish to any intellectual activity (be a simple letter, an essay, a social or literary event), people still fall back on Tagore’s prose and poetry for the right expression,” he said.

Chatterjee, 73, one of the country’s top elocutionists based in Kolkata, was in the capital to recite Tagore’s poetry as part of the iconic poet’s 147th birthday celebrations at the Shriram Centre Saturday. Tagore was born May 7, 1861.

Elocution, feels Chatterjee, is a very important medium of expression for an actor. “The actor has to speak so much all the while. If his diction is not right, how can he build himself as an actor?” Chatterjee asked.

His favourite poems are Tagore’s “Baanshi” (The Flute) and modernist Jibanananda Das’ “Bonolata Sen”. “I love to recite them for the emotions that they portray, their lyrics and the experiences that they recall,” the actor said.

For Chatterjee, Tagore has a pan-Indian appeal. The bard is not confined to Bengal alone, he says.

“In northern India, Mumbai and even in southern India, the culturally inclined follow Tagore and care for him much more than many Bengalis. They cherish his works,” Chatterjee said.

Chatterjee, born in Krishnanagar, 100 from Kolkata, in 1935, began his career as a showman on the stage in the late 1950s when Bengal was flourishing culturally. He was a regular at the Kolkata Coffee House, the hub of cultural debates by young Bengali intellectuals.

His world revolved around literature and the arts. “There was romanticism in the atmosphere then. The leftist idealism had developed into a conviction,” he recalls.

The actor, always drawn to art house cinema, made his first appearance in 1959 in Satyajit Ray’s “Apur Sansar” (The World of Apu), the second part of a trilogy about a boy from rural Bengal in search of his identity.

He followed it up with “Aparajito” (The Unvanquished), “Charulata” (The Lonely Wife) and “Aranyer Din Ratri” (Days and Nights in a Forest), “Ashani Sanket”, “Sonar Kella” (The Golden Fort) and “Jai Baba Felunath (Hail, Baba Felunath), which were some of his cinematic milestones.

Some of his recent releases, which have been widely acclaimed include, “The Bong Connection”, “Mahaprithivi”, “Shakha Prosakha” and “Paromitar Ek Din”. He appeared in 15 movies made by Satyajit Ray.

“I ‘d been associated with Ray for nearly 30 years. I was almost like a family member. There is no particular moment I can remember as memorable; every moment was fun. It was like acting in one long film, a continuous process,” the actor recalled.

But he would not like to play detective “Feluda”, the hero of the Ray mystery series, again. “People would not like to see an aged Felu on screen.”

Chatterjee is now back to the stage, the medium he started from. “I am rehearsing for my new play – the Bengali adaptation of the Marathi play “Atmakatha” (Autobiography) by Mahesh Elkunchwar,” he says.

These days, the actor spends most of his time writing his own plays, directing and setting the musical score for them. He has his own theatre troupe, Mukhomukhi.

His return to the stage is not exactly voluntary. “Now that films are not so exciting, I am back to the stage. Tollygunge (the hub of the Bengali movie industry) does not have good directors. I can’t do much about the rest of India because I hardly get an opportunity to see movies from outside Bengal. But, personally, I think that the quality of cinema made in Tollygunge has declined,” he said.

He attributes the slump in Bengali films not only to poor quality but also to shrinking marketing avenues and lack of initiatives on the part of the producers.

“Bengal is lagging behind other moviemaking states because it cannot market its movies. Opportunities have shrunk. If Bengali cinema had reached the maximum number of Bengalis, then it would have gone global,” Chatterjee said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])