The stage as a forum of protest in West Bengal

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : Bengal’s theatre of protest against oppressive systems is still bustling with action. From plays like Utpal Dutt’s “Dushwapner Nagari” in the 1970s to “Fandigram”, a satire on the post-Nandigram violence and the most recent “Poshu Khamar”, based on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, the state’s intellectual fraternity has been cornering the ruling dispensation on burning issues.

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“Poshu Khamar”, adapted by noted playwright Saonli Mitra, was denied permission to be staged last month in West Bengal’s Hooghly district by the police. Directed by Arpita Ghosh and staged by their troupe Pancham Baidik, the play is a hard-hitting comment on the monolithic, totalitarian Communist regimes, says writer-political analyst Monobina Gupta in her book, “Left Politics in Bengal”.

“The former Soviet Union, it is well-known, had banned the book. Defending her play, the director says ‘Poshu Khamar’ reflects the present in West Bengal, a telling testimony to the powers of an intolerant regime,” Gupta says.

“Sure enough, the resemblance was not lost on CPI-M (Communist Party of India-Marxist) leaders,” Gupta says.

The play ran into a rough patch in 2006 when the troupe sought information about the Singur project from Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. The group was told to replace the play with another one in December 2006.

Bengal, which has always been the first to rebel against repressive regimes and social conditions, has a long history of protest theatre.

The controversy over “Poshu Khamar” is similar to an incident in 1974 (May 16) when Congress supporters had stopped the Utpal Dutt’s reactionary production, “Dushwapner Nagari (The City of Nightmares)”, a satire on West Bengal under the Congress regime of Siddhartha Shankar Ray.

In her book, “Smaraney Bismaraney: Nabanna Theke Lal Durgo (In Memory, In Forgetfulness: From Nabanna to Red Fort)”, Dutt’s widow Sova Sen, noted stage actress and the force behind the People’s Little Theatre (PLT) , alleged that the police helped the attackers.

Utpal Dutt, who was a Marxist supporter, consolidated the contemporary Leftist Revolutionary Theatre in Bengal, which took up issues of popular and global concern to make statements.

Three of his radical plays, “Barricade”, “Dushwapner Nagari” and “Ebaar Rajar Pala”, played to packed houses through the 1970s despite being officially banned.

Dutt was jailed in 1965 for several months because the West Bengal government feared that his play, “Kallol” (Waves of Sea) based on the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny of 1946, which drew packed audiences at the Minerva Theatre, would trigger anti-government protests.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, many “resistances had found their way into the world of films, music, literature and theatre”.

It led to a new genre of work depicting poverty, hunger and exploitative class relations in West Bengal. A play by Bijan Bhattacharya, “Nabanna”, became a corner-stone of Bengali resistance theatre.

Poetry by Jyotindra Moitra, Bishnu Dey and Subhas Mukhopadhyay spoke of the resentment and anguish. This period was characterised by several phases of revolutions “against the existing socio-political systems”.

The longest-lasting forum theatre or people’s theatre, Jana Sanskriti Centre for the Theatre for the Oppressed, by Sanjoy Ganguly, was born in West Bengal in 1985.

“Creating relationships should be the principle task of art,” Ganguly says.

Modelled on Augusto Boal’s native Brazilian theatre, Jana Sanskriti takes theatre to the people at the grassroots and invites the audience to “become actors” on the stage to speak about social malaise, politics and related issues facing the state and society in general.

According to veteran Bengali theatre personality Manoj Mitra, “street theatre over the last three decades has also become an effective form of resistence since the hostile socio-political situations of 1960s and 1970s”.

The realityspeak of the 20th century West Bengal stage spills into this century as well – especially post-Nandigram.

Bratya Basu, a playwright and director, ran into trouble with the CPI-M with his play, “Winkle Tinkle”, a satire on the present-day situation in West Bengal.

After the Nandigram-Singur fracas, the organiser of a theatre group told him not to incite trouble.

For the theatre group Sanskriti, the stage was out of bounds for a long time after it staged “Cadaverous” on the Amlashol starvation deaths in West Midnapore in June 2004.

Based on the Nandigram violence, the group produced a play, “Fandigram” following which its call shows were scrapped.

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