In the rooms, the women come and go
Talking of Michaelangelo
~ TS Eliot, Love song of J Alfred Prufrock
The hall is packed, and conversation flows like wine, skimming over intellectually loaded topics like classic literature, drama, the fine arts...all of which seems like Greek to the little girl sitting in the middle row, fidgeting next to her mother, who has brought her to see this dramatic parody as a 'special treat'. This being the first time the seven-year-old has come to the theatre, she obviously cannot see the point. The promise of being able to see the 'Mirza Shaheb' from her favourite television serial Auyomoy is the only reason why she's putting up with the ordeal at all.
The lights dim, and a hush falls on the audience as the play begins. For the next one and a half hours, the little girl sits entranced as the characters she has fallen in love with on the small screen tromp on and off the stage. Asaduzzaman Noor as the multifaceted, romantic zamindar, Sarah Zaker as his enchanting second wife Elaichi Begum, Bipasha Hayat as her sister Labanga, all her favourite characters, leaving her star-struck and helpless with laughter as they deliver their witty dialogues, making fun of their own on-screen personalities. By the time the show ends and it is time to go, something inside the girl has changed forever. She is in love.
That was my first theatre experience, back in the days before cable television and shopping malls. It sparked off a love affair that has lasted over a decade now. Catching a stage play is still a delightful treat. Indeed, despite the fact that it is still not considered as a medium for the masses, theatre still enjoys a loyal fan following here in the country.
Bangladesh has a rich dramatic tradition, both in terms of original material and adaptations of foreign plays, and as such, enjoys popularity both amongst local enthusiasts and foreign aficionados.
|Bailey Road is perhaps best known as the heart of Dhaka's theatre world. The stage productions of Dhaka's major drama companies are usually performed in Bailey Road. Over the years, its theatres have played host to some of the country's best actors and actresses. The major theatres on the road are:
Guide House Auditorium: The Guide House was established in 1964 to spearhead the movement of the Bangladesh Girls' Guide Association and the auditorium was built in 1982 as a means of raising funds for the organisation. In 2003-04 the auditorium went through structural upgradation with advice from eminent theater personalities M Hamid, Jamaluddin and Nasiruddin Yusuf.
Mahila Samiti Auditorium: A centre for stage productions that introduced ticketed stage plays in the 70s. The centre is located in the building of the Bangladesh Mahila Samiti.
Bailey Road was officially renamed Natok Saroni (Theater Street), in recognition of the road's contributions to performing arts in the capital.
“It simply amazes the watchers of the theatre scene, especially of the west, why on earth the theatre practitioners in Bangladesh should carry on under sub-human and pre-historic conditions of auditorium stage and technical facilities and that too without any financial benefit” states Ataur Rahman in State of Theatre in Bangladeshi (2001). “They greatly recognise the fact that although the theatre people in Bangladesh cannot make a living from theatre, they promote theatre with a passion and absolutely professional zeal and commitment. They often wonder as to how in this world of market economy, our theatre could still remain idealistic, poor in attire but rich in soul.
“The redeeming feature of the theatre in Bangladesh is its high artistic quality, be it stage production or open-air or street presentation. Theatre in this country is deriving its pivotal spirit from the limitless passion of theatre practitioners of the country. It did not fall behind on the plea of lack of funding by the government, or of pecuniary disadvantage of organisations or individuals, or the degraded acting space. It is marching forward in spite of many limitations.”
As the saying goes, “Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”. Just so, the appeal of theatre is different for different people.
Sabreena Ahmed, an active member of the English Department Drama Society (EDDS) at Dhaka University recalls how she fell in love with drama while working on a stage presentation of S T Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. “I loved the way how a lifeless text transformed into a grand show” she says. “It (theatre) gives an individual (the opportunity) to show his/her creativity and talent.” Sabreena is a regular theatre-goer, catching at least two shows a month, and enjoys assisting her teacher Tahmina Ahmed (whom she names as her 'greatest inspiration') in directing EDDS plays. She also performs her own pieces for the Brine Pickles, the first English-language performance literature group in the country.
A fellow Pickle Idrak Hossain claims his interest in drama was sparked off by appreciation by friends for a dramatic script he had written last year. Since then, he has regularly been writing scripts, spurred on by his mentor, Dr Patrick T Dougherty, a visiting professor from the University of Hyogo, who is currently teaching Creative Writing classes at Presidency University here in Dhaka. Idrak is also a fairly regular theatre enthusiast, who watches stage performances to gain insight on stage elements such as costumes, lighting, set design, etc, and also to understand the scope of experimentation amongst the local audience.
For Tanim, however, the beauty of the performing arts is simply how human interaction is conveyed. “I love the way everyday occurrences and emotions are reflected in a stage play.”
Schools to the rescue
While other mass media like cable television and cinemas have lead to a decline in theatre attendance over the past decade or so, educational institutes may be the answer to preserving and maintaining interest in this art form.
Aside from the DU, most leading private universities have a drama society or student organisation of some sort, which are active in producing stage performances of quality. Several leading English Medium schools have also recognised the merit of having an education in performing arts and have included drama classes as part of their co-curricular programme. Schools like Scholastica and ISD have already established a name for themselves for their high-end drama productions.
Kashfee Habib, now a student at the Independent University, Bangladesh , fondly recalls the drama classes and school plays during her high-school years. “The drama classes themselves didn't have anything interesting to offer to me back then, but I loved being onstage. Getting a reaction from the audience, knowing that I had the power to make them laugh, to entertain them, was a real high indeed.”
So the next time you think that Dhaka has very little to offer by way of entertainment, think again. Turn off the television and go and catch a stage play, and be prepared to be enchanted.
By Sabrina F Ahmad
Photos: Munem Wasif