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COVER STORY

NOSTALGIA
Theatre and Bengali Culture

Theatre arts and mainstream cinema were important sources of entertainment and cultural immersion in the 70s. A certain euphoria took hold in Dhaka in the mid to late 70s because it was so close to the recent War of Liberation. People were excited about starting museums, art academies and theatre houses. Over two decades later, although the enthusiasm remains, resources are constrained and the popularity concentrated in a certain class.

Theatre arts and mainstream cinema were important sources of entertainment and cultural immersion in the 70s. A certain euphoria took hold in Dhaka in the mid to late 70s because it was so close to the recent War of Liberation. People were excited about starting museums, art academies and theatre houses. Over two decades later, although the enthusiasm remains, resources are constrained and the popularity concentrated in a certain class.

The dark eyeliner, the specific dramatic style of solo dialogue delivery in a high-energy scene accompanied by the whiff of that damp smell in old theatre houses -- all together produced a new flavour of Bengali culture. This flavour exists in theatre houses even today. A generation that has matured through exposure to television is now increasingly reaching out to the sense of nostalgia that the theatre offers.

Nostalgia is a bittersweet longing to return to a past experience. And it is woven deep into the Bengali culture.

Theatre transports the previous few generations back to an era where they were the show-runners. Every Thursday evening the walking group would huddle to see a play together. Innocent delinquents who once skipped school to watch plays now fondly reminisce those carefree days over a cup of tea after attending a play. Perhaps it is a drive to protect the nostalgia, a result of a lack of resources, or cultural inertia that prevents changing that specific flavour of Bengali theatre productions. Recently there has been a revival of interest.

However, the popularity of theatre is concentrated upon a certain class of Dhakaites. Most, if not all plays, find a similar audience in terms of class, interest, and locale. The sparse few theatre houses are all concentrated in a certain area of Dhaka and the deadlock traffic strengthens the general sense of apathy after braving a long day of work.

The Bengali essence
In the current context, there has been a rise in interest in English plays in Dhaka and a greater array of themes has been accommodated. Last year, V-Day Dhaka 2012 brought out the award-winning production of "The Vagina Monologues". The success of plays like Vagina Monologues in Dhaka reflects greater tolerance for uncommon themes -- a play with no music, no props, and no lighting gimmicks while capturing the subtle mysteries of womanhoodm a concept tossed aside for the most part in a staunchly patriarchal society.

Theatre has been able to recreate men's most cherished ideals on the 'empty space' and in spite of the imagined or real threats of extinction; theatre is still alive and is on a path of revival. Factors such as better quality of international entertainment, the publicity of a number of international cultural festivals within Dhaka has initiated a renewed interest in fine arts.

As theatre is truly a social product, it invites a re-examination of social life. Theatre makes it possible for the interaction between the old and the new to take place in a way which is unique among all the other art forms.
“Thus theatre itself is a form of social activism,” describes theatre actor/activist Reetu Sattar, “attempting to enrapture individuals and move them collectively to create awareness of social issues. Plays such as Kobir Lorai, Circus Circus, Charak Puja Mohorrom, Golap Jal, Amina Shundori, etc. address crucial themes of suppression, orthodoxy and women's empowerment successfully. A combination of renewed interest and better quality of productions make theatre a potentially powerful source of social education.”

Theatre in constraints
Theatre in particular suffers from a resource constraint -- new faces, group theatres emerged disproportionate to the facilities available to house their productions and to appeal to a wider variety of audience. No less than 60 groups emerged since the late 70s, most of which are funded through public support and philanthropic societies, aside from a small proportion of government subsidy.

However, the overall production houses saw a general commonality of stage design, props and makeup that was identifiably Bengali. Perhaps it was owing to the lack of resources to fund a varied assortment of stage assets, but these elements added together an apparent sense of nostalgia.

Traditionally Bengali theatre is linked with music and drama, especially because of the influence of jatra. Post-1971 plays saw the legacy of English plays which were translated to Bangla during the 40s, dipped during the 50s and 60s and found revival after Liberation. In fact, Bengal theatre had one of the highest number of foreign plays during that time. The avant-garde plays started in the late 60s, although producing mainly leftist-themed plays.

There are several theatre halls in Dhaka city such as Jatiyo Shilpokala Academy Theatre, Guide House Auditorium, Mohila Somity Moncho, Osmany Memorial Auditorium and Gulistan Nattomoncho. Troupes such as Aronnyok, Theatre, Prachyonath, etc. attract large audiences to these halls.

However, the requirement to accommodate the number of troupes today far exceeds the number of halls available for shows. Ticket prices vary according to the troupe and show, but range from Tk.100-1000.

Aggressive marketing is required to generate a wider congregation of viewers. Hopefully, we will find a better dispersal of theatre houses across Dhaka so that the gap which starkly divides the cultural hub of Dhaka from the ignorance of many performing arts lovers who simply do not know enough of the richness of theatre in the country narrows.

Theatre is fundamental to human nature as it is the oldest of arts and includes all of the arts. It has survived through the era of television, internet and Facebook because of its ability to activate sentiments directly and to produce the bittersweet feelings of nostalgia that remind us of our Bengali essence.

By Dibarah Mahboob
Photo: Prajna Tasnuva Rubayyat


 
 
 

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