Social Reality in South Asian Theatre
Theatre practice in Bangladesh during the British-India period and also during the Pakistani period has a marked difference with the theatre practice of independent Bangladesh. The people of this land have always been poetically and musically inclined. Stage plays performed in the earlier days of Bangladesh had similar traits of Jatra, an indigenous open-air performance. During the 60s, left leaning politics thrived and the cultural wing of the left-leaning ideology, Sankskriti Sangsad, performed mass oriented plays in the open air with the participation of progressive cultural activists. In the mid-50s, a drama group named "Drama Circle" began performing theatre with missionary zeal and western theatre discipline. This group continued its activities for about 10-years but gradually faded away as the group's theatre practice could not transform in to a cultural movement as it happened after the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. In short, theatre practice then constituted sporadic attempts to merely entertain, although a few noteworthy productions did appear on at that time.
Serious theatre efforts, however, took place in Bangladesh in early 1973 with the regular staging of plays in exchange of tickets with the staging of "Baki Itihash", a play written by Badal Sarkar of Kolkata, India. Nagorik Natya Sampraday, of Dhaka was the pioneer in this respect followed by Theatre, Dhaka Theatre, Natya Chakra, Dhaka Padatik and several other theatre groups. Theatre practice in newly born Bangladesh started with such an intensity that it turned out to be a movement and got a name to be called as Group Theatre Movement parallel to group theatre movement of Kolkata in the forties and fifties. Bangladesh Theatre at its initial stage was inspired by the theatre group practice of Calcutta and to an extent used it as a model. The new wave theatre as against the commercial public theatre came into being with the emergence of Indians Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) which was born from the 'Anti-Fascist Writers Association' after the second world war. The staging of 'Nabanna' on the great man-made famine of 1943 in Bengal written by Bijan Bhottachargo and jointly directed by Bijan Bhottachargo and Shambhu Mitra, shook the deep set idea of theatre in terms of acting, designing, producing and above all the spirit. Theatre emerged as a socio-political weapon without ignoring its artistic aim; presentations were more or less in the line of Stanislavsky's theatre ideology who is still regarded as the father figure of modern theatre. Indian Peoples Theatre Association, in short IPTA became the hatchery of new emerging groups like Bahurupee, PLT, Nandikar, Theatre Workshop, Shovunik, Theatre Commune and the likes. These theatre groups became socially and artistically so committed and innovative that the movement had shaken the entire set of norms of theatre practices of Bengal. To the theatre workers, theatre became an addiction, passion, struggle and perhaps madness which could not deliver any financial benefit to any one in the groups. Bangladesh theatre practice got into the same outfit as that of West Bangal Theatre, having in common the same socio-cultural realities.
South Asia is a land of myths, legends and fiction. Apart from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, this part of the world is well acquainted with mysticism, fantasies, rituals and religious rites. People of almost all strata have faith in mantra, miracles, meditation, astrology and fortune foretelling.
This part of the world from the time of the Alexander the Great until mid 20th century, forbearing the onslaught of invaders, plunderers and colonial rulers, some of them ruled the sub-continent for many years and some of them stayed permanently which has given rise to a mixed culture. This part of the world for long time going through political turmoil and unrest and saw a number of political killings of the leaders, people went through social and political subjugation by military dictators. In the early sixties, during the rule of military dictator of Pakistan, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, rendering of Rabindranath Tagore's songs and staging of his plays were banned in radio and public stages. The notion was that Tagore was a Hindu Poet and people of the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, were more inclined to Hindu culture of India. South Asia is also a land area of natural calamity and disaster, which from time to time hindered the normal life flow of the common people. In 1970, 1-million people perished in a devastating cyclone in Bangladesh prior to the liberation war. This part of the world also gave birth to great statesmen, thinkers, philosophers, scientists, economists, poets, writers, composers, musicians, dancers, film makers and actors who from time to time dazzled the entire world.
South Asian countries are the initiators of indigenous theatres that are mostly narrative or epic in character. Great German playwright Bertolt Brecht had adapted, epic style from the East for presenting his plays, which was not his original innovation. In India Kutyiyattam, Khyal, Therukoothu, Yakshagana, Prahlad Natak, Jatra, Tamasha and many more narrative acting forms are still alive. These forms are studded with vibrant dance and music. These are more physical presentations than oral renditions. In Bangladesh from 14th to 18th, century there existed innumerable narrative acting forms. The narrative forms were poetic in nature with an admixture of music and dance. Many of the forms are now extinct. But forms like Jatra, Palagam, Alcap, Bhashan Jatra, Kathoktha, Gazir Gan, Gombhira and several other forms are still in practice. Modern theatres in Bangladesh, especially in some productions, elements of narrative folk forms have been added very aptly. The narrative acting forms in both India and Bangladesh, in Nepal and Sri Lanka are based on the tales of Mahabharata, Ramayana, Mymensingh Gitika, Monglkabya, and others regional epics, local folk and fairy tales. These indigenous forms of theatre are still quite relevant for depicting the eternal struggle, joy and sorrow of mankind, sometime allegorically and sometime openly. Theatre that we practice in Bangladesh is not likely to be self-sustained in the near future, but the reality must not be forgotten that good and honest theatre practice is not a commercial venture like the West End of London or the Broadway of New York. Therefore, good honest theatre practice has to receive subsidies from the Government or donations from the private foundations or organisations as is the case of national theatres of the developed countries. Funds raised from the sales of tickets for the shows can provide only a fraction of the cost of launching a new production and the regular recurring expenses. These constraints could not put a bar on our activities as we run our poor theatre by collecting donations and sponsorships from different organisations and persons. In fact, our main asset in creating our theatre or go ahead with it, is our passion and labour.
At present in Bangladesh we have about 200 active theatre groups. In Dhaka alone there are about 100 performances every month. In 4-public universities of Bangladesh theatre as a subject being taught in under graduate and post graduate level. In 3-private universities theatre as a subsidiary subject has been included in the graduation curriculum. We have private theatre school located in Dhaka named "Theatre School" which offers one year diploma course to the students. we are regularly publishing and theatre periodicals named "Theatre" & Theatrewala" besides other publications. Along with original plays written by our own playwrights, Bangladesh theatre groups quite often stage foreign plays either in translation or in adaptation. There is nothing to be complacement on these scores. We in Bangladesh are trying hard to achieve professionalism, if not fully but partly for the sake of keeping our theatre going and make it more dynamic.
The cultures and life styles of the people of South Asia have an affinity with each other, and our theatre by and large embraces our common struggle and aspirations. Theatre as an art form is as old as civilisation itself. We must uphold this unique and cooperative art form to make our lives interesting and meaningful and save it from the aggression of sky media.
The writer is Actor-Director and General Secretary of ITI Bangladesh Centre. The article has been abridged from a paper read out at a seminar in Katmandu titled "The Idioms of South Asian Theatre" held from 5-7th August, 2005.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005