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Cover Story

Holding Her Audience Captive

Onstage she has that remarkable ability to make the audience captive to her performance. Her ability to enact any role authentically onstage is what keeps theatre-goers spellbound. One of the pioneers of the neo-theatre movement, Ferdausi Majumdar ventured into theatre at a time when women's participation in the theatre was looked down upon in society. For over four decades the seasoned actor has been making significant contribution to Bangladeshi theatre. Not only in theatre, in other mediums also, the charismatic actor has a vibrant presence. Ferdausi had the rare opportunity of acting in the first TV drama of the then Dhaka Television (now BTV) in 1965 and has performed a plethora of roles since then. Onstage she has given over 1200 performances of about 35 plays, mostly for her own group, Theatre. Perhaps she is the first actor in the country who has performed in a one-woman play Kokilara, which is one of the successful ventures of her troupe, and in another one character non-verbal theatre play Eka. She has also directed five stage plays. For her contribution to theatre, the seasoned actor has bagged many prestigious awards, including the Ekushey Padak (1998), William Kerry Award from India (1998) and Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy Award for Best Actor (1978). Moreover, she won First National TV Awarad for best acting in 1975 and Sequence Award of Merit for performance in TV for a decade.

Ershad Kamol

Ferdausi was born on June 18, 1943 in a respectable Muslim family. She evaluates her father as being 'conservative' but not a 'fanatic'. Cultural activities were restricted in her family, ironically most of her 14 siblings have emerged as icons of progressiveness. She was inspired by her elder brother Shaheed Muneir Chowdhury in cultural activities. In fact, overcoming the family restriction, the latter created an opportunity for Ferdausi Majumdar to develop as an actor for stage and TV plays in the her early stage of what would become, a lifetime passion.

"Seeing my ability to mimic people, Muneir bhai offered me a role in a stage play titled Daktar Abdullahar Karkhana written by Shawkat Osman, which was a production of the then Iqbal Hall of University of Dhaka. Then I was an intermediate student of Eden College. I was astonished by the proposal, however, he encouraged me saying it would not be a difficult task, since the character was a robot and he would show me how to perform", recalls Ferdausi Majumder, "But immediately I thought of how I would manage father, since he never allowed any cultural activities considering dance, drama and music to be against the spirit of Islam. Again it was Muneir Bhai who gave me courage saying that he would manage father. In fact, Muneir Bhai and my other siblings used to engage in cultural activities and watch movies in theatres all the time keeping my father completely in the dark. But, obviously, if we got caught we had to face punishment."

However, Ferdausi Majumdar managed to perform on stage and the show was a success. After getting admitted to Dhaka University, Ferdausi Majumdar became a member of Chhatra Shikkhak Natya Goshthi, a university based cultural troupe where teachers and students of the university used to perform. Muneir Chowdhury was the key person of the troupe. In Chhatra Shikkhak Natya Goshthi, Ferdausi Majumdar came across all the leading theatre personalities of the country such as Abdullah Al Mamun and Ramendu Majumdar. That was the beginning of her diversified acting career.

"Surprisingly, my father did not create any embargo of my activities in Chhatra Shikkhak Natya Goshthi", continues Ferdausi, "Ramendu Majumdar and Abdullah Al Mamun frequently came to our home and used to discuss cultural activities. But my father reacted when I performed in Ektala Dotala, the first TV drama of the then Dhaka television in 1965. The play was written by Muneir Chowdhury and directed by Munirul Alam. My father disliked TV and there was no TV in our home."

"As usual, keeping him in the dark, I continued performing on stage and TV as well. I used to watch my performance on small screen in Muneir Bhai's house. Father realised that we used to go to Muneir Bhai's house to watch TV. One day I had to undergo punishment for going there to watch TV. But my mother always helped us to continue taking part in cultural activities."

Ramendu and Ferdausi on a holiday.
As a university student in the 1960s.

When a newspaper report glorified Feraduisi's performance in a TV play, all obstacles from the family to her cultural pursuits, stopped. She says, "After my performance in Tamoshi, written by Nilima Ibrahim, a newspaper report said that Ferdaus Ara Begum (Ferdausi's birth name) had given a brilliant performance. "Reading the report my father seemed very happy", says Ferdausi, "Taking the opportunity I sought permission to continue my acting career. He sort of half agreed to my proposal and just replied, 'do whatever you like'. However, like any caring father he used to monitor my activities. And it was my father who anticipated my marriage with Ramendu Majumdar."

Ferdausi Majumdar in the rehearsal room.

According to Ferdausi Majumdar the news of her marriage was the greatest shock for her family. Ferdausi says, "Love marriage was a common practice by my siblings, but my marriage was the greatest shock. Our family knew Ramendu's family, but, I was still very nervous at that time anticipating that nobody, especially my father would allow such a thing." But much to her surprise her father reacted exactly the opposite. "He cried and blessed both of us", says Ferdausi.

After her marriage her husband and in law's were always supportive. She says that they rather always encouraged her to act. "I'm so lucky that even my daughter Tropa never became a problem in my theatre activities. Rather I found her very interested in theatre. Now she is acting and directing theatre performances. I also perform in a play titled Mukti directed by her", she says.

However, Ferdausi says that when Tropa was a baby she could not perform in films at the initial stage of her career. To quote her, "I got an offer to perform in Shurja Dighal Bari. But I had to refuse, since I had to take care of so my baby I would not be able to give the time required for a film. Which is why I suggested Dolly Ibrahim's name for that character, who was also a member of Theatre."

<>A<>fter Independence, in 1972, a group of Chhatra Shikkhak Natya Goshthi members formed theatre troupe calling it Theatre, one of the leading troupes in the country. Ferdausi Majumdar was one of the founding members of the troupe. Ferdausi Majumdar groomed as an actor under the guidance of leading directors and playwrights, especially Abdullah Al Mamun, whom the actor considers as her mentor.

"In fact, I was not that serious about acting initially, it was Abdullah Al Mamun who boosted me and created confidence in me as an actor. He guided me in every step of my acting career. I've earned the reputation that I have today performing in plays directed by him", says Ferdausi.

The seasoned actor performing in a stage play Mukti directed by her daughter Tropa where she plays the role of a frustrated mother.

She has performed in diverse characters in 35 theatre performances, mostly produced by Theatre and directed by Abdullah Al Mamun. Of these characters she enjoyed acting in the roles of Matborer Meye in Payer Awaj Pawa Jay, Jorina in Ekhon Dushshoomoy, Shormila in Dui Bon, Ranu in Shubochon Nirbashone, Bimola in Ghore Baire.

But she considers her performance in Kokilara as the most challenging. "I had to enact 16 characters in the two-hour-long play. I had experience of performing in a non-verbal monodrama titled Eka. But Kokilara appeared even more challenging. I used to become very tense before each show of Kokilara, and all the members of the troupe would try to cheer me up. I cried when the play became a success," says Ferdausi.

Besides acting, Ferdausi Majumdar has directed four theatre performances titled Meherjan Arekbar, Tahara Tokhono, Chithi and Dui Bon. "Again Mamun Bhai helped me a lot to emerge as a director", comments Ferdausi.

A loving mother and daughter who share a common love for theatre
These days she is busy with her three and half year old granddaughter.

Apart from her active participation as an actor-director, Ferdausi Majumdar is considered a revolutionary artiste whose courage and dedication in theatre in the early 1970s evoked admiration and respect in the theatre arena. In those days it was not considered a respectable thing for a women to be acting onstage or on TV.

"Women's participation in acting was discouraged in the society", explains Ferdausi, "Only a few women from respectable society came to theatre. My husband was always supportive so I did not have to face too many problems. I still remember those days when my husband used to come down to take me home after a late night recording in a TV play so that the neighbours did not become suspicious", recalls Ferdausi Majumdar, "We had to create a ground for other women to come to theatre. We had to motivate women to come to theatre. Nowadays, a remarkable number of women come to theatre, most of whom are from middle class families."

Feradusi, however, believes that women even in these days face many constraints in continuing their theatre activities. "In most cases it is not the parents rather the close relatives such as brother-in-law, metarnal uncles and others who create obstacles for women to continue theatre. And after the marriage the constraints are even more, since they need to bear family responsibility. Moreover, women these days are earning members of the family. After doing office work it becomes really difficult for them to attend the rehearsals regularly facing the terrible traffic jams, even if their husbands are encouraging.

"Even when both of the husband and wife are theatre activists, the wife cannot concentrate in rehearsals as she must think of her children's needs first. Since most of the families are nuclear they do not have luxury of getting help from other members of the family", she says.

A family photo shows Ferdausi with her siblings and their children.

Theatre being her first love, no other medium has given her the satisfaction and thrill as when she is onstage. Ferdausi Mjumdar likes theatre more than any other media such as TV, radio and cinema. She says that in theatre, an actor gets direct response from the audience. Moreover, theatre is an ideal place of learning and the gradual development of one's skill, she says. However, says the seasoned actor that contemporary theatre in Bangladesh is in dearth of talents, since nobody can take theatre as a profession for practical reasons. According to her the quality actors these days are busy with mega serials and do not give time to theatre.

"I don't blame them for preferring package drama to theatre. They earn bread and butter by performing in TV plays, which is really encouraging. But I don't like the current trends of contemporary TV plays, especially the concept of the mega-serial", continues Ferdausi, "In fact, the very concept is distorting the standard of TV plays. In these serials we are blindly following our neighbouring country ignoring our customs and tradition. More dangerously this trend is making the artistes commercialised. And it is only for the their business interest that the TV channels are luring the young talents to make these mega-sertials. There is nothing to get from such cheap entertainment. But it should be mentioned that technically TV programmes have developed significantly."

According to Ferdausi Majumdar a good script is essential for a good quality TV play. With the exception of some single episode dramas, scripts of TV plays these days are substandard, she says. Many directors are making plays without even a proper script. Actors say whatever they want to on the screen.

"I'm not fit for the current trend, which is why I don't perform much in these serials. In these days we do not get good scripts like Shongshaptak and Boraf Gola Nadi. I believe people will always remember me for my acting as Hurmati in Shongshoptak", she adds.

However, her legacy of acting in theatre still continues. At present she is acting in three stage performances-- Meraj Fakirer Ma, Madhobi and ukti-- and in a handful TV plays. By profession she is a teacher of Bangla at a school. At the moment, however, her other most important job is taking care of her granddaughter whom she adores.


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