Rudraprasad Sengupta is one of the most prominent theatre personalities in the subcontinent. He is a star-performer, a sensitive adapter, an acclaimed director, and a successful organiser. Under his leadership for almost a quarter of a century, Nandikar, a leading theatre troupe in India, has not only learnt to survive with distinction but also widened the area of its activities to include training programmes, workshops, research, theatre-in-education projects, and an annual national theatre festival.
After eight years, Sengupta visited Dhaka recently. This time he came here not with his troupe, but rather for a project on 'children's theatre', supported by Swedish ITI. While in Dhaka, Sengupta spoke with The Daily Star.
Sengupta completed his B.A. and M.A degrees in English Literature from the Scottish Church College of the University of Calcutta. Subsequently, he worked for some time as an English teacher. In 1961 he joined the Kolkata-based theatre group Nandikar. In early 1970s he began directing plays for the group. In the late '70s he became the leader of the group.
In his words, "I started off as a theatre worker in the newly formed group, Nandikar -- with no ambition to act or to direct. In fact, necessity compelled me to perform, direct, adapt plays and design."
"Up to 1965, no role was originally allotted to me. In 1975, as a precondition for a particular grant, we had to produce a second play and when the founder of Nandikar, Ajitesh Bandopadhyay opted out, I was asked to step in. My first choice as a director was Antigone. The play acquired relevance to the ongoing political turmoil in India then. It was a huge success. Even the government tried to control the staging of the play," he said.
So far, Sengupta has directed over 15 plays, most of which are adaptations of classics. The adaptations were done by him. He received much attention for directing plays such as Sophocles' Antigone and Football, an adaptation of Peter Terson's Jigger Jagger. For direction he received several awards including the highest national award from Sangeet Natak Academy in 1980.
With a view to groom the younger members for future leadership, Sengupta has converted his role as a director to that of a catalyst in his troupe. In the new generation, he sees not rivals but his own extension.
He said, "I believe that to run a troupe efficiently, there should be several directors, actors and designers. I've given the younger members of the group, room to nurture their talents. Now, we have many potential young artistes and directors -- this only strengthens the group."
Nandikar regularly performs all over India. In the last decade the group has performed in several countries outside India, including Bangladesh, Germany, Sweden, UK and USA. With Sengupta as the leader a new era began, and Nandikar turned from a pure performance-oriented theatre group to an organisation with a wide range of projects, including the annual National Theatre Festival.
On the current stand of his troupe, Sengupta said, "Nandikar is one of the very few troupes in India, which is working professionally fulltime, while most of the major groups could not sustain. I'm not saying that everything we have been doing has always gone right but what is creditable is that we have persevered -- a phenomenon that is becoming rare in the Indian theatre scene."
Sengupta believes that no theatre can survive without subsidy. According to him the government grants that many troupes get in India are not enough to take theatre professionally. Which is why Nandikar has branched out and taken initiatives for other theatre-related activities including projects and developments, which provide the activists opportunities to work as professionals.
He said, "For the last 15 years we have been working on projects, as staging more than 100 shows a year and small grants from government is not enough to survive. I don't give a damn to those who criticise theatre troupes working on projects, but cannot come up with alternative ways for theatre activists to sustain."
On the current theatre trend in Kolkata, Sengupta said, "To be straight forward, I'm not that excited about the future of theatre in Kolkata. I don't find much 'inspiring works' -- not only in theatre, but also in other art forms. The problem is not only subcontinental, but rather global. In this materialistic society, theatre activists have to compromise at every step. It's a hostile environment for nurturing art."
After many years Sengupta is again directing plays. This year he has directed Nana Ranger Dinguli, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Swan Song.