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Badal Sircar: Towards A Theatre Of Conscience

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This book is a full-length, detailed study of Badal Sircar’s life and work.

Badal Sircar: Towards A Theatre Of Conscience

Anjum Katyal


Publisher: Sage Publications 

Pages: 266; Price: Rs 995

Badal Sircar was one of the new and modern playwright-director in the country experimenting with form, structure and registers of language, contemporary in subject matter. No other Indian theatre personality has had quite the same effect. He travelled across the subcontinent during the 1970s, 80s and 90s holding workshops at different places including Pakistan and Bangladesh. His impact on alternative, activist theatre circuit is highly significant. His theatre was anti-establishment counter culture challenging normal middle class mores and complacency.

It was an attempt at conscientisation and raising awareness, protest and political comment. It drew on the daily reality of the common man, the entire gamut of oppression, corruption, injustice, power politics, struggle, disillusionment, despairing hope, battered idealism and confused questioning that all those of the middle class grapple with everyday.

In the decades between his embracing non-proscenium, non-commercial theatre and his death as an ailing 86-year-old, he never gave up his involvement with theatre. Till the end he remained curious, interested and open to learning, observes the author Anjum Katyal. When she met him in 2009 and spoke about several things that were his deep passion for and commitment to the theatre path he had chosen to walk for four decades.

Badal da has passed away but his legacy lives on. Theatre studies in India in the twentieth century has its own challenges as documentation is inadequate although this is changing as digital technology renders instant and ongoing recording, shooting and storage easy and, above all, affordable. Anjum concludes that Badal da’s journey of exploration and documentation began and ended as a theatre by, of and for the middle class — his own class.

Born on 15 July 1925 into the ‘middle-middle class’, Badal Sircar was formally named Sudhindra but it was his nickname Badal that stuck. Sircar’s family was emblematic of the urban educated bhadralok (gentle folk) which came to be the focus, both as a subject and target, of much of his theatre. Badal da inducted the cultural ethos of his class. He was an avid reader and read whatever he could lay his hands on. Bengali plays ran out. He thought of teaching himself English. He was delighted when his mother (Sarala Mona Sircar) introduced him to his grandmother’s (Virginia Mary Nandy) collection of western literature. The grandma was among India’s first lady physicians and very well read.

During his four years at engineering college Badal’s interest in theatre remained restricted to viewing rather than acting as the seniors offered him only female roles. But this was a period of transformation in other ways. He began to distance himself from the conventions of middle class life. He rejected church going and declared his lack of belief in religion and began to develop his political beliefs. No guru or ‘authority figure’ influenced him; he claims he formed his own convictions. Badal da was convinced that if ladies could not perform the female roles, he was not interested in mounting a performance.

At 32 in 1957 he decides to go to London having got admission to an evening course. “I had not the slightest wish to study there; all I wanted to do was find a job and travel around. London was full of new experiences watching movie after movie in cinema halls.” He watched the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Romeo and Juliet at Stratford on Avon. It was his first experience of theatre and it left such a mark on him that it brought about an important change in his acting life in Kolkata. In the final year of his course he also wrote his first fully original and second full-length comedy, Boro Pishima.

After travelling in Scotland, Europe and Paris the yearning to return home was strong. The first phase of Badal Sircar, the playwright, in which he wrote four comedies all of which were produced on stage – the true test of a dramatic text – and which are still popular. “Actually I am not primarily a playwright. I am a theatre man. I started with acting then did directing, then I wanted to produce plays. That is why I dabbled in writing.”

It was Ebong Indrajit (And Indrajit) that catapulted Badal as a playwright to the Indian theatre world. It has been described as a hallmark in Indian dramatic history. Despite his reservations this text was to strike an immediate chord with the theatre fraternity of that time, word of mouth alerting theatre lovers to something very interesting and very different on the Bengali stage.

Theatre scholar Rustom Bharucha calls it “the waiting for Godot of Bengali theatre”. With Ebong Indrajit making waves in 1963-64, Badal da’s creative development as a playwright and theatre worker came to the fore. First was the ring to Ebong Indrajit. This was a major shift from his idea of himself as a light hearted writer of comedies for fun, to a playwright other intellectuals and artistes were taking seriously. From its very reading to a group of leading cultural figures the text began to make waves and draw critical attention.

Second, there was Badal da’s own inner quest as a writer, grappling with issues of creativity and expression. Third, he wrote four plays in the course of a year without including Ebong Indrajit. These were Sara Rattir, Ballabhphpurer Rupkatha, Kabikahini and Bichitra Anushthan. From July 1963 to March 1964 he was in France and by the time his stint there was over, he had written all these plays which, even today, are in production by various Indian theatre groups somewhere or the other in the country.

His dairies reveal Sara Rattir is intensely personal and about self discovery. Both Ebong Indrajit and Sara Rattir are expressions of his own life and experience in dramatic form. In both plays the protagonists work through non-hope and resignation to a decision to continue, to persist, not to forget. In 1965 Badal da begins his next work Baki Itihas or the rest of history. It is experimental with two acts spinning out two versions of the story behind Sitanath’s suicide, and the Third act confronting the limited mindset which is unable to imagine that the motivation for suicide might not have been a personal tragedy but a total rejection of middle class existence.

Coming to his final years, the early 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s saw an eclipsed Badal da, says the author. The cutting edge and energy were missing from Satabdi’s performances. Somehow Satabdi seems to be stuck in a time warp. Despite his hopes that the Third Theatre will turn into a full-fledged alternative theatre movement, this did not really happen. Satabdi found that its audiences were declining since the 1990s onwards.

Badal da has left behind a solid body of play texts, several theoretical writings, a whole methodology of theatre. Just as he donated his body as a resource for science, he has left us his theory and his practice as a resource for the future. It is now up to the practitioners of tomorrow to take his legacy further, emphasises the author.