Monday, May 16, 2011

...evam Indrajit

I did not get to read or watch Badal Sarkar (15 July 1925–13 May 2011) till way into high school, in spite of having the good fortune of being schooled into falling in love with reason, maths and physics by the wickedly brilliant Abhijeet Sarkar to whom I remain indebted to this day.  What I did get to know was the romance of his theater as witnessed by others.  My mother would tell of the annual genetic glitch that makes all Bengali's go a little weird around Durga Puja, and how the aristocrats of Beleghata would have luminaries come and do their thing at the family puja pandal.  There would be magicians and comedians, singers and dancers, playwrights and mimics, poets and film stars, positively a last night but three of an inverted Pablo Fanques.

I would sit and listen with awe when she would tell me of her first watch of Evam Indrajit, penned two years before I was born, about how the play began by demolishing the third wall and had the protagonist start out from among the audience, and as a true blue bong, in my mind, evam was spelled ebong, and till I read the play myself, I persisted in my delusion of thinking it was a tale of a bong, Indrajit.

As a pain in the neck of the Department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University in the early 90s, it was with surprise that I witnessed this white haired man walk in and sit in the classrooms to do his masters in complit with kids young enough to be his grandchildren.  Hell, his son taught us in high school.  Chappie gets a Padma Shri in 1972, and is offered a Padma Bhushan last year (2010) which he turns down claiming that he is already a recipient of the highest recognition to a writer, that of being a fellow of the Sahitya Akademi, and he can do without a Padma Bhushan.  Well that was Badal Sarkar for you. 

When I read about his death, the first thing I felt was, this must be another joke of his.  I switched news channels to return to graver things, the fall of the Left front in West Bengal after 34 years, a fall brought about by a frail, crazy, and lovable woman who refused to give up. The next morning, I read the obits, and I knew it was for real.  My tribute to this genius is in the links on this page, most of which are ads for stuff to buy, like pots, pans and books.

I am in no way qualified to comment on his body of work or his importance in the scheme of things. However, I have been reading a lot of commentary on his life and work, and feel that I should share some of it for posterity.  There are so many people who are unaware of what he did for our world and why his efforts are important.  I am going to copy and paste Ananda Lal's very nice and precise article from The Telegraph here, since all attempts to make a link happen has failed till now.  You can find the article online at the Telegraph website by clicking the links above or you can read much of it here. 

Two Plays: Indian History Made Easy/Life of BagalaAn Introduction to Post-Colonial Theatre (Cambridge Studies in Modern Theatre)

"Trust Sudhindra Sircar to make a theatrical exit from this great world stage on a day of high political drama. In a scene worthy of his own plays, laced with comic irony, as newspapers screamed banner headline stories about the Grass-roots Revolution, in one of the few unrelated thumbnails that somehow clawed their tiny way on to the news pages, the impish face of Sudhindra (aka Badal) Sircar smirked his last farewell. As if to say, remember me, grass-roots activist before the term was coined?
True to his life, and ours. Caught up in the pressures of here and now, we have a tendency to forget those of our own who in the recent past made Calcutta a name to reckon with worldwide. I have a problem with obituaries for precisely this reason: we pay homages that the subjects themselves cannot read. It seems to me far more urgent to write these tributes while the great men and women are alive, to tell them we shall remain indebted to their contributions. Like many of them, Badal-da felt in his later years that Calcutta was ignoring him. I can understand — hardly any features on or interviews of him appeared in the mainstream media; even in more specialised periodicals and academic publications, articles or essays were rarities.
Yet in the theatre community beyond, he was synonymous with Calcutta. How many of this city’s celebrities today can honestly claim international recognition? Badal-da could, one of the last to leave among his generation of artists and authors whose name meant more in the world outside than at home, who sadly did not receive as much attention here as they should have. We have many famous directors here who travel in India and abroad, with and without their productions, but how many have truly inspired and influenced the course of their art outside Bengal?
Badal-da did. All theatre workers, from Amol Palekar in Mumbai to H. Kanhailal in Manipur, mourn today. His plays in regional-language translations and workshops that he conducted transformed their lives and careers, and also introduced the new directions of street theatre to conventional traditions, from Hindi to Tamil. An entire generation of disciples sheds silent tears in respect.
In Bengali theatre he ushered in three crucial changes. After his early period of funny but innocuous farces (he always had a wry sense of humour), the premiere of Evam Indrajit at Muktangan and its publication in 1965 established absurdist existentialism as a viable stage medium — and after its translation across India, that play quickly became a contemporary classic now studied in many Indian universities. It stays relevant in our time, as young people feel bewildered where global forces are taking them. In subsequent works, Badal-da grew obsessed by the possibilities of nuclear holocaust.
In 1972-73, he abandoned the proscenium stage for what he called anganmancha or “Third Theatre”. I vividly remember going to see his Spartacus in an upstairs room at the Academy of Fine Arts. An impressionable teenager already attracted to theatre, I found it curious that we had to sit on the floor in disconnected clusters. Suddenly we heard a growl of voices outside, intensifying rapidly, then the slaves rushing into the room and collapsing all over us. My toes curled inwards instinctively as one slave fell on my feet. I realised later how effective such shock tactics could be and have often reinvented them in my own productions.
Badal-da simultaneously began to take his troupe into villages, “places where no theatre group had ever gone” (as he justifiably used to say, for Bengali groups had started dismissing his ideas as “not theatre”), performing his brand of committed portable drama abjuring sets, lighting and makeup, wherever he found an empty space. At the end of each show, the actors took a cloth around, inviting viewers to give whatever they wished to offer as a token. Some groups still follow that model of non-commercialised artistic transaction, verily “poor theatre”, or grass-roots, as I mentioned earlier. Few have the courage to take this kind of socialistic stand.

I wonder now, as he smiles at us from his utopian Hattamala — a land of pure virtue where two thieves from our world arrive, in one of my favourite Sircar plays, Hattamalar Opare — what he might think of our political future."

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