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The Death of a Legend

“Aar kato chanchabo Babu ek mutho bhather janney? Tomra ki badhir hae gacho? Kane sono na?” (How long we will shout for a handful of rice? Have you become deaf? You don’t listen?)

This is an immortal dialogue by Paran. Paran possessed a trained alto or soprano voice, a true ear for musical notations. The role was played by Sombhu Mitra in a drama called Nabanna. It was the immediate shock of the Bengal famine of 1943-44 — the sight of the people dying in the streets of Calcutta — that drove Sombhu Mitra and Bijon Bhattacharya to stage Nabanna. Both of them staged the drama with unshakeable confidence on October 24, 1944 at Shrirangam Theatre, Calcutta. They chose the form of the drama from the feeling that the people who were left to fend for themselves must tell their own story. It placed the story of a single rural family torn from its moorings and trying to survive through the famine, within a historical framework. One that touched on the anti-colonial upsurge of 1942 and the post-famine reorganisation and mobilisation of the survivors — all in a series of powerful episodes woven together in the spirit of an epic. Nabanna envisaged a cultural awakening that could only begin out of a movement that sought to rediscover the rich cultural heritage of the country.

However, in fifties, in the field of theatre, Sombhu Mitra started using a whole battery of arguments to support what he described as the “Central Principle” in aesthetics — search for truth. He said that one should not use his `flute as stick’. He felt that “he who does not know how to use the flute does not feel the sensitivity of flute-playing”. Brandishing this `principle’, he denounced communist cultural initiatives. He severed connection with IPTA and established, with his friends, the Bohurupee.

He tried Chera Tar, Pathik and other plays and then turned to Rabindranath. He took up the challenge to produce Rabindra drama and gradually established a Rabindra Gharana. He produced Rakta Karabi, the harbinger of his New Theatre Movement. He felt that this movement would help him in searching and establishing truth. He introduced suggestive stagecraft which was a departure from the most vibrant stagecraft of Nabanna. He relied more on the vocal chord. In Rakta Karabi he was physically absent but his grandiose presence was carried through with his melodious voice. He continued to stage Rabindra drama. The New Theatre Movement flourished. Ibsen, Wesker, Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar, Sophocles and other alien giants were performed night after night. The people queued up at night to see his performance and Sombhu Mitra became an institution and a legend in his life time.

Four of his plays which happen to be the milestones and representative of his thought-process are: Nabanna, Rakta Karabi, Raja Oedipus and Chand Baniker Pala (not staged). These four plays depict the gradual changes in him. Nabanna was most earthly and depicted class struggle. Rakta Karabi was somewhat metaphysical and advocated class collaboration. Raja Oedipus was an obscure play for modernist viewers and considered to be an illustration of fatalism. Chand Baniker Pala was written by Sombhu Mitra himself. He portrayed Chand Banik as protagonist and Manasa, contrary to the tradition, as villain. This drama was an expression of Stoicism in which a conflict between the divine command and the moral instinct is fought out in the person.

Then came the withdrawal. Withdrawal is an error in every age and no age has been more confidently addicted to it than his. It has become commonplace that the best art is the art of the few. Such may possibly be the case, but we are nagged by the feeling that the art of the few, although perhaps the best now available, may still not be very good. Art is great when it establishes contact with significant numbers and varied kinds of people and carries responsibility towards them. About conscious exclusiveness there is something niggardly; deadly to the very spirit of creation.

His last wish was unique. Or, perhaps he thought so. He did not want the government to capitalise on the public mournings over his death but in the process he hurt the feelings of theatre-loving people of India who would have desired to pay their respects to Sombhu Mitra on his demise. He emphasised that he was a very common, ordinary man but in essence he wanted to be different, an extraordinary man, a character who is larger than life.

Dilip Banerjee

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