A Legacy of Bringing Theatre to the People
[Badal Sarkar, a revolutionary, pro-people theatre personality and a unique and towering figure in the cultural movement, passed away on 13th May.
Sudhindranath (Badal) Sircar was born in 1925. He had an engineering degree from the Shibpur Engineering college and he worked in England in the 1960s.
In the turbulent period of Bengal in the late 1960s and 1970s, marked by the impact of the Naxalbari uprising and severe repression, Sircar arrived at a new theatrical idiom, taking theatre beyond the proscenium stage, to the common people. He established the theatre group Shatabdi in 1967, and with its repertoire of anti-establishment plays, Shatabdi toured the Bengal countryside, braving state terror and armed brigades of state-sponsored goons.
Theatre activists and groups like Yuvaneeti of the ML movement in the Hindi-speaking states drew great inspiration and support from Badal Sircar. He often visited Allahabad and other places, holding workshops, meeting young activists and offering advice and support.
His plays Ebong Indrajit, Spartacus, Michhil, Bhoma, Pagla Ghoda, Basi Khabar and many others were translated into many
Indian languages. Breaching the barriers of region and language, they spoke and continue to speak to ordinary Indians – of struggles and suffering, of exploitation and resistance, of common concerns and questions that continue to resonate even today.
Badal Sircar was not among those who enjoyed a cosy or pampered relationship with power. He neither sought nor received support or recognition either from the West Bengal Government or the Centre. He twice rejected the Padma Bhushan – the last time in 2010. It is theatre activists and struggling people, striving for cultural expression that is part of the striving for social change, whom Badal Sircar’s legacy will inspire and challenge.
Below are excerpts of Badal Sircar’s letter to Richard Schechner, dated November 23, 1981, (published in The Drama Review: Vol. 26, No. 2, Intercultural Performance (Summer, 1982) that gives us a glimpse, in his own words, of his vision of theatre, society and social change.]
Calcutta. The city I was born in and raised in. An artificial city created in the colonial interests of a foreign nation. A monster city that grew by sucking the blood of a vast rural hinterland which perhaps is the true India. A city of alien culture based on English education, repressing, distorting, buying, promoting for sale the real culture of the country. A city I hate intensely. A city I love intensely.
...None of the Satabdi members are paid anything. They work in banks, schools, offices, factories; they assemble in evenings exhausted by loveless work and sardine-packed public transport; they have to disperse early for long journeys, many by scandalously irregulars suburban trains. On Sundays we can work for five hours, provided we are not invited to perform somewhere – a village, a “bustee” (slum), a suburban town, a college lawn, an office canteen. ...
July, 1978. First performance of Gondi—an adaptation I made of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. ... We all felt that the play is Indian and contemporary and can be understood equally by the educated of the city and the illiterate of the village, and our later experience proved this belief to be correct.
After Gondi, ...we were having workshops, relating sometimes to the cruel absurdities we live in. Enormous wealth and immeasurable poverty. A devastating flood ruining hundreds of thousands in the villages and a huge crowd of fans gathering to see the film stars raising donations in Calcutta for flood-relief. Construction of the underground railway in Calcutta and 90 percent of the underground water remaining untapped, rendering most of the arable land mono-crop. Satellites in space and 70 percent of the population under the poverty line. Democracy and police brutality. The stupidity of man, the cruelty of man, the achievements of man, the callousness of man-not just in this country, but in the whole world.
But what about the courage of man? Somebody asked. What about Spartacus, on whose struggles we made a play in 1972? What about all those who dream of and die for the emergence of a new and better society? We decided that we would try to make a play collectively on these issues built around the theme of a revolt. ...the Santhal revolt of 1855-56 that shook the British imperial hold on Eastern India for nine long months. The aboriginals. Always subjected to the worst kind of exploitation and injustice. Pushed beyond limits, they have often burst out in spontaneous revolts. But the accounts of such revolts do not find any place in the history textbooks. We had to depend on the work of some rare researchers and some obscure accounts.
... Through our research we became more and more confirmed in the belief we already had - that conditions have not changed fundamentally even today. To us the subject was contemporary...
We decided to show it from the point of view of a contemporary young man just like any of us. The man is born, is educated, is constantly bombarded by lots of information from text books, newspapers, radio, literature – false, half-true, irrelevant – and sometimes he comes across a report of mass killing or gang rape in an aboriginal village by paid hoodlums of the local (high caste) landlord. Or maybe a survey report giving figures and facts regarding “bonded labour”...
All that happened to us, is happening to us. Each of us was that young man, trying our best to deny the existence of the “killed man” in our midst, and yet not wholly succeeding. The “killed man” in our play wandered silently from time to time amongst the chorus of performers, sometimes breaking through, holding his bandaged right palm in front of the eyes of a performer to make him read something about the Santhals of the last century, another time using his left palm for something happening today. That was Basi Khabar (stale news)—a theatre created by the whole group in pain and love. It is not a theatre one can perform by “enacting.” It can only be performed by “state of being.” The performer acts out his own feelings, his own concerns and questions and contradictions and guilt. Through the play, our protagonist changed a little, we changed a little, and we hoped that our spectators, some of them, would change a little. ...
Yes, our theatre has become a theatre of change. A long voyage – Spartacus, Michhil, Bhoma, Bhanga Manush, many other plays. We came out of the proscenium stage in 1972, five years after the inception of Satabdi, twenty years after the beginning of my involvement in theatre. The immediate reason was that of communication – we wanted to break down the barriers and come closer to the spectators, to take full advantage of direct communication that theatre as a live-show offers. We wanted to share with our audience the experience of joint human action. But in taking that course we also found our theatre outside the clutches of money. We could establish a free theatre, performing in public parks, slums, factories, villages, wherever the people are, depending on voluntary donations from the people for the little expenses we needed. We stopped using sets, spotlights, costly costumes, make-up – not as a matter of principle, but because we realized that they are not essentials, even if sometimes necessary. We concentrated on the essentials – the human body and the human mind. Our theatre became a flexible, portable and inexpensive-almost free-theatre.
The indigenous folk theatre of India, strong, live, immensely loved by the working people of the country, propagates themes that are at best irrelevant to the life of the toiling masses, and at worst back-dated and downright reactionary. The proscenium theatre that the city-bred intelligentsia imported from the West constitutes the second theatre of our country, as it runs parallel to the folk theatre – the first theatre – practically without meeting. This theatre can be and has been used by a section of educated and socially conscious people for propagating socially relevant subjects and progressive values, but it gets money-bound and city-bound, more and more so as costs go on rising, unable to reach the real people. Historically there appears to be a need for a third theatre in our country – a flexible, portable, free theatre as a theatre of change, and that is what we are trying to build. ...
Obviously, such a theatre takes the character of a movement, and cannot be taken as a profession. ... Only those who feel the urge to change, and want to use theatre to contribute to the forces of change, can be in this theatre. ... The only way is to have many such groups to join the movement at different places. This is beginning to happen, not so much in Calcutta proper, but in suburbs and provincial towns....not only in this State, but in other parts of India as well, sometimes independently, sometimes as a follow-up of workshops I (and now others too) conduct from time to time at different places.
The ultimate answer however is not for a city group to prepare plays for and about the working people. The working people – the factory workers, the peasants, the landless labourers—will have to make and perform their own plays. We have deprived them not only of food, clothing, shelter, and education, but also of self-confidence. Here we can also help by demystification, by assuring them that theatre is not the monopoly of the educated. One of my greatest experiences of self-fulfilment occurred when a group of illiterate and semi-literate peasants and landless agricultural workers of a remote village bordering the jungles of Sundarbans began making and performing plays about their own life and problems, following Satabdi performances in that village and the workshops I did with them. ...
This process, of course, can become widespread only when the socio-economic movement for the emancipation of the working class has also spread widely. When that happens, the third theatre (in the context I have used) will no longer have a separate function, but will merge with a transformed first theatre.