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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 22, May 21, 2011

A Tribute to Badal Sircar

Tuesday 24 May 2011, by Shamsul Islam



It is a matter of grave sorrow that one of the greatest theatre luminaries of modern Indian theatre, Badal Sircar, is no more. He died in Kolkata on Friday, May 13. He was a creative genius, a rationalist (born into a family of Christian priests, he remained an atheist throughout his life), a firm believer in justice. With his death, an era of pro-people political theatre comes to an end. Of course, he will remain alive through his works. He shunned publicity. I am reproducing here, with due acknowledgement, an interview of his for which he kindly agreed to sit with me after much resistance. It appeared in The Sunday Times of India on October 11, 1992. -—Shamsul Islam

It won’t be ‘free’ theatre if it survives on grant, instead of voluntary public contributions, Badal Sircar tells Shamsul Islam, in a rare interview. A wrecker of tradition. That perhaps describes Badal Sircar better than the expression path-finder in the realm of theatre in the Indian subcontinent.

With a bang the trained town planner had appeared on the Bengali theatre scene in the early fifties and marked instant success as a playwright and director. Even socially committed plays like Badi Buwaji, Pagla Ghoda, Evam Indrajeet and Baki Itihas became very popular and were performed in several other Indian languages. But, though his proscenium productions were nationally acclaimed, at the height of its popularity he abandoned proscenium altogether. Decrying it as moribund, in 1972-73 he switched over to ‘third theatre’ which he later named free theatre. With vigour and zeal Shatabdi, his 25-year-old group, gave street performances of Sagina Mahato, Spartacus, Juloos, Ghera, Bhuma and Sheerhi. And they all became the rage with political theatre activists.

That however is only half the story of the phenomenon that is Badal Sircar. Theatre workshops conducted by him in Bangladesh and Pakistan heralded popular political theatre movements in these countries. His immense contribution to the ideological front of theatre does not stop with thought-provoking writings like Third Theatre, Changing Language of Theatre and Voyages of Theatre. At 67, he has yet no dearth of ideas nor of energy. Always on the move, he is busy these days holding theatre workshops for tribals, social activists, women’s organisations, working class activists and amateur theatre activists.

In Delhi for a such workshop, he agreed after much resistance to be interviewed for the press which he has shunned for the last 10 years. Excerpts:
You propounded the theory of third theatre in the early seventies, and kept on changing your notion. How do you visualise free theatre, now?

It is true, once I thought of third theatre as a synthesis of urban and rural theatres. But even as I was working on it I corrected my opinion. For third theatre could not be a synthesis of anything if it had to be an alternative theatre. Earlier I had fallen prey to a mechanical approach. I came to the conclusion that third theatre, to be a free theatre, should not be costly, immobile or infested with commercialism. It should attempt a dialogue with the audience.

Once you decide to get rid of the paraphernalia of conventional proscenium theatre you have to depend supremely on the human body. Its potentials should be developed through intense training. Free theatre cannot be treated as pastime. For us, theatrical experience rather than narration of story is more relevant. In any case physical acting and improvisation are far more effective than an abject dependence on language.

Critics feel your kind of theatre is merely physical theatre, at the cost of language or spoken words. They also say that too much dependence on physical formations reduces your theatre to an acrobatical experience communi-cable only to a middle class audience. How do you react to these comments?

This will be said only by those people who have not seen our performances, or do not want to know anything about our theatre. Even if they were to praise us, it would be for the wrong reason. But that’s the way it is in this country: without knowing anything one can go on passing judgments.

In fact we do the reverse of what has been alleged. We start with the theme script and go on to explore the form. For us content is the most important aspect of theatre. There are many who start with a form and tailor a theme or script, to fit it. We never do that.

There’s another problem with these critics. They like to believe that common people cannot respond to the finer nuances of a performance, that this is a prerogative of the elite. Our experience is that common people understand the symbols, gestures and the spirit of the play
more than the so-called urban intelligentsia.

How do you explain the popularity of your theatre workshops?
In my workshops I never work on a script or play. That will be sheer wastage. Frankly, my workshops have no outcome as such. There is no end product. Because I believe a theatre workshop should simply help the participants to be creative, to live theatre and not to copy or simply follow dictats. Theatre should not be the reserve of the director alone.

What has been the feedback in this process?

Not much in north India. In Delhi I’ve conducted workshops for NSD, Sambhav, SRC Repertory. But none of these does free theatre. It’s quite the opposite in Andhra Pradesh. Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. In these States free theatre is taking the shape of a movement. These
workshops helped theatre activists in Pakistan too to initiate free theatre movement.

What are your views on the issue of state patronage for culture?

We are dead against it. We never apply for grants or favour from the state or its agencies. If we start asking for patronage free theatre will become meaningless. It is our experience of 20 years that you can do theatre without state grants, through voluntary public contributions.

How correct are those who believe that you want to destroy proscenium theatre?
Even if I had tried I’m sure I would not have succeeded. It is a myth propagated. True, I don’t believe in proscenium theatre, and I don’t practise it. Why should I when I don’t find it relevant? But that does not mean that those doing proscenium theatre are my enemies.

Why is it that suicide as a theme recurs in your plays?

It occurs in only three–Pagla Ghoda, Evam Indrajeet and Baki Itihas–out of my 50 plays. It is a wrong generalisation. And please note, even though they have suicide these are not pessimistic plays. They are full of life. They do not propagate suicide. It occurs simply because it fits into the framework of the play.

(Courtesy: The Sunday, Times of India)

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