| Sadhana Chatterjee
Communist party official, women’s activist, theatre personality… A multifaceted personality with a colourful past. Today, despite failing health, Sadhana Chatterjee is still remembered and sought after in her circles, by the young and old. The octogenarian might not be able to leave her home in Dhakuria, but that only means others come to her.
Chatterjee joined the Communist Party of India in the 1940s, inspired by the “infectious zeal” of a favourite cousin. Apart from regular office work, she organised shelters and meals for refugees during the tumultuous Partition years. She discovered “by accident” her musical talent as a regular singer for party michhils.
Fond memories are her sustenance — for instance, rushing into someone’s house while running away from a police lathicharge during a demonstration. Others are not so amusing. One ends with three women dead when police opened fire on a rally, which she recalls with infinite sadness, nearly 50 years later.
Dates are indistinct in her mind and moments merge in memory as the soft-spoken 82-year-old struggles to remember. The member of the Eastern India Motion Pictures Association says she followed in her family’s footsteps, with a mother who had walked shoulder-to-shoulder with Mahatma Gandhi during the Satyagraha movement. In the first elections after Independence in 1947, Chatterjee took some women with her to the slums of Chandernagore, campaigning for the Communist Party.
Her first love, however, remains theatre. Dressed in a spotless white sari, seated in the living room surrounded by photographs and memorabilia, she reminisces — singing Salil Chowdhury’s songs, performing Tagore’s Ghare Baire with second husband Shekhar Chatterjee…
Starting off with the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association, her point of pride remains the Mahila Shilpi Mahal, an organisation started off to help retired female artistes living in hardship. With office-bearers like Molina Devi, Kanan Debi, Namita Sen and Sulata Chowdhury, the group raised Rs 20 lakh to build a home for retired actresses. “We would dress up as men in plays like Ali Baba and Kobi,” she laughs. “People would come for the novelty value and to see all these famous actresses together on the same stage.”
Personally, Chatterjee helped many an individual receive the government benefit for retired artistes living in harsh conditions. “But that provision doesn’t exist now,” she sighs. “I am old myself, and I can’t see or walk properly,” she adds.
But with honours even now from the Paschim Banga Natya Academy and other organisations, a daughter and two granddaughters inclined towards theatre, music and dance, she seems content with a life well lived.