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Man who was Hitler
STAGE

The moment his father was asleep, 12-year-old Santigopal would slip out of his Palbati residence to the Bagbazar ghat to recite poems and bits of dialogue to the empty jetty and huddled houses “to rehearse to be an actor”. In the mid-Sixties, when group theatre was bursting into life, Santigopal felt jatra was like a stagnant cesspool. His attempts to revitalise jatra did indeed start a new era, but four decades later Santigopal, who recently held a show after 20 years, is once again beset with worries that it is only trading cheap entertainment for money. Excerpts from an interview:

March 7 saw you in Janashatru at the Phanibhushan Bidyabinod Jatra Mancha in Bagbazar. The 1970s pala left us wondering what had kept you away from stage for so long...

Dishonest employees of Tarun Opera pushed me into bankruptcy. Even mortgaging my house didn’t help. Then I was ill and time slipped by. Thanks to Debojit and Riddhi Bandyopadhyay of Academy Theatre, I was, even temporarily, in the limelight.

In Janashatru, unfortunately we don’t see you as the Hitler, Lenin, Marx, Netaji or Vivekananda you were famous for…. What had inspired those productions?

(Laughing) I can hardly do those roles at this age but Janashatru, written by my wife Chaitali Pal, also makes the audience stop and think. Jatra must become a source of information to the illiterate and backward communities as it was for ages. Perhaps my group theatre background (I began with Amar Ghosh’s Udayachal) and my awareness of Shakespeare and the Gananatya Andolan made me realise how dated the palas were and how lethargic and amoral the jatra community was. So in 1964 — I had graduated from Rs 3 per day roles to leads at New Royal Binapani Opera — I borrowed money and launched Tarun Opera. We opened with Sambhu Bagh’s Ghum Bhangar Gaan (1967), followed by Hitler, Lenin and the rest. Our aim was not party propaganda, but the desire to inform people about World War II, about dictatorship and patriotism, the conflict of cultures in Mohenjodaro. We worked hard to get accent, gesture and costume right. I did my own make-up and costumes.

Hitler was a great hit and later Lenin won awards from Russia… what was the initial response?

I doubt whether any other pala got that recognition from Russia. But Hitler wasn’t an instant hit. Even though the first two shows (1968) had gone off well, we had got no calls for Kali puja in the Ranigunj-Bihar colliery belt. So we offered to do the pala for just a meal. Some agreed and we managed to effect many changes in jatra. Instead of a flat acting area we had rostrums to suggest different locations, microphones and recorded music: sound of gunfire and screams. Instead of the usual couple of 500 watt floodlights, we fitted lights covered with green and red paper that heighten the war-like ambience. Two points of entry and exit allowed smooth movement from scene to scene. Our acting was also more sophisticated, life-like and closer to theatre. No one had seen anything like it. They still didn’t know where Germany was and called Hitler “Boro daroga”, but were thrilled by the novelty.

Would you like to give jatra another try?

I would like to do a pala on Rabindranath but I doubt if anyone would care in this world of reality shows. Jatra today is going from bad to worse. The decline is everywhere, in politics and culture. People don’t care for lectures and the opera owners are only too happy to dish out brainless, raw entertainment.

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