What connects Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Raj Kapoor and Mahatma Gandhi? A theatre on Hazra Road. The 37-year-old Sujata Sadan was built with funds donated by Kapoor to support a school founded by Das’s daughter-in-law, Sujata Devi, to whom the Mahatma had sent four riot-affected girls to take care of.
The auditorium, which has been catering to theatre-lovers in south Calcutta since it was set up in 1975, aided by proceeds from the Rishi Kapoor-Dimple Kapadia starrer Bobby’s Calcutta premiere in 1973, reopened on April 8 under its original management — Bangiya Pallee Sangathan Samity — a body established by Sujata Devi.
The Samity had started when Gandhi sent four girls affected in the 1947 Noakhali riots to Sujata Devi, who had just been bereaved by the death of her youngest daughter, “to take care of”. Prompted by the need to educate those girls, she founded a free school for poor students in 1950, now called Sujata Devi Vidyamandir. It is still up and running.
Her granddaughter Brinda Srinivasan, currently secretary of the Samity, said: “The idea of building Sujata Sadan came from a need to sponsor more students and maintain the school with money earned through the auditorium. My parents were trying to raise funds when a film producer friend, Hemen Ganguly, who knew Raj Kapoor well, approached him. Kapoor was living in Bhowanipore then and he was keen on helping out.”
Kapoor handed over the cheque to the then president of the Samity on the evening Bobby premiered at Metro cinema in 1973. “He gave us all the money collected through advertisements and corporate sponsors, which was around Rs 3 lakh. Without him, Sujata Sadan would not have been possible and we plan to put up a plaque commemorating Kapoor’s contribution,” she added.
Till last month, Sujata Sadan was being run by Niva Arts, a production house that had taken the auditorium on lease in the late 90s to revive commercial Bengali theatre in south Calcutta. Koushik Sen’s Swapnasandhani had been hosting regular weekly performances at this deliberately chosen alternative venue for six years.
The need to generate more income for the upkeep and expansion of the school and a teachers’ training college on the premises, which shares its boundary wall with the auditorium, prompted the Samity to take back ownership of the property once Niva Arts’ lease ended. “Although the education and meals at the school are taken care of by the government, the Samity is responsible for its upkeep. Apart from repairs and general maintenance, the school needs computers and the college additional space. The school and college will receive the bulk of the proceeds from the auditorium,” Srinivasan said.
While new air-conditioners, lights and fire-fighting equipment have recently been installed, there are plans to repaint and renovate the 301-seater hall that has seen a dedicated but small local audience from the Hazra Road-Bhowanipore-Monoharpukur area.
“We want to make it comfortable but not too upmarket or posh. We want to be affordable and open to all kinds of groups, from amateur theatre artistes to groups by homemakers and blind operas. We are open to all kinds of cultural and educational activities like plays, seminars, felicitation meetings, musical concerts, special film screenings but not social ceremonies like weddings and private functions. We have been running quite well but we want it to go around theatre circles that this is a hall that is still functioning and we’d like to service the cultural community in south Calcutta,” Srinivasan said.