A flaming stage drapery at the Academy of Fine Arts brought the curtain down on a Suman Mukhopadhyay-directed play on Thursday evening, left an actress unconscious and sparked a near-stampede as spectators ran for the exits.
Mukhopadhyay called the fire that started on the middle curtain above the stage and spread to the left wing drape a “curious incident” because the Academy was staging back-to-back plays by him and Koushik Sen — two directors who have not been in the good books of the state’s ruling dispensation.
“It is a curious incident. It was ironical, paradoxical and too much of a coincidence,” said Mukhopadhyay, whose last play was titled Jara Agun Lagay.
The fire was spotted around 7.45pm, barely 10 minutes before the end of Mukhopadhyay’s Shunya Sudhu Shunya Noy — the second of the evening after Sen’s Swapnasandhani theatre group had premiered their play, Punoshcho.
“Neither we in the first row nor the two lead actors on stage had noticed the dense cloud of smoke on the roof of the stage until people at the back started shouting: “Dhnoya, dhnoya. Natok bondho korun (smoke, smoke, stop the play),” said singer Neepabithi Ghosh, who was in the audience with husband Raja Dasgupta.
“Within seconds, the left wing drape caught fire and flames leapt vertically. A man tried to pull the cloth down but it had spread too high by then. Soon the lights went out… and the eerie orange glow of the fire lit the auditorium,” she added.
Actress Turna Das of Mukhopadhyay’s Tritiyo Sutra group suffered a panic attack while Nabamita Basu Majumdar of Swapnasandhani choked on the smoke. They were taken to SSKM Hospital and discharged later.
The Academy’s 735-seat auditorium, the first choice of theatre directors in Bengal, posed the biggest hurdle as it has just two exits — and so narrow that only two persons can walk side by side. Sources said there were 500 spectators in the hall.
“A woman fell down and blood oozed from her left hand… she had been trampled over. She was screaming hysterically, having got separated from her husband in the melee. When he was traced, the couple requested for help to reach SSKM Hospital since there were no taxis on the road,” Neepabithi said.
Mukhopadhyay and Sen, who were on the balcony when the fire started, rushed from backstage to the main gate and tried to calm the frantic crowd. Sen said: “I’ve been staging plays at the Academy since 1992. Never has something like this happened. The extinguishers used were working but the back-up system for an emergency has never been good at the Academy. I was on the balcony with my wife (Reshmi) and son (Riddhi) and the rest of our group members watching Suman’s play when we heard murmurs (of the fire).”
“The hall was filled with smoke and dust. We couldn’t see a thing. An auditorium will always have high-intensity lights. Fire safety is fundamental. This is an eyeopener for us,” Mukhopadhyay said.
Many people suffered bruises and cuts in the stampede-like situation. “A woman tripped and she could have been crushed. A man on crutches was trying to move to safety. We helped them,” said Sen’s wife Reshmi.
“Our entire family was on stage but what happened right after was tragic. We had just kept our costumes and bags in the greenroom and rushed out to watch the last portion of Lalda’s play when we noticed white smoke filling up the hall. Within minutes we saw flames. We were worried about Koushik’s mother (actress Chitra Sen) who was downstairs. She escaped through the gallery door. It was painful to see flames on the stage where I’ve been acting for 20 years, the seats covered in ash. I was shocked and am still shaken,” she said.
The Academy staff contained the fire by rotating the pulley and bringing the burning curtain down. “Our plan was to get the curtain on the stage floor so that the flames could be prevented from rising high. That helped us extinguish the fire,” said Prakash Naik, a staff member.
Members of Swapnasandhani and Tritiya Sutra helped in the firefight but none of the 12 extinguishers could be initially used because the Academy workers were not trained to use them. “We tried and tried and luckily we got it right. The extinguishers put out the flames,” said Naik. By then, two fire tenders had arrived.
“Fortunately there were no casualties but I think today’s incident will help start a dialogue about the safety and security of theatre halls in Bengal, especially the Academy where giants like Sombhu Mitra have acted. This place has expensive paintings, plays are staged here throughout the year. Utmost priority should be accorded to fire safety at this hallowed hall,” Mukhopadhyay said.
Senior officers of Hastings police station said the fire was “accidental”. “The cause has to be ascertained. It was a small fire, apparently accidental in nature and was contained with the help of two fire tenders,” said an officer.
Police have not started a case apparently because “there is no specific complaint” till late on Thursday night.
The fire would have easily passed off as a minor accident had it not involved Mukhopadhyay’s play.
The director has been known to be critical of the Trinamul government on several issues and the police were accused of trying to use an injury to an actress to frame him in a case of abetting suicide.
The Central Board of Film Certification had denied clearance to his film, Kangal Malsat (War Cry of the Beggars), following a report from a state panel chaired by a member of Mamata Banerjee’s culture clan.