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Academy lapses beyond cop probe

- Artiste-govt prod behind fire department’s reluctance to lodge police complaint
Trinamul MP-cum-theatre actor/director Arpita Ghosh and others at the Academy of Fine Arts auditorium on Friday evening, a day after a curtain on the stage caught fire. A Telegraph picture

There will be no police probe into Thursday evening’s blaze at the Academy of Fine Arts auditorium as the fire department has not lodged any complaint against the art-and-culture hub that has been functioning without any safety clearance.

The hall is likely to be reopened on Saturday, a move that a section of the theatre community dubbed “alarming”.

The director-general of the fire and emergency services, Gour Prasad Ghosh, refused to say why a complaint was not being lodged in apparent violation of norms.

All that Ghosh said suggested that the department was aware of the lapses at the Academy but was preferring to look the other way. “We have called a meeting with Academy officials tomorrow. We will tell them what needs to be done to ensure fire protection at the institution,” Ghosh told Metro.

In April 2013, a fire had broken out at Dasani Studio in Tollygunge, leaving several people injured. Fire department sources said a complaint had been lodged against the studio authorities, accusing them of negligence.

Audience watching Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Shunya Sudhu Shunya Noy at the Academy spotted the fire on a middle curtain on the stage around 7.45pm, barely 10 minutes before the 40-minute play was to end.

Academy insiders said the government and some theatre artistes were not too keen on a police probe because that might lead to closure of the hall for a few days.

Beginning Saturday the hall is booked for a series of shows, including one being organised by Trinamul MP Arpita Ghosh’s group Pancham Vaidik. “A section of the artistes and the government are averse to postponing them.”

Arpita, who visited the auditorium on Friday evening, said: “I was worried after hearing the news last night. I spoke to Suman. Pancham Vaidik’s three-day theatre festival is lined up at the Academy later this month and it would be a blow if the Academy is shut down.”

She added that there were almost no fire-fighting measures at the hall. “The only renovation at the Academy was carried out back in 2009, when Mamata Banerjee gifted Rs 25 lakh from her MPLAD fund.”

Suman and Koushik Sen, whose play Punoshcho preceded Shunya Sudhu Shunya Noy on Thursday evening, expressed concern over the Academy authorities’ decision to reopen the hall on Saturday.

“I don’t understand this rush (to reopen the hall). I wish they looked around and inspected the fire-safety measures and exit points a little more,” said Suman.

Koushik said: “I find the decision to reopen Academy tomorrow alarming. We need to know what precautionary steps have been taken after yesterday’s fire before we feel comfortable about staging plays there again.”

A preliminary probe by the fire department revealed that the fire was caused by over-heating of a Parabolic Anodised Reflector, a lighting device mounted on the middle curtain that caught fire. “The piece of cloth caught fire because of direct exposure to the powerful light for long,” said an officer.

Fire department sources said the Academy — being a “high-risk building” because of the number of people who gather there to watch art exhibitions and plays — must undergo regular fire audits.

“No such audit was carried out in the recent past. So no wonder the Academy has been hosting shows without undertaking any safety measures,” said a fire department officer who refused to be named.

“Under Section 11C of the West Bengal Fire Services Act, the Academy should have had the certificate after complying with all fire-safety norms. But it does not have any such certificate.”

Among the safety measures the fire department officers look for before issuing a certificate are the number and size of the entry-exit gates and the presence of smoke detectors and sprinklers.

“The Academy does not have any smoke detector or sprinkler, a must in any auditorium. Fortunately, a section in the audience spotted the smoke and the fire in time and alerted others,” said the fire department officer.

The auditorium has four exits on the ground floor which seats 425 people and one for the balcony, which can accommodate 300 visitors.

Academy meeting: Members of the city’s theatre community will meet at the Academy on Saturday to discuss the condition of the hall and the problems it faces.

Suman Mukhopadhyay

I did not visit the Academy today but heard it is reopening tomorrow. I wish they looked around and inspected the fire-safety measures and exit points a little more. I don’t understand the rush.... What I’m still concerned about is that the government wants to take over the institution. I hope the theatre community wakes up and voices its unacceptance of the lapses.

If the Academy is up and running, we will stage a daylong event of three plays on September 2. We’ve named it Rashtrer Kono Chhobi Nei. Koushik will revive Samudrey Mouno, I will stage Jara Agun Lagay and Biplab Bandyopadhyay will stage Caligula.

Koushik Sen

I have heard that the Academy is planning to reopen tomorrow. I find it alarming. We need to know what precautionary steps have been taken after yesterday’s incident before we feel comfortable about staging plays there again.