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The stage is (not) set

Members of the theatre fraternity and staff members of the Academy of Fine Arts met on Saturday evening to chalk out a safe way forward for the heritage premises, where a fire stopped Suman Mukhopadhyay’s play, Shunya Sudhu Shunya Noy, on Thursday.

The meeting was attended by Mukhopadhyay, Koushik Sen (whose play Punoshcho premiered at the Academy just before Shunya Sudhu Shunya Noy took the stage), Bibhash Chakraborty, Prakash Bhattacharya and others.

Some of the decisions taken at the meeting were:

A 12-member temporary committee comprising theatre artistes, artists and Academy staff will look into the immediate safety and security arrangements and “get things going in the absence of any formal administrative charge”

An announcement will be made at the start of every show, pointing out the three emergency exits that were locked on the day of the fire

Precautionary arrangements will be made near lighting areas

Fewer tickets will be sold for the balcony, which has just one exit, to allow easier evacuation in case of an emergency

While the Cathedral Road venue waits for resurrection, Metro takes a walk-through.

Act One

The Academy of Fine Arts opened at its current address adjacent to St. Paul’s Cathedral in the 1950s but Lady Ranu Mookerjee had established it about 20 years earlier. In the early days, it functioned from a room loaned from the Indian Museum and its activities included an annual exhibition of paintings.

In the Fifties, Jawaharlal Nehru and B.C. Roy discussed the need for an art gallery in the city and Lady Ranu was asked to choose a centrally located space. She picked the spot where the Academy is situated today. There was no building on Cathedral Road then except St. Paul’s Cathedral. The reason she chose the spot was for its quiet surroundings.

The trustees built the premises of the Academy in 1959-60 with funds donated by the chairman of the board of trustees. R.N. Mookerjee, father-in-law of Lady Ranu, was the first chairman of its executive committee.

Centre stage

The Academy is one of the oldest autonomous art societies in the country with six galleries on its ground floor and a museum on the first floor that is home to priceless paintings of Abanindranath Tagore to Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose to Ram Kinkar Beij to Jamini Roy, miniature paintings, carpets, engravings and more.

The auditorium located at the rear has been witness to the city’s theatre movement and some of Bengal’s greatest theatre personalities have performed on its stage.

Team Academy

The “day-to-day functioning” of the Academy is now the responsibility of an executive committee comprising artistes. It is the duty of the committee, which has 12 members at present, to collect the Academy’s earnings and deposit them in a bank account in the Academy’s name.

A trustee board of seven members, mostly businessmen, is the “custodian” of the Academy with control over its finances. The trustees have the authority to sign and issue cheques, based on requisitions from the executive committee. All members of the trustee board resigned last month “out of frustration”.

The crisis

The Academy is caught in an “us vs them” battle between the two administrative bodies. The growing rift and lack of coordination between the executive committee and the trustee board is one of the prime reasons why the Academy has not been upgraded and lacks in maintenance and safety.

While the two factions fight for greater power, masterpieces of Indian contemporary art and priceless textiles are rotting away in the museum, and paintings in the Tagore gallery are in urgent need of restoration.

Jahar Dasgupta, the president of the executive committee, admitted that many paintings at the museum have been damaged. “The museum was closed for more than six years and then reopened for a few days in 2011 and shut again.”

The Academy was last repaired in 2009 when Mamata Banerjee granted Rs 25 lakh from her MPLAD fund.

While both the executive committee and the trustees claim to have the “best interests of the Academy” in mind, neither has been willing to take responsibility, choosing instead to engage in a blame game.

“We haven’t been aspiring for international standards but basic needs. We have sent several letters to the trustee board citing the problems but the members don’t even have time to attend meetings,” Dasgupta said.

“According to the rules framed in 1946, the executive committee’s financial limit is Rs 2,500. It has not been amended ever since. Anything we require beyond that needs to be sanctioned by the trustees,” said Bulbul Roy, the joint secretary of the committee.

S.B. Ganguly, one of the trustees who resigned, complained of a “status quo” while countering the committee’s complaint. “The executive committee has not had an annual general meeting in 10 years,” he said.

The trustees say they applied to the Centre for a grant of Rs 7 crore with a proposal to repair and rebuild the galleries. “We submitted a plan last year for renovation and modification of the gallery and auditorium, lighting and sound, installation of firefighting equipment and CCTVs and maintenance of artefacts and paintings. It was stalled because the executive committee failed to provide audit reports and balance sheets,” said a trustee.

Third bell

The trustee board had expressed concern over the hazards of allowing programmes at night and the absence of adequate firefighting capacity.

The executive committee, in a meeting in January, felt that while the concerns “cannot be lost sight of, performances cannot be stopped either”. It did not want all night programmes to be stalled but “proper arrangements” to be made to “remove inadequacies”.

Requests were placed before the trustees to ensure that the “Academy continues to function and revive its glory” and that “positive steps” are taken for “adequate arrangements”.

The safety and security of the Academy came up for discussion once again in March, when the committee alerted the board to undertake repair of Rabindra Gallery and the auditorium. The committee members said they offered all assistance but to no avail.

Budget blues

The Academy’s main source of income is the rent it collects from letting out the auditorium and galleries and from art classes held on its premises.

While the auditorium rent ranges from Rs 8,600 to Rs 10,000 for a four-hour show, the galleries are rented out for commercial and non-commercial exhibitions at Rs 7,000 to Rs 14,000 for seven days. “The Academy earns around Rs 6-7 lakh a year while its expenditure is around Rs 5 lakh. Whatever is saved is just not enough for extensive renovation,” said Ashit Paul, the vice-president of the executive committee.

Theatre director Bibhash Chakraborty said the low rent makes Academy “a financially viable venue” and one that is “always well-attended and cuts down on losses”.

Prakash Bhattacharya of Nandipat welcomed “a slight hike in rent” if it meant better safety and security but Chakraborty voiced concern over whether the money would be used for the development of the auditorium. “Who would be accountable?” he asked.

Critique

Rudraprasad Sengupta of Nandikar has been staging plays at the Academy since the early Seventies and, according to him, it has been a popular venue for theatre lovers and performers despite the lack of some prime qualities required of a theatre space.

“The Academy auditorium was more like a makeshift arrangement that was never really based on the typical rules of theatre architecture. It used to be a film projection room, later converted to a stage for performances. It didn’t have the best qualities and we did make do with that. Academy became popular because of the quality of plays staged and the cosy, intimate theatre space it provided with balconies and seats close to the stage unlike in other halls.”

What ailed the Academy, according to Sengupta, is “a lack of sustained coordination between direct partners in terms of staff, committee, trustees, artistes and unions where everyone is a real stakeholder with rights and duties that they can’t shirk”.

Usha Ganguli, who has staged some of her most popular plays at Academy, felt the fire “raises a question about the state of theatre halls in Calcutta”. She recalled the times she fretted over the “one tiny gate for entry and exit”.

Ganguli rued the lack of maintenance despite the hall being booked for most shows. “Sometimes there’s a change in the green room or the front curtains but that isn’t what we want. We need better technical facilities. I think there are too many people involved who are going against each other. There should be proper representation from the theatre fraternity who would understand the needs.”

Ganguli is also against the government taking over the “independent institution”. “Whatever happens, the government should not take control. It should belong to the artistes,” she said.

Spotlight shift

The Academy started out with art as its main focus and, in its glory days, artists from all over the country such as (M.F.) Husain and (K.H.) Ara took pride in exhibiting their works here.

Artist Samir Aich, who was once a part of the committee, said that the Academy continues to be popular among new artists because of the low rent but is no longer the venue of choice among veterans.

“I have had most of my exhibitions at Academy but now the galleries need proper renovation. The wall surfaces need to be cleaned. There needs to be temperature control, given Calcutta’s extreme summer. Air-conditioners must be installed and that would need transformers. The present electric circuit would not support heavy load. There must be proper lighting as well.”

But Aich is hopeful. “If the Academy’s committee, board and unions settle their differences and improve the infrastructure, it still has the potential to stand out as an art hub.”

What do you think ails the Academy? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com