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He who took portable drama where no group had gone

Trust Sudhindra Sircar to make a theatrical exit from this great world stage on a day of high political drama. In a scene worthy of his own plays, laced with comic irony, as all the newspapers screamed banner headline stories about the Grass-roots Revolution, in one of the few unrelated thumbnails that somehow clawed their tiny way on to the news pages, the impish face of Sudhindra (aka Badal) Sircar smirked his last farewell. As if to say, remember me, grass-roots activist before the term was coined?

True to his life, and ours. Caught up in the pressures of here and now, we have a tendency to forget those of our own who in the recent past made Calcutta a name to reckon with worldwide. I have a problem with obituaries for precisely this reason: we pay homages that the subjects themselves cannot read. It seems to me far more urgent to write these tributes while the great men and women are alive, to tell them we shall remain indebted to their contributions. Like many of them, Badal-da felt in his later years that Calcutta was ignoring him. I can understand — hardly any features on or interviews of him appeared in the mainstream media; even in more specialised periodicals and academic publications, articles or essays were rarities.

Yet in the theatre community beyond, he was synonymous with Calcutta. How many of this city’s celebrities today can honestly claim international recognition? Badal-da could, one of the last to leave among his generation of artists and authors whose name meant more in the world outside than at home, who sadly did not receive as much attention here as they should have. We have many famous directors here who travel in India and abroad, with and without their productions, but how many have truly inspired and influenced the course of their art outside Bengal?

Badal-da did. All theatre workers, from Amol Palekar in Mumbai to H. Kanhailal in Manipur, mourn today. His plays in regional-language translations and workshops that he conducted transformed their lives and careers, and also introduced the new directions of street theatre to conventional traditions, from Hindi to Tamil. An entire generation of disciples sheds silent tears in respect.

In Bengali theatre he ushered in three crucial changes. After his early period of funny but innocuous farces (he always had a wry sense of humour), the premiere of Evam Indrajit at Muktangan and its publication in 1965 established absurdist existentialism as a viable stage medium — and after its translation across India, that play quickly became a contemporary classic now studied in many Indian universities. It stays relevant in our time, as young people feel bewildered where global forces are taking them. In subsequent works, Badal-da grew obsessed by the possibilities of nuclear holocaust.

In 1972-73, he abandoned the proscenium stage for what he called anganmancha or “Third Theatre”. I vividly remember going to see his Spartacus in an upstairs room at the Academy of Fine Arts. An impressionable teenager already attracted to theatre, I found it curious that we had to sit on the floor in disconnected clusters. Suddenly we heard a growl of voices outside, intensifying rapidly, then the slaves rushing into the room and collapsing all over us. My toes curled inwards instinctively as one slave fell on my feet. I realised later how effective such shock tactics could be and have often reinvented them in my own productions.

Badal-da simultaneously began to take his troupe into villages, “places where no theatre group had ever gone” (as he justifiably used to say, for Bengali groups had started dismissing his ideas as “not theatre”), performing his brand of committed portable drama abjuring sets, lighting and makeup, wherever he found an empty space. At the end of each show, the actors took a cloth around, inviting viewers to give whatever they wished to offer as a token. Some groups still follow that model of non-commercialised artistic transaction, verily “poor theatre”, or grass-roots, as I mentioned earlier. Few have the courage to take this kind of socialistic stand. I wonder now, as he smiles at us from his utopian Hattamala — a land of pure virtue where two thieves from our world arrive, in one of my favourite Sircar plays, Hattamalar Opare — what he might think of our political future.

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