Good director of Calcutta - One of the most innovative directorial minds in the country

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By THE THIN EDGE: Ruchir Joshi
  • Published 13.06.10

Think of every clichéd visual of a Marwari you’ve seen in Bengali plays and films and Shyamanand Jalan could fit it: he was fat, seriously so; he was rarely without a paan in his mouth; he wore thick glasses that looked like they had been made necessary by the close study of too many books of hisaab-kitaab and indeed, being one of the top lawyers in Calcutta, I guess legal documents had contributed to his bad eyesight; when he stood in a room, he occupied half of it with his height and size but also with the bulk of his self-confidence; when he sat, spilling out of most chairs imaginable, he looked every one of his many inches the classic Mero seth.

I first met Shyamanand when I was just out of school. I had watched my father, Shivkumar Joshi, direct Gujarati and Hindi plays, and thus acquired a taste for theatre; I’d seen Sombhu Mitra, Badal Sarkar, Rudraprasad Sengupta and Arun Mukherjee on stage; I had seen the many talented but mostly unsung amateur actors in English, Hindi and Gujarati who met brief glory or ignominy through the dreaded Dharani Ghosh’s reviews in The Statesman. The famously erudite and acerbic Mr Ghosh patrolled what was still one of the most lively and varied theatre scenes in the country: you had the serious amateur English drama; you had the Hindi theatre groups; you had the small Gujarati and Tamil troupes; and, lording over all this, you had the vibrant Bangla natok in all its variety, with Calcutta in its last years as the cutting-edge city of Indian theatre.

Coming out of school, I decided I wanted to ‘get into theatre’. The problem was, I didn’t want to act in either of my father’s groups and I hardly knew any others. “Well, Shyamanand is doing a new production,” someone in Hindi theatre told me, “You might want to try there.” Jalan? But wouldn’t that be quite difficult? “Apparently he’s doing The Good Woman of Szechuan, very big cast.” I didn’t mind being a constantly exeunting spear-carrier or whatever, I had no great delusion as to my acting talents, it was a director I wanted to be and I knew the chief route was through experiencing what it was like to be an actor. So, I went up to Shyamanand and asked him if there was any way I could be part of his cast.

“Have you acted before?”

“Only in school plays.” I didn’t tell him I’d only done bit parts.

“Hm. What plays have you read? Anything from your father’s library?”

On much firmer ground, I rattled off several modern English, American and European plays.

“Any Hindi plays, any Bengali? Any of your father’s own plays?”

No. I’d seen performances, but reading-wise I was an Angrezi-nerd.

“Any Brecht? Do you know Brecht?”

I’d heard of Bertolt Brecht, much in the same way I’d heard of Shyam Jalan, but no. My tastes ran more to the new British realists and the more recent European masters. Shyamanand’s eyes briefly receded behind his glasses. I thought he was going to send me off. Politely, because he got along with my father, but nevertheless with a kick in the pants for a callow know-nothing.

“Okay. We start rehearsals next Tuesday. Be there by six-thirty sharp.”

“Thank you! Should I read some Brecht before coming?”

“No. Just come.” The man’s attention was already on to something else.

What I didn’t realize then was that I’d been allowed to attend rehearsals with one of the most innovative directorial minds in India. This large man in a safari suit was the one who more or less discovered Mohan Rakesh; he was also one of the first directors to have Rakesh come to Calcutta and do what they did in foreign theatres: sit with the cast and director during rehearsals and re-fashion entire scripts so that they moved from text-sculptures of the playwright’s imagination to live actors effectively performing on stage; he was the one who had propelled Badal Sarkar into the national theatrical consciousness with his Hindi version of Evam Indrajit; he was the first one — before all the star Bengali directors latched on to it — to do theatre in the round; with every production he’d pushed boundaries, never settling for a comfortable formula or ‘signature’. Whenever Jalan began rehearsing a new production, Calcutta’s theatre people went on alert as to what he would do next.

By the time I entered the offices of Anamika Kala Sangam on the first day of rehearsals, I’d seen a few directors at work and heard stories of many others. There was my father, all alertness and agility, especially as dress rehearsals neared, leaping on to the stage to sort out something, moving back to see the action from the last row; there was the languid young poseur of a South Calcutta Byron, who’d snake himself into an attention-seeking, fake yogasana and sneer at his actors as he smoked his joint; there had been the school-teachers of varying talent, bringing to the job everything from the martinet of the parade-ground to the hair-tearing Professor Higgins. There were also the stories, the legends: Sombhu Mitra, who would regularly slap any actor who wasn’t paying attention; Alkazi, who ruled with a thunderous voice from an imaginary Peacock Throne; Grotowski, who would ‘explain’ the role by making you sleep in a wet trench in the freezing sub-zero Polish winter; Badal Sarkar in his physical ‘third theatre’, who would never ask you to do anything he couldn’t do himself. Finally, across the road from AKS’s office lived another legendary director, one who directed from behind a large 35mm camera, the one they called ‘Chhaw-Phoot’, whose towering personality and mastery with actors were legend.

Shyambhaiya was completely different. He ran his initial rehearsals like a CEO runs a board meeting, or a farming patriarch in Tuscany a family dinner. There was a long conference table in a tube-lit room. Shyam would sit at the head of the table and ask actors to start reading. Every now and then, he would quietly interrupt and start a discussion, asking what this character was doing, what that character meant when she said something, where was someone standing when they came up with such and such observation. Every line of speech had its own profit and loss account, every implied movement-moment was a morsel to be chewed and tasted fully before it could be swallowed. I was fascinated at first but then I got bored. My Hindi was weak and the combination of the language, the minute dissection of Brecht’s text, and the lack of any suitable, same-age female cast members made me look elsewhere. After a couple of weeks, I left The Good Woman of Szechuan for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown being directed in English by Zarin Chaudhuri.

When I told him, Shyambhaiya showed mild annoyance, but he understood. “Hm. Lots of pretty girls in that cast, I believe.” His face broke into that mischievous grin which made him look like a naughty teenager himself. “Enjoy yourself!” As a result of my jumping ship, I never got to watch Shyam Jalan move from the conference table to the stage and I still regret it. As I grew older I realized what a dynamo the man was, all the more amazing in a town that was fast becoming quiescent and creatively defeatist. I saw him with people like Richard Schechner and Suzuki, I also saw him deal with young actors and so-called ‘nobodies’. There was always a fierce intelligence and a wicked sense of humour propelling a vision of keeping great theatre alive in Calcutta.

Only much later did I realize what a fine actor Shyamanand was himself. When you saw him on stage, he transformed. Suddenly you were looking at a thin carapace of a failed patriarch, his bulk nothing but an empty bubble around huge compromise. As an actor, Jalan was no Mitra or Mukherjee, his range was limited, but within that range, as in everything he did, he went deep.

I’ve given up trying to explain to outsiders that the ‘Awbangalis’ who live and work here contribute hugely to making this city what it is: a truly messy, complicated, wonderful melting pot. It is even more difficult to explain that a phenomenon like Shyamanand Jalan could have occurred nowhere but in Calcutta.