Curtain rises on lost stage
Theatre in Calcutta in the Eighties was thriving, throbbing and yet dwindling. It was the time when group theatre, gaining social and political credence, was taking over and commercial theatre was dying a financial death even as it flourished in small pockets. This world of quiet tragedy and chaos is the universe of Ori, a 10-year-old boy grappling with the reality of being the son of an actress at a time when the city's middle-class morality looked down upon actresses, particularly of commercial theatre. The story of Ori is what makes up Saikat Majumdar's latest novel, The Firebird.
The pursuit of the past for this book took Majumdar, who spent his childhood and early adulthood in the city before leaving for the US, through the theatre lanes of north Calcutta - Beadon Street, Sovabazar, Hatibagan - and discover a world uncared for. His earlier novel, Silverfish, was also set in Calcutta.
A visit to Circarina in 2012 and a taste of its decadence left a strong impression on Majumdar. "That was the one hall I saw in its past structure, and it is a really strange feeling to be inside a theatre hall that is now covered with dust and cobweb. To imagine that this place once throbbed with life and people and drama.... It was strange and sad. The octogenarian owner, Amar Ghosh (he passed away last year), still believed in his dreams that the city had clearly forgotten all about," said the author, who teaches world literature at Stanford University.
Some of the best-loved stars of Bengali cinema - Sabitri Chattopadhyay, Madhabi Mukhopadhyay and Lily Chakrabarty- and renowned novelists such as Samaresh Basu, Bimal Mitra and Shankar - had been associated with the commercial stage. That kind of theatre was already dying in the 80s and the government's indifference only made it worse. "The Left was at best indifferent to commercial theatre and occasionally hostile to it. Hatibagan theatre evoked 19th century feudal decadence for many. I interviewed actors from the commercial stage who still resent this attitude, firmly standing by, for instance, a play like Barbadhu which they say was wrongly accused of being obscene."
Majumdar, however, clarified that the novel is in no way a historical account of theatre in the city. It is rather a child's-eye view of what seems to him a fascinating but dark world, which he treads with unease. Much of Ori's relation to the art form is shaped by his childhood experience of watching his mother on stage. To watch her cry or die there, or for that matter to be in intimate relationships with strangers.
"It would be interesting to see how the theatre world responds to the novel. The book, after all, is a tribute to theatre, its power to move and shock, even though that power comes across as tragic and destructive in this novel," said Majumdar, who completed his graduation from St. Xavier's College and went on to do his masters at Jadavpur University before leaving for graduate school in the US.
The driving force of Majumdar's novel is the primal experience of its protagonist, his inability to differentiate between life and stage.
"It is an anti-coming-of-age story," is how Majumdar describes The Firebird. "Some people who have read the manuscript found the story morally shocking. Perhaps it is. In terms of what it does to the most intimate human relationships, in terms of the fatal failure to distinguish between art and life, in terms, perhaps also of the precocious loss of childhood long before its time is up."