Sometimes in the mid-1980s, the India Trade Promotion Organization (ITPO) had organized a street theatre festival at Pragati Maidan. I was an undergraduate those days, perennially short of money, and Pragati Maidan was a haven. One could watch world cinema for almost nothing at Shakuntalam Theatre, and, for a few years in the 1980s, ITPO invited leading theatre companies and directors to perform in one of its exhibition halls, refashioned into a theatre hall called Manzar.
I was familiar with Jana Natya Manch’s work, having seen some plays in JNU, where my father taught, and on the North Campus of Delhi University, where I studied. However, for one reason or the other, the one play that I had not yet seen was Janam’s first street play, Machine (1978). After joining Janam in the summer of 1987, I’ve performed it hundreds of times. But the impact of the play when I first watched it in Pragati Maidan, close to the now-demolished iconic Hall of Nations, has stayed with me. In 13 terse minutes, the play laid bare the contradictions of capitalism. I was stunned.
I met Safdar Hashmi, who played the narrator, after the show, and told him how the physicality of the play combined with lyricism had blown me. He grinned and asked, ‘Are you coming tomorrow?’ I said no, what was tomorrow? ‘Satabdi is playing,’ he said. When confronted with my blank look, he said, ‘Satabdi—Badal Sircar. If you liked Machine, you must see their work. Have you seen Michhil—Juloos?”
I can’t remember if I said yes or no, because both are true. I had seen Juloos years ago, as a little kid, in Amol Palekar’s Marathi production, in a hot and uncomfortable Chhabildas in Bombay. The school hall was an iconic space, but I was too small to care. It was a late evening show, the play had no story, all the actors wore the same clothes, no one wore any makeup, there was a lot of shouting and screaming, and at the age of about 7, none of it made any sense to me. I dozed off.
There was no way I was going to miss Badal Sircar this time. Sadly, they didn’t perform Michhil, and I can no longer remember the names of the plays they did, but I was transfixed. If Machine was physical, this was something else. The actors were superbly expressive with their bodies, and even though I didn’t follow the language, I could see that the text was complex and the audience engrossed. To see Badal Sircar himself performing at touching distance, in daylight, was a special thrill.
Safdar was there too, and we walked together to the bus stop later. He spoke to me about Badal Sircar and the seminal influence he’s had on street theatre. He appreciated how the actors worked on their bodies, and how Sircar had remained true to his vision of creating a ‘free’ theatre. But Safdar was also critical. He thought Sircar’s theatre tended to fetishize the body at the expense of the word. And, most seriously, ‘Badal Sircar has created a cult; a personality myth around himself which makes it difficult for himself or anybody else to establish a critical relation with his work’ (‘The People Gave Us So Much Energy’, interview with Eugene Van Erven, in Theatre of the Streets: The Jana Natya Manch Experience, New Delhi 2007).
And yet, a critical relationship is exactly what needs to be established with any major artist’s work. This is especially true of Badal Sircar. Think of the range of theatre artists who credit him as a major, defining influence on their lives: writers such as Girish Karnad and Mahesh Elkunchwar, directors like Satyadev Dubey, Shyamanand Jalan, Heisnam Kanhailal and Kirti Jain (who has recently published an excellent source book on Sircar), actors like Amrish Puri and Amol Palekar, and theatre groups like Samudaya. They occupy all points on the aesthetics-politics continuum—if Elkunchwar remains trenchantly on the art for arts sake end, Samudaya is an activist, Left Wing group, close the Communist movement. The others occupy various points in between. To my mind, it is hard to think of another theatre artist who has managed to surmount the aesthetics/politics divide and win die-hard admirers on both sides quite the way Sircar has.
The reason for this is of course not hard to guess. Badal Sircar’s career is in fact divided in two—the later, ‘political’ Third Theatre phase, and the more ‘artistic’ phase that preceded it. But there’s also much that connects the two. In both phases, his theatre was essentially urban and middle class. It relied on creating a certain incoherence through words, which made its own point. Except for the early comedies, through his life, there remained a sort of quiet rage that ran through his playwrighting—the rage of a misplaced, misunderstood, largely helpless individual in a heartless, faceless, largely callous metropolis.
Manujendra Kundu’s book raises expectations of precisely forming the much needed critical relationship with Sircar’s work. To be sure, Kundu does analyse some fifty or so plays by Sircar, some of them previously unpublished. He traces the growth and development of Satabdi, Sircar’s theatre group. He ploughs through Sircar’s multi-volume autobiography—which, for a non-Bengali reader like myself, is useful. And yet, the book disappoints.
Some of the cause for frustration with Kundu is simply his clumsy writing, full of sweeping generalizations. Consider this: ‘. . . the causes for the mounting tension within these organizations [Progressive Writers’ Association and Indian People’s Theatre Association, both connected to the Communist Party] were not only hidden in their ideological incompetence, but also in the intrusive proscenium stage which, still thought to be a potent medium of art, eventually came to disunite the people’s theatre movement altogether’ (p. 41). Really? ‘Ideological incompetence’? On what evidence? And how, exactly, is the proscenium stage ‘intrusive’? And how did the proscenium theatre come to disunite writers of the PWA?
One could take a kind view here, and say that this kind of ham-handed writing is exactly what editors are expected to help authors clean up. It can hardly be the author’s fault that OUP didn’t assign this book to a competent copy editor. But what does one do with an author who is too keen to pass judgment and condemn, rather than historicize, analyse and engage?
The very title of Kundu’s book is judgmental: ‘Although Sircar left the proscenium arch in pursuit of a demotic, intimate space, his procedure and style of action also eventually left the people out of the Third Theatre’s ambit. It can even be argued that the Third Theatre could not advance much in that direction, and a small, converted, urban elite became its comfortable audience. . . . In fact, the title of the book suggests, though tacitly, that Sircar’s Third Theatre went so “Near”, yet remained “Far” from the people’ (pp. 17–18). This is a staggering generalization, virtually every element of which needs examination. For the moment, let us just take one: that Sircar’s theatre became comfortable with a narrow, urban, elite audience. I wish the author had paid more attention to the photographs that he proudly presents in the book—you will see urban audiences in the open, middle class perhaps, but hardly ‘elite’.
The author will of course argue that anyone who is not rural and desperately poor is ‘elite’. If you think I’m being unfair, consider this. On page 230, he reproduces an Anganmancha leaflet of 2008, in which the presence of Satabdi’s email id is seen as ‘the group’s growing conformity with capitalist means.’ This, in a 2016 book, produced, no doubt, with a few more ‘capitalist means’ than a mere email id.
Not that this is an inadvertent slip. Much of the chapter is devoted to showing how Sircar’s theatre, and the ideas that underlie it, are not original, that they are borrowed but not acknowledged, that his theatre was no different to the theatre he critiqued, and that he made claims of financial austerity for his theatre which he reneged on at first opportunity. Each of these claims is made on grounds that can only be described as flimsy, if not altogether laughable.
The author cites a tour of rural areas undertaken by the Third Theatre groups in 1986. The author is ‘somewhat embarrassed’ by the fact that villagers gave them food and shelter and he is positively outraged that the group spread a cloth for voluntary contributions from audiences at the end of the show. ‘Could they have not dispensed with this ritual? Was it necessary to squeeze out contributions in cash or kind from the villagers, for whom earning a few mouthfuls of food was difficult in itself?’ (p. 216). Reading this, I had visions of Badal Sircar on horseback, a veritable Gabbar Singh of Sholay, ‘squeezing out contributions in cash or kind’ from terrified, quivering, supplicant villagers.
The author charges Badal Sircar of duplicity and dishonesty in his attitude to money and awards. On pages 231–32, he lists his charges against Sircar. Consider two. One, that he accepted the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2011, ‘two months before his demise’, even though the Mahindra group is a ‘multinational’. And two, that he rejected the Padma Bhushan in 2010 ‘on flimsy grounds’ (though we are not told what they were), even though he had accepted the Padma Shri in 1972 and became a Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellow in 1997. That the author feels that he can pass judgment on Sircar on the issue of awards is bad enough, but that he can make such charges in an academic publication, with no effort to contextualize any of Sircar’s decisions over a 40-year span, is shocking. Personally, I think Badal Sircar’s somewhat puritanical approach to the question of money could do with an examination and critique, but that is hardly what Kundu is engaged in. He only lambasts. One wishes Kirti Jain’s source book had been published earlier, and Kundu had read her introduction, which is an excellent example of a balanced, sympathetic and critical appraisal.
Safdar Hashmi wished for precisely such a critical relationship with Badal Sircar’s work. Safdar had serious points of critique, while being equally admiring of Badal Sircar’s many achievements and his life-long struggle to achieve his vision of a truly free theatre—free in thought, free of state and other pressures, freely played in public spaces. It was a heroic quest, and like all truly heroic quests, impossible to achieve in one lifetime without fundamental changes in society at large. That the quest ‘failed’ in some ways is hardly a ‘failure’. A truly critical study needs to historicize, analyse and examine the work and contributions of Badal Sircar. This book, sadly, is not that study.
Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch and editor with LeftWord Books, New Delhi.