Bengal Theater Politics of Rebellion
This paper discusses the development of theater in Bengal and the political plays performed there.
India has a rich theatrical tradition, one that, according to legend, is divine in origin; the result of a “riot in heaven.” (Bharucha, p. 1). When the Silver Age of the world overtook the Golden Age, men grew addicted to sensual pleasures; they became greedy, angry and jealous of one another. Seeing this, the God Indra begged Brahma, the Creator, for some form of recreation that would be accessible to everyone, no matter what their social class. Brahma agreed, and wrote a fifth Veda. He extracted the elements of speech, sentiment, song and mime from the other four Vedas and created “Natyaveda,” or the holy book of dramaturgy. He asked Indra to pass the book to those Gods who were, among other things, “free from stage fright.” But the Gods were unable to act the play, and so it was entrusted to a man, Bharata, and thus theater was born: a gift from the gods to men. (“Performing Arts in India,” PG).
The legend is wonderful, but it also illustrates one of the problems with the study of Indian theater: the tendency of Westerners to see Indian theater as “dangerous,” mysterious and exotic, something so far outside their own experience as to be unknowable. The West tends to fabricate illusions about the Eastern theater rather than actually studying its history, working conditions, and different dramatic forms. (Bharucha, pp. 2-3).
This paper looks beyond the myth and illusion to the history of theater in Bengal, and specifically to the theater as used by activists to support political ideologies.
Our discussion of Bengal theater centers on Calcutta, where most of the plays are produced. The earliest Indian plays were Sanskrit dramas, and “were essentially a reflection of Brahmanical thought.” (Bharucha, p. 7). They were enjoyed by the intelligencia and the aristocracy because the plays mirrored their values, glorified the class system, and essentially confirmed their position in society. The Sanskrit plays were far removed from life as the vast majority of Indians knew it, and its irrelevance meant that the form was already dying by the time of the Muslim invasion. By the time the British arrived in 1757, the only theater left was Jatra.
“Jatra” is a form of street theater. It consists of a platform for the actors, flanking platforms for the musicians, a gangway for entrances and lights. It can be set up and torn down in minutes, and sometimes is, if the play makes someone angry. The 18th Century Jatra performances were often sweeping romantic epics, with historical romances and love stories joining the repertoire. (Gargi, PG). There was virtually no other theater in India, and performances were apolitical. But that was about to change with the advent of a playwright named Michael Madhusadhan Dutt. (1824-1873). Madhusadhan, as he’s known, wrote scathing social satires that made fun of both Bengalis and Anglos, but especially skewered those Indians who tried to imitate the British in all things. He found them pretentious and ridiculous, and used his plays to mock them. But he also delivers a strong message: imitating the Westerners is “a threat to the values of the orthodox characters…” (Bharucha, p. 14).
It was at this time that one of the most famous of the early political plays appeared. Entitled “Neel Darpan,” it may well be one of the earliest protest plays ever presented, though it was quickly banned because of its unfavorable portrayal of the British.
Open rebellion had broken out in 1857, and farmers, who rose against the British rule, staged some of the revolts. They “agitated directly against the Government, foreign owners of tea gardens and Indian landlords-moneylenders.” (“The History of India,” PG). One of the sources of unrest was the situation regarding the Neel crop.
Neel (indigo) is a profitable commodity. At the time of the revolt, European farmers had a monopoly on Neel farming, and forced Indians to harvest Neel for them. They used brutal methods to oppress their workers, including physical beatings, and the victimized farmers were forced to see the Neel at less than profitable rates. The Europeans, of course, made a tidy profit from the transaction. (“The History of India,” PG).
In 1860, a Bengali writer named Deenbandhu Misra wrote “Neel Darpan,” in protest. It may have had only an indirect effect, but at approximately the same time the play appeared, the native farmers refused to cultivate Neel and chose instead to face the brutality of both their landlords and the British. The wide spread appeal of the theater can be found in the fact that the elite of Bengal sided with the farmers. As a result, the government appointed a committee to investigate corrupt practices with regard to farming. Although the oppression continued for some time, it may be that the play had an important part in starting the investigation.
In 1876, Prince Edward visited India, and his appearances there led to the appearance on the Calcutta stage of more biting satires. The British Raj cracked down, and enacted the Dramatic Performances Act (i.e., censorship).
From 1872-1912, “musicals, domestic comedies, sensationalized versions of mythological stories and religious melodramas about the lives of saints and devotees” (Bharucha, p. 27) were the mainstay of the Indian theater. But in 1905, Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal, and that act, which was universally despised, heightened unrest. Indians boycotted British goods and began to fight for their freedom. “The political enthusiasm of the people was so spontaneous that the British decided to reverse the Partition in 1911. Significantly, they shifted the capital of the Raj from Calcutta to Delhi.” (Bharucha, p. 29).
III Further Development
The politicization of Bengali theater truly began in the 1930’s, with the works of D.L. Roy. Until that time, despite the occasional protest play, it had produced mostly escapist fare. (Bharucha, p. 29). Roy wrote historical plays in which he integrated history and social commentary, but his works proved too controversial and were seldom performed. “Apart from ridiculing all sections of Hindu society in his first play, an irreverent farce called ‘Kalki Abatar’ (‘Kalki’s Incarnation,’ 1895), he had the nerve to satirize Hindu gods and goddesses and the obfuscation of the scriptures. Predictably, this farce was too offensive to be staged.” (Bharucha, p. 30). But Roy is doing something important, he is writing controversial plays, protest plays, plays critical of society, and getting them noticed, even if the notices are unfavorable. He is paving the way for others to follow.
One who did follow, in the 1930’s, was Manmatha Ray, who won an award for playwrighting from the National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama in 1969. At the time he began his career, other writers were forming groups such as the Progressive Writers’ Association and the Indian People’s Theater Association.
The IPTA took as its model the original folk theater of India, though at first they were more “urban” than “folk” in their orientation. But they learned, and one of their most popular pieces was “Zubeida,” the story of a Muslim girl who abandons purdah to nurse the victims of a cholera epidemic, only to die of the disease herself. The play was immensely popular, particularly because of its eerie evocation of rural life, and Bharucha reports that as many as ten thousand spectators attended a performance. (P. 42). IPTA brought theater to the people, including women, most of whom had never seen a play before. Even more significantly, the troupe was performing just at the time of India’s independence, and crowds were jubilant. “The enthusiasm of the mass audiences was more intense than the British government had imagined … The theater was no longer a mere entertainment with some social and political significance: it had become the very forum of the people.” (Bharucha, p. 42).
Today, Bharucha cites two main influences on Bengal theater: Utpal Dutt (1929-1993) and Badal Sircar, who as far as I can find out, is still with us. Dutt was a Marxist, a true revolutionary, and yet a ham actor who spoke about equality and then turned into a tyrant when it came to productions of his plays. (Bharucha, p. 55). He is one of the most important voices in Bengal protest theater, because he saw what was needed to rouse the people:
“… Dutt began to realize it was not sufficient merely to reflect the suffering of the workers. It was important for a revolutionary playwright to alter the suffering and depict it passing through a process. The workers in the audience had to learn how to convert their suffering into anger.” (Bharucha, p. 65).
“Ajeya Vietnam,” one of Dutt’s most powerful plays, is a scathing indictment of American involvement in Southeast Asia. Although it’s ferocity is aimed at Americans, it can also be seen as the protest of any people fighting for their lives against a much stronger invader, such as the Indians fighting the British. Dutt’s characters are not helpless or weak; indeed, the Vietnamese are presented as civilized and the Americans as brutes. This is political theater at its best. (I’m going to type out one of the speeches from the play in its entirety because it’s some of the most incredible language I’ve ever read.) Kim, an old Vietnamese woman has this to say about Americans at the end of the play:
“To you Mark Wheeler, young enough to be my grandson, I should have liked to say, I forgive you. We who believe in the Enlightened One, and breathe the green air of this country have always forgiven, for so it is in the Three Sacred Books. But now, I cannot and will not forgive. I charge you with killing children and poisoning the air. I charge you with filling a peaceful, loving, forgiving people with hatred and the lust to kill. I charge you with destroying the springs of human kindness that have flown in this county for thousands of years. I charge you with bringing into the mud the fair name of America and filling each one of us, from here to Peking, with undying hatred for everything American. The smoke from your bombs has blackened the face of the Buddha and what was forgiveness is now divine benediction on revenge. [After a pause] I even thank you for it, Mark Wheeler. You’ve taught us how to hate and so we shall win the war. (Act 3, pp. 39-40).
Political theater indeed! But Dutt is also a theatrical person, in that he uses stage effects, sound systems, and all the “tricks” of the trade to stage his productions, which are in every sense part of commercial theater. Badal Sircar has gone the opposite route.
Sircar has taken his theater back to the streets, performing in the open, often for free. When he does move indoors, he uses no sets or props, depending upon his actors to create the entire experience for the audience, which they do. One of his best-known plays is “Bhoma,” a chilling story of a man dying in poverty, hungry and cold, because no one cares. Where Dutt tackles issues, he tends to look at the oppression of the Indian people by outsiders, but when Sircar does the same, he looks at the ills within Indian society itself. Bharucha says “Anger drives the play—anger against the well fed and indifferent bourgeoisie of Calcutta.” (P. 174). And he adds, “More immediately than any play I am aware of in the Bengali theater, “Bhoma” make an audience confront its indifference to poverty.” (Bharucha, p. 181). “
In addition to these giants, alternative theater (what we might call experimental theater) thrives in Calcutta today.
Bengal theater is absolutely fascinating, as accessible and immediate as any in the world. It seems a shame that Westerners have mythologized this theater to the point where they feel they can’t understand it, for it surely repays anyone who studies it.
Bharucha, Rustom. Rehearsals of Revolution. Honolulu: U. of Hawaii Press, 1983.
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“The History of India.” Indiansaga.info [Web site]. 2000. Accessed: 3 Apr 2003. http://www.indiansaga.info/history/mutiny_farmers.html