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Sunday, January 10, 1999
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"A militant theatre activist — that is what I am"

FOR Rudraprasad Sengupta of Nandikar, Calcutta, theatre is more than an art — it is a mission, a form of activism. Though a star-performer, a sensitive adapter, a much-awarded director, and an organiser par excellence, he prefers to refer to himself as a theatre worker. Indeed, he is a doer, but a doer who knows his limitations as well as his strengths. He knows what he can do, what he should not be doing, what he has achieved, where he has failed and why.

In fact, he belongs to the rare breed of thinking directors. His efforts to realise his vision of theatre are generally informed by feeling, commitment and knowledge — as also by strategies born of realistic assessment of the pros and cons. Under his clear leadership for almost a quarter-century, Nandikar has not only learnt to survive with distinction but also widened the area of its activities to include training programmes, workshops, research, theatre-in-education projects, and an annual national theatre festival.

For the last 10 years, with a view to grooming the younger members for future leadership, he has converted his role as a director to that of a catalyst.In the new generation, he sees not rivals but his own extension.

Chaman Ahuja spoke to Prof Sengupta about his work and views recently. Excerpts:

A professor of English as you’ve been, what prompted the shift from literature to stage?

I came much earlier to theatre. As a student, I had to leave the Communist Party but I still retained the passion, commitment and discipline of a political activist. Looking for a substitute activism, I associated myself with the newly formed Nandikar as a mere theatre worker — with no ambition to act or to direct. My journey has been not from literature to theatre but from theatre worker to theatre activist and then to militant theatre activist — and that is what I am till today, even in my sixties.

Up to 1965, no role was originally allotted to me. In 1975, as a precondition for a particular grant, we had to produce a second play and when Ajitesh Bandopadhyay, who used to direct our plays once a year, opted out, I was asked to step in. My first choice as a director fell on Antigone, a combination of Sophocles and Anouilh. The Press went ga ga over it; more importantly, thanks to the lengthening shadows of the impending Emergency, it acquired a relevance.

Was that prophetic instinct at work or a mere chance?

I cannot explain it but on quite a few occasions I have had this feeling of smelling things in advance — a kind of seismographic intimation. When I Indianised Peter Terson’s Jigger Jagger into Football, people told me that I was overdoing the phenomenon — young people bringing out daggers, running with graffiti and flags, the fiancee of a boy eloping with a football star, and so on. This is not Calcutta, they insisted. But within a year, when the play was going places, things around looked identical-- flags on our stage looked smaller than life-size, a girl rushed to the centre of the ground and kissed a cricket-star before thousands of eyes! This prophetic anticipation I could claim only to my discomfort because I did not want that reality to happen. Anyway, with Antigone and Football, I turned a director and soon got the Sangeet Natak Akademi award. For decades now, I have been somebody in the Indian theatre but whatever I have done has been in response to the needs and demands of Nandikar.

Is it true that all the work of Nandikar has been prompted by your theatre-thinking?

That is certainly an overstatement but I won’t mind conceding myself a bit of role for my philosophical ramblings — for posing questions, raising issues, forcing my colleagues to think about the nature, functions and attributes of theatre as an art; about the relation of individuals with the society, about the artists’ responsibility to the country, and so on. Then we also faced questions about how to respond to the changing faces of theatre, East and West — to realism and naturalism, to our traditional theatre, to folk forms, to presentational and representational modes of performance. For decades we have been searching for answers and what we did at a certain time corresponded to our perceptions at that stage. In such deliberations, it is possible that I had some role but it should not imply my providing any philosophical orientation.

But did Nandikar ever do a thing contrary to your judgement?

In an organisation, there is always scope of diversity of opinions, even with the best of intentions. I do share my views but if I fail to convince others, as a disciplined worker, I go by the decision of the organisation. In 1970, for example, when there was a proposal to have four shows a week, I recorded my dissent because, I knew, we did not have the clientele of 850 persons a night, 250 times a year. To get the people, I said, we shall have to convert our creativity into a saleable commodity. I said this but since everybody was keen on the idea, I went along with the rest. Within five years, people were tired and wanted to wind up. But I insisted on giving a last-ditch battle, on creating a big success and then withdrawing, if necessary, on a note of triumph. We produced Brecht’s Good Person of Setzuan as Bhalomanush-- a Leftish, sentimental stuff, but it clicked with the masses and we survived.

But how was it received by the connoisseurs, the critics?

It was mercilessly panned in Bombay, we were accused of compromise. I told them, however, that while painting a picture, writing a poem, or sculpting a sculpture is the result of a private sensibility, a private act. Theatre is always a matter of combined, public sensitivity — public on this side of the footlights and on that side of the footlights. Whether a poem gets published or a painting gets exhibited, whether in the bargain it gets the creator fame, money or else denunciation are extraneous to the act of creativity. Not so in the case of theatre because theatre never happens unless there is public. No theatre production can ignore the box-office situation. It is naive to look upon theatre as an act of creativity pure and simple — it is a lot of administration, a lot of economics, a lot of nitty-gritty.

Where does the work of Nandikar stand in the context of the Indian theatre situation?

I have been enamoured of works of many friends like B.V. Karanth, Chandrashekhar Kambar, Theatre Academy of Pune, Dr Lagoo’s group in Bombay, some groups in Delhi; but I find that most of them could not sustain themselves well and for long. They have become defunct, moribund, periodic, adjusting with the schedules of filmstars and directors — something that is not happening in Bengal, especially in Nandikar. In comparison, Nandikar survives and survives with aliveness and openness. Not that everything that we have been doing has been always very good; what is creditable is that we have persevered — a rare phenomenon that is becoming rarer and rarer in the Indian theatre.

During the last few decades, the nature of the audiences has been changing; how have you managed to cater to these ever-changing audiences?

It is very complex — this relationship between the people and the artistes. At times audiences have to be groomed to appreciate our work; at times, it is they who call the tune. It might happen that once you have created taste for a certain kind of presentation, the audience start insisting on your giving just that, and nothing else. If you don’t oblige, they turn against you; if you oblige, it might spell your own creative death. Witness Jabbar Patel’s Ghasiram Kotwal. It is a great work, no doubt, but it had to become old hat some day. Moreover, you can’t create great theatre every day. Also you have to remember that you are not a commercial producer; you are different. This is a problem that we also faced. Formerly, when Nandikar had a new play in hand, it would not touch an older production — unless there was an invitation. Now we allow new ones to glide in, even when a certain play is doing extremely well. Today we have half-a-dozen plays ready in repertoire; after two shows of Gotroheen, we have another show of Meghanadbadh Kabya — something we could not be doing a few years ago. Then, if Gotroheen was in, Kabya would have to wait, if not exactly get dropped. We have changed our marketing strategy, so to say. The taste of the audience has to be controlled so that they do not tend to reduce the creative work into a consumer product. We cannot allow the attitude of saying that since I like this particular production, I cannot like any other. Keeping several plays ready means at times financial loss but, then, that is the rule of the game. If the people could get out of Ghasiram Kotwal, it was not entirely the people’s fault; it was the Theatre Academy’s responsibility, too.

For the last many years, Nandikar has been organising annual national theatre festivals. What kind of overall health of Indian theatre today to these festivals reflect?

I am going now for more young people because old stars are becoming more and more distant from the theatre scene-- theatre is now a matter of past for them. Habib’s work is not what it was; now, he appears to work under duress. A couple of years ago, I was fascinated by the work of Anamika Haksar; last year, we had a brilliant young man from Hyderabad — Moin Ali Beg. This way, something is happening all right — even though it might not be always outstanding or even homogeneous.

What has been the impact of your experimental projects on the mainstream theatre?

People have started emulating us in organising theatre festivals. Anyway, I must confess that deep down I believe that all our efforts are against the flow of time which is going the other way — towards crass, commercial, consumeristic mass culture. What really would percolate, I really don’t know. But though I don’t know, I have two answers that console me. The first is that theatre is the most ephemeral of all arts and it is silly to aim our work at the posterity. The second answer inheres a beautiful line in a Tagore song: "The world does not depend on you, you coward!" The idea is that the desire of some to do too much to the world is, most often, the result of their own fears and insecurity. We would rather do our bit boldly and fearlessly.

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