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Badal Sircar – Off Stage

He drew theatre out form the confines of the folk and the urban styles and into the Third Theatre – exposing us to an unconventional theatrical dimension of free theatre, courtyard productions and village theatre.

Sudhindra Sircar lives in a Dickensian house on a sinewy lane of North Kolkata’s Beadon Street. Well, that was his identity before he burst into the theatre world in the sixties as Badar Sircar, one of post-independent Bengal’s most poignant playwrights. Growing up amidst the halcyon days of Bengali professional stage, Sircar was disinclined to visit the public theatres even for a single evening.

Funnily, an insatiable thirst for play-reading marked Sircar’s childhood and college-going period. “People normally read novels and short stories and watch plays. I relished reading dramas. Studying in the Bengali medium Scottish Church Collegiate school, it was naturally Bengali compositions to begin with. But, as the family’s stock of Bengali plays ran out, I thought of teaching myself a bit of English. I was delighted to be introduced by my mother (Sarala Mona Sircar) to grandmother’s (Virgina Mary Nandy) collection of western literature. Grandma, incidentally, was amongst India’s first lady physicians and very well read,” he relates. Few may be aware of Sircar’s Christian lineage. “I don’t profess any religion, of course,” he avers.

Together with background details like his father (Mahendra Lal Sircar) holding a history professor’s chair at the Scottish Church College, one gains insight into Sircar’s theatrical sensibilities and his introvert nature as he dwells on his youth. “I shied away from stage shows, but, was addicted to the weekly radio plays. We had crystal radio sets in those years. And only two could listen to the broadcasts through headphones by turns, “he says with a laught.

Sircar’s face suddenly lights up as he recounts the first drama he had directed and acted in. “The venue was this very from where we sit and chat. During the holidays, in 1941, I had adapted Cinderella from my sister’s textbook and enacted it, with cousins and friends, before a family gathering. Casting myself in the plum male role. Rarely, can a theatre personality claim the distinction of beginning as playwright, director and principal actor,” he observes in jest.

His exploration of western drama began with Bernard Shaw. “Shaw was an instant favourite. I ran through most of his plays by the time I was in college – Shibpur’s Bengal Engineering College. I scraped through to quality as a civil engineer but was terribly frustrated in the process. In deference to conventions, the family dreamt of me as a doctor or engineer,” he says.

However, BE College may have subconsciously honed the playwright in Sircar. He voraciously lapped up Moliere, Sheridan and Eugene O’ Neill. “Couldn’t put my teeth into Shakespeare till then. I was irresistibly drawn to the humour of Shaw and Moliere and O’Neill’s grimness,” says Sircar introspectively.

Even since he took up his first civil engineer’s employment in 1947 with a private construction company in a desolate village near Nagpur, Badal Sircar was restless. Between 1947-53, he had thrown up the construction job ‘in desperation.’ Wrapped up two civil engineering lectureships in Kolkata. A protracted one at Jadavpur University. Become devoutly involved in ‘Left politics’. In turn, severed ties with his political commitments, ‘partly in disillusionment.’ Finished a two-year town planning course from BE College. And, at long last, “fallen in love” with an academic discipline.

Reminisces Sircar, “Time, still, wasn’t ripe for active theatre. Not counting on occasional show with para (local) friends. It was tough going, financially. I had rented a small flat in central Kolkata’s Entally area with my wife and two children. There were no avenues for town planners at that time. And a teacher’s salary from Jadavpur University was paltry.” Nevertheless, his inner churnings were silently drawing Sircar into a sphere he had not wittingly aimed for.

By 1956, he had adapted his first short play, Solution X. And a year later, set out alone for London. “I left my family at the ancestral house on Beadon Street, promising a Rs.150/- monthly remittance. My boats at home were burnt and there was every likelihood of getting stranded in London. Luckily, an admission into London University’s town planning faculty helped me cross the preliminary hurdle of foreign exchange restrictions,” says Sircar.

England was not the rough seas he had feared. A year with a civil engineering firm was followed by a town planning assignment “which I always longed for.” Soon, Sircar was sucked into London’s bubbling cultural cauldron. Parallel to viewing a spate of movies at a film club (including “Buster Keaton and the silent era”), Badal Sircar’s mind feverishly sponged the richness of British stage.

“Fortunately, people on shoe-string budgets could still buy the cheapest seats,” he says with a smile. “It was quite a feeling coming face to face with theatre greats- Vivian Leigh and Charles Laughton, amongst others, live on stage. London’s where I cam across a “Theatre in the round.’ An arena version of Racine’s (19th century French playwright) Phaedre, with the unforgettable Margaret Rawlins in the lead,” he adds. Retrospectively, London could have finally awakened the dormant dramatist in him. Before leaving the shores of the British Isles in 1959, Badal Sircar had penned a full-fledged original play. The comic, Baropishima.

Four years in Kolkata. A nine-months Paris interlude on a French government town-planning scholarship. Then, proceeding for a three-year stint, as town-planner to Enugu (East Nigeria). “My happiest period, professionally,” he says. Badal Sircar, the playwright, had far outstripped he engineer, Sudhindra Sircar.

Chakra, Sircar’s Cultural Club in Kolkata, intermittently pieced together theatre productions while plays flowed from his pen as though they were long bottled up. Comedies, punctuated by the shattering Ebong Indrajit written in Kolkata. Melting into a spate of intensely gripping plays through the French and Nigerian sojourns. Shaw, Moliere and O’Neill were now inseparable facets of Badal Sircar’s creative being.

“In France, my mind was made up. I would devote my energies totally to theatre when I returned to Kolkata. Although, a strong attachment with town planning lingered. Conscious of my five jobless months after the London trip, I decided to stretch my work plans abroad and save money. Sadly my ambitions were somewhat thwarted. East Nigeria’s (present day Biafra) secession cut loose a warlike climate, compelling me to put my family on the flight back. In fact, when I fled across the Niger Bridge in a cab carrying a suitcase and a list-minute bag containing my plays, I had escaped the Nigerian war by a whisker,” exclaims Sircar.

Ebong Indrajit had hit Kolkata’s stage circuit. With devastating effect. Launching his theatre group, Satabdi, in 1967, Badal Sircar plunged into drama production. Meanwhile, he had rejoined the Kolkata Corporation. Working intensively within the proscenium form up to the early ‘70s, Sircar ceaselessly turned out a string of original plays. Farce, nonsense, existentialist, comedies.

He comments, “My plays are never naturalistic. Invariably too, they deal with a human situation or problem. I realized long ago that I wasn’t cut out to be a novelist. Writers can analyze individual human beings from a point of detachment. I haven’t looked at life that way.”

A transformation overcame Sircar in 1971. “I felt we theatre practitioners were irrationally locked in a race with cinema. Besides, I was disenchanted with proscenium structures. But, the living art of theater egged me on to hunt for distinctness,” he says. Even after two decades, Racine’s Phaedre and France’s “permanent theatre in the round” seemed to haunt Badal Sircar. Thus emanated the “lecture-hall performances’ and weekend angan (courtyard) mancha productions in a “30 feet by 28 feet” room within the Academy of Fine Arts. “Using normal room lights. Devoid of props and costumes. Performing not just in front of our viewers. But, all round them. Aptly sharing space with them,” describes Sircar.

On a Saturday afternoon in 1973 at Curzon Park, opposite the Governor’s House, Badal Sircar and Satabdi exposed Kolkatans to an unconventional theatrical dimension. “Free theatre. No tickets, government grants, industrial sponsors and wealthy patrons,” he underscores. Around 1974-75, Sircar’s treatise Third Theatre, appeared in bookstalls. His publishers may not have gauged the runaway success of an off the beaten track publication. Three editions were sold out. Third Theatre had come to stay. Explains Sircar, “I had not intended labeling our activity. Theatre broadly branches into folk and urban styles. I was merely, therefore, identifying an untested form. However, the phrase has stuck on.”

In 1977, approaching fifty-two, Badal Sircar shed the last vestige of a town-planner’s preoccupations – snapping links with the West Bengal comprehensive Area Development Corporation. ‘My needs had narrowed,” he says. Subtly summing up a crucial decision.

March 1985- Sircar and seventy of his Third Theatre compatriots crossed into an unvisited zone. Village theatre. Parikarma (The Walk) has traveled for seven years. Embracing numerous impoverished pockets dotting Nadia, 24 Parganas, Hooghly and Howrah belts. “The credit for this concept goes to a colleagues in the Angan Theater Group,” acknowledges Sircar. ‘Having discovered the strength of our medium, there was little reason to box ourselves in. Often, we act for free. Subsidizing train fare, when they can’t reimburse even such meager expenses. Voluntary donations come in with local bodies taking the initiative.”

The villagers’ response, according to Sircar, was overwhelming. “Yes, some dramas could be complex for a countryside milieu. Sometimes, their unconditioned minds reveal interpretations which are extremely valid. Villagers may be illiterate and undernourished but they posses the intelligence to comprehend art.”

What sets Third Theatre apart visually and conceptually? “The intimacy of sharing an experience with the audience. Free play of imagination. Manifestations through symbolic costumes. Freedom to perform within the arena format. And the element of body language. Immense possibilities surface when the body relates to one’s consciousness, emotions and knowledge,” illuminates Sircar. The Third Theatre innovations have kept expanding.

Close to fifty original plays and adaptations have found expression in the country’s major languages, and in England and German. A tributary anthology which places Sircar and three other dramatists – Mohan Rakesh, Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad – at the frontiers of modern Indian play writing.

Yet, the man has veered away from the glitz realm of performing arts. Trading the rights of just that odd play or two with television producers. “You can’t believe in something and turn a blind eye to it in the same breath,” expresses Sircar. He continues, “Writing plays is not a paying occupation in our country. In the West, a playwright turns a millionaire if one of his dramas is a hit on West End or Broadway.”

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