Speaking Volumes: Badal Sircar–the conscience keeper

(Published in the Business Standard, May 17, 2011)

What can I write? I am no writer of essays. I am a theatre man. I wrote some plays because I am a man of the theatre, not because I am a writer.” Badal Sircar, letter to The Drama Review, November 1981.

There were few headlines; the death of Badal Sircar this Friday at the age of 86 in Calcutta, as it was called, was tucked away, eclipsed by the toppling of the Left Front. It had been years since homage had been truly paid to the playwright, but it is almost certain that he would not have cared. For Sircar, immersed in writing and reading (one of the last books he was reported to be re-reading was Sukumar Ray’s fantastic gem, Abol Tabol) right up to the end of his days, tributes were unnecessary.

I did wonder, though, whether the office-goers of Calcutta knew what they had lost. So many of them must have remembered the late 1960s and the 1970s, when Badal Sircar, unable to afford the fees of a proper proscenium theatre, began to hold performances in the open air — at Nandan, in the maidans, often timing the shows for the lunch hour, making a ritual of the Saturday performances.

Sircar has often been called the most middle class of playwrights, and he was that; but he was so much more than that. He was a town planner, who became an actor, influenced by his memories of the London stage, in the 1950s. Perhaps that’s where his empathy for the ordinary Calcuttan came from; he wrote of Satabdi, his theatre troupe: “None of the Satabdi members are paid anything. They work in banks, schools, offices, factories: they assemble in evenings exhausted by loveless work and sardine-packed public transport.” They were, in effect, just the same as the audience he attracted when he came up with the idea of the Third Theatre, which eschewed the props and formal paraphernalia of the stage and pulled the audience in as participant.

Sircar’s plays had a way of surviving and moving far beyond the confines of Bengal — college theatre troupes across India have had Evam Indrajit and Michchil in their repertoire for decades, but his reach was greater than that. His plays travelled often to villages, the script sometimes transforming to meet the needs of that set of local players; every street theatre group in India paid homage to either the plays themselves or to Sircar’s stagecraft.

In so many ways, he is still a playwright of our times — especially these times, when the middle class is discovering its conscience at Jantar Mantar, or attempting to make sense of the Maoist insurgency. Evam Indrajit, written in 1963 and first performed in 1965, introduced a writer, a cast of “normal” characters, Amal, Bimal and Kamal, whose lives were sedate, ordinary and not appropriate fodder for theatre — and Indrajit. In an exchange between Indrajit and the writer, Indrajit asks: “Then how shall we live?”

The Writer replies: Walk! Be on the road! For us there is only the road. We shall walk. I now have nothing to write about — still I have to write. You have nothing to say — still you have to talk. For us there is only the road — so walk on.”

This exchange, which could have come from Brecht or Beckett, was pure Sircar, written in a clipped, colloquial Bangla few playwrights had mastered before him. His plays, from Michchil to Baki Itihas and Pagla Ghoda were timely and disquieting; the attempt was to stir up the dormant middle-class conscience, and in the maidan crowds of Calcutta, he had the audience he needed.

Bashi Khabar took Sircar’s growing obsession with the Santhal revolt — the unsung war of the tribals against the state — and made it as deathless as Mahasweta Debi’s Birsa Munda would; Michchil, written in 1972 against the background of Naxalism about the state-sponsored disappearance of young men finds just as many echoes today. About Bashi Khabar, which featured a murdered man who wandered silently among the chorus and among the audience, his existence denied by another young male protagonist, Sircar wrote: “Each of us was that young man, trying our best to deny the existence of the ‘killed man’ in our midst and yet not wholly succeeding.”

But of all of Sircar’s plays, the much-performed, the almost-forgotten, the adaptations he did so skillfully from Brecht, the original plays that passed into the alphabet of the country’s theatre performers, what stays with me most are the figures of Kena and Becha (Bought and Sold), the two thieves who appear in Hattamala. This was one of Badal Sircar’s most light-hearted, if most political, plays, and children have been amused for decades by this story of two thieves set down in a land where money and possessions have no meaning.

In Sircar’s world, though, Kena and Becha loomed large; if we didn’t learn how to live, how to speak or write the things that mattered, we would give over our lives to thieves who only understood a world where everything could be bought and sold. Every one of his plays, and his performances, militated for a better world than this.





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