By Arka Chattopadhyay
Badal Sircar was born in 1925, the same year in which the Communist Party of India (CPI) was formed. Connections between Sircar and the Communist Party were not restricted to this coincidence though. A whole-hearted AISF (All India Students’ Federation, the student-wing of CPI) activist in his student-life at the Bengal Engineering College, Sircar was also involved in the trade-union movement. But, he was suspended by the CPI following the doldrums of 1948-51 when the party was banned for the second time. His disappointment with the party policy paved the way for the interrogation of its leadership and his suspension. It was this political disillusionment that marked the beginning of Badal Sircar’s career as a practicing playwright, performance artist, director and an original thinker of the theatrical medium in India.
As Subhendu Sarkar in his Oxford ‘Introduction’ to the Two Plays (2010) notes, while working as an engineer in Maithon, Sircar established a ‘rehearsal club’ along with his colleagues. Being unhappy with the existing theatrical works, he was soon compelled into writing plays. The decision yielded as many as six comedies between 1956 and 1964 – Solution X (1956), Baropishima (‘The Elder Aunt’, 1959), Sanibar (‘Saturday’, 1959), Ram Shyam Jadu (‘Tom Dick Harry’, 1961), Ballabpurer Rupkatha (‘The Fairy Tale of Ballabhpur’, 1963) and Kabikahini (‘The Tale of a Poet’, 1964). These light-hearted drawing-room comedies were entertaining and captured the imagination of Bengali Mainstream Proscenium audience. But Sircar’s real claim to fame was Ebong Indrajit (Evam Indrajit in Girish Karnard’s English translation) in 1963. The play earned him a problematic ‘absurdist’ tag, catapulting him to the league of serious dramatists but also leading to accusations of European imitation and a pessimistic worldview.
Badal Sircar worked as a civil engineer in India for more than a decade and went to England in 1957 for two years of study and work. He visited France in 1963, at the peak of the avant-garde theatre movements. His 1969 visit to Poland exposed him to the work of the great Polish theatre director, Jerzy Grotowski whose notion of the ‘poor theatre’ was to contribute largely to Sircar’s own innovation of the ‘third theatre’ in times to come. In 1972, during a trip to New York, he met Richard Schechner and Julian Beck and their theatrical practice came to shape Sircar’s ideas regarding performance. His proscenium playwrighting continued, mostly, while he was away from India and the results were Baki Itihash (That Other History, 1965), Tringsha Satabdi (‘The Third Millenium’, 1966) and Pagla Ghora (‘The Crazy Horse’, 1967). Though written as proscenium plays, in their topographical fluidity and resistance to unilateral stage space, these works underline an effort to break out of the proscenium, anticipating the open-air performances of the ‘third theatre.’
It was this hybrid and transnational influence of Grotowski, Artaud, Schechner, Beck and open theatre forms like ‘Taganka Theatre’ and the ‘Theatre-in-the-round’ that constituted Badal Sircar’s break with the proscenium form. The 1972-73 performance of Spartakus in an empty room and outdoors at a downtown Calcutta Park started the process and plays like Michhil (Procession, 1974), Sukhapathya Bharater Itihas (Indian History Made Easy, 1976), Basi Khabar (Stale News, 1979) and Khat Mat Kring (1983) established the practice of what Sircar came to call ‘third theatre.’ He founded his own performance-group ‘Satabdi’ in 1967 and the practice of ‘Anganmancha’ (Arena Theatre) was initiated. Sircar went on to write a host of other plays for the ‘third theatre’, e.g. politically charged fantasy plays like Rupkathar Kelenkari (Scandal in Firyland, 1975), Hattamalar Opare (Beyond the Land of Hattamala, 1977) and Bagalacharitmanas (Life of Bagala, 1998). Bhoma was performed for the first time at the Rangabelia village in Sundarban on the 21st of March, 1976 with the local people, taking active part in this collaborative and politically mobilizing performance. The play deals with the tragic death of a betrayed forest worker who dies of starvation in Sundarban.
It is impossible to map Badal Sircar’s diverse theatrical career in entirety within the limited space here. My purpose will thus be to discuss some of the major plays from a thematic perspective, informed by notions of cultural politics and socio-historic issues. I would chart the trajectory of transformation from proscenium to non-proscenium mode in assessing his performance and its underlying transnational cosmopolitanism. I would argue that a dissident notion of adaptation as appropriation characterizes Badal Sircar’s theatre both in thematics and in performance. From adapting classic European plays like Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle as Gandi (‘Circle’, 1978) and falling back upon Edward Bond for the play Nadite (‘In the River’) to following a tradition of performance that has roots in the West, the theatrical practice of Badal Sircar can be seen as a subversive appropriation of the Western models of text and performance where he is successful in doing two things at the least – to foreground a critique of the colonial cultural paradigms of the West from within the West itself and to indigenize those Western models. On both textual and performative levels, Sircar’s plays draw out a critique of Western colonial modernity from within its own contestational fabric. His critique is not based on a rejection of the West in terms of its theatrical and literary traditions but on an appropriative and subversive reworking of those traditions where they acquire a native value. This cultural dialogue opens his practice to an immanent critique of the West’s cultural capital where Stanislavskian realism as a bourgeois form of representation gets undercut by a dissident tradition of performance from within the diverse repertoire of the West, say for example Grotowski’s ‘poor theatre’ or Artaud’s ‘theatre of cruelty.’ Sircar’s adaptation of Woza Albert, a play on apartheid in South Africa as Sada Kalo (‘Black and White’), performed successfully in Tamil Nadu, underlines the way he produces a transnational dialogue of diverse cultures which meet each other in acknowledgment of a ‘glocal’ socio-political solidarity. Sircar’s adaptation helps us see the connection implicit between apartheid in South Africa and caste discrimination in India.
In conceptualizing ‘third theatre’, Sircar Indianizes a borrowed Western practice and exploits the non-elite, mass-oriented nature of the form to make a political statement. In the article, ‘Third Theatre-er Bangali Darshak’ (‘The Bengali Audience of the Third Theatre’), Sircar connects the parallel presence and the resultant unbridgability of the different theatrical modes (urban theatre and rural folk theatre) in India to its persisting imperial cultural model (Sircar, 1996, 157). ‘Third theatre’ as a potential bridge thus has an anti-imperial agenda. In the same article, he deconstructs the model where the taken-for-granted audience of Bengali theatre is restricted to the urban upper-middle class, with colonial English education. It is important to note here that he does not write in the colonizer’s language, as in the Indian English school of writing but chooses his mother-tongue, Bangla, as his language of expression. This decision is a further step in the radical nativizing principle that his theatrical practice foregrounds. One realizes the multicultural nature of this appropriation when Sircar uses Manipuri and Naga dances in the Manipuri production of Spartakus, a play set in remote Rome. When a journalist asks for an explanation, he drives the point home: “I used them because I happen to be in Manipur” (Sircar, 2010, 115). The local thus blends with the global.
Badal Sircar’s theatre is a conflation of Western avant-garde with influences of Brecht, Artaud, Grotowski, Schechner and indigenous models of Bengali Left-wing political theatre as well as the rural ‘yatra’ or folk theatre. We could remember his use of the yatra-form of ‘kabigan’ as a melodic debate of poets in Lakshmichharar Panchali. Subhendu Sarkar in his aforementioned piece locates Sircar’s theatre against the evolving backdrop of street plays, political poster plays and the era of the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), founded in 1943. In my view, Sircar’s project, is one of politicizing Western avant-garde and grafting its formal innovations on to a socio-politically specific, if not, topical content. He uses the minimalist style of avant-garde performances to approach a form of theatrical journalism, high on polemics and topical allusions. Sircar observes: “[…] this new theatre was not a matter of form to us, but that of a philosophy, and therefore we always start from the content, from what we have to say, and not from how we can say it” (Sircar, 1992, 40). It is only by upturning the formalism of Western theatrical avant-garde that Badal Sircar’s politically appropriative theatre practice finds its way. Thus we hear him say:
We…adopted the concept of Poor Theatre in the literal sense — that is inexpensive theatre. Our group is poor, so are our countrymen, but we wanted to utilize poverty to turn it into an advantage instead of a restriction (Sircar, 1978, 26).
Sircar here gives a politico-economic inflection to the metaphysical and quasi-spiritual dimensions of Grotowskian theatre. It is testimony to the committed and subversive character of Sircar’s adaptations. Instead of approaching the West as a monolith, he taps into its peripheries to find opposing voices. To agree with Subhendu Sarkar’s comment, “No doubt, Grotowski and others inspired him in his formal innovations but Sircar never accepted their philosophy in toto” (Sarkar, 2010, xxvi). He may take the cue from their aesthetic structures but as we have seen, he takes them at face value and reshapes them from a geopolitical specificity of his ‘naïve’ political content. Not only does he end up concretely politicizing some of the more abstract techniques and metaphysical and ontological concerns of Western avant-garde but he also connects them with Indian narrative and dramatic forms. He merges Indian classical dance forms with Grotowskian minimalism in theatre and mingles Indian epic forms of narrative or oral narrations of ‘kathakata’ with Artaud’s visceral theatre of sensations.
As Sircar says in ‘The Bengali Audience of the Third Theatre’, the three major features of ‘Third Theatre’ are ‘flexibility’, ‘portability’ and ‘inexpensiveness’ (Sircar, 1996, 158). Sircar defines ‘third theatre’ as a ‘theatre of synthesis’, examining “both the theatre forms (the city theatre and the traditional village theatre) to find the exact points of strength and weakness” (Sircar, qtd in Lal, 495). He considers the shift from ‘story’ and ‘characters’ to ‘theme’ and ‘types.’ His theatre establishes direct communion with audiences, instead of the indirection of inter-character dialogue. It gives more emphasis on ‘physical acting’ than ‘language’ and liberates theatre from the bondage of stage, auditorium, lighting, sets, props and so on. Not only in the non-proscenium plays like Hattamalar Opare, but also in some of the proscenium plays like Sanibar, Sircar uses the human chain to substitute props as human beings athletically cast themselves sometimes in the shape of a pipe, a wall or even a hole in the wall. Whether it is Basi Khabar or Shinri (‘Stairs’, 1984), most of the characters are either called by their generic professional names or simply designated with numbers. In Michhil, it is the layout of the seating arrangement of the audience in a zigzag curve that defines the playing area in which the actors conduct the procession. The spatial arrangement itself is testimony to the importance of audience as an integral element of ‘third theatre’ performance.
This reminds us of Rabindranath Tagore’s essay ‘Rangamancha’ (1903) in which Tagore rejects the Western model of elaborate and extensive scenography and invokes the native tradition of Bharat’s Natyashastra. He prefers leaving things entirely to the spectatorial imagination and asserts that the ‘chityapat’ (mental scene) is more important than the ‘chitrapat’ (the actual scenography with symbolic gloss) (Tagore, 1994, 164). Though Tagore’s stance vis-à-vis Western theatrical model seems to be one of rejection, while Sircar’s is that of cultural incorporation for subversive interpenetration, I would read Tagore’s argument as a precursor to Sircar’s radical dispensation with all the luxurious appendages of bourgeois theatre. Rejection of money-power is a philosophy with Sircar’s non-contributory, free theatre. Rabindranath, as if in anticipation of Sircar, sees the removal of Western scenography as a way of economizing theatre. Tagore evokes India’s condition of poverty and series of famines and considers a lavish Westernized mise-en scene to be a wastage of money.
Drawing on Gilles Deleuze’s response to the theatre of Carmelo Bene (‘One Manifesto Less’ in Superpositions) and Alain Badiou’s idea about the writing of the generic in Samuel Beckett (‘Beckett and the Writing of the Generic’ in Conditions), we can say that Badal Sircar’s ‘third theatre’ is a minor and generic theatre where the theatrical process of amputation dispenses with all the inessential particulars to arrive at a courageous formulation of clarity, impeccability and exactitude. To quote Badiou on Beckett:
It is necessary to subtract more and more—everything that figures as circumstantial ornament, all peripheral distraction, in order to exhibit or to detach those rare functions to which writing can and should restrict itself, if its destiny is to say generic humanity’ (Badiou, 2003, 03).
Badal Sircar’s theatre engages politically with what Badiou calls the labour of subtraction which produces a generic view of humanity crystallized to its bare essentials. If this impoverishment is primarily existential and only secondarily political, for Sircar, it defines the primary political motivation and mechanism of his theatre. Sircar’s theatre can be seen in terms of Deleuzean minority as it ‘minorizes’ the theatre of illusory representation by undercutting it with non-proscenium form in which anti-realism joins hands with a radical ‘presentation’ and not ‘representation’ of human body, speech and movement, i.e. the minor but ‘generic’ essentialities of theatre. Badiou’s idea of ‘generic’ art form is useful in explaining Sircar’s theatrical practice because with the movement from proscenium to third form, the inessential details conveyed through nitty-gritties of scenography and stage props give way to a subtractive view of the universal. The break with the particular assumes a politics of asceticism and renders the universal as a singularity, replete with the political labour of subtraction. What Sircar terms “directness in communication” (Sircar, qtd in Lal, 495-96) opposes the bourgeois theatre of realistic representation which ends up being party to what Althusser would call the Ideological State Apparatuses, colluding with state-power in hegemonic terms. If Badal Sircar’s theatre is ‘generic’ in its emphasis on the subtractive register of political concreteness and social specificity, it is ‘minor’ in subverting its source material, just like Carmelo Bene’s performance that cuts away from Shakespeare’s Richard III. In my view, Deleuzean minority that breaks with the power of majoritarianism by giving a minor use to a major language or text or a tradition of performance is analogous to Sircar’s treatment of his Western intertexts and performance traditions in mapping out a theatrical aesthetic of appropriative adaptation.
Although his is a theatre of Brechtian alienation effect that goes against theatrical illusionism, Sircar is weary of Brecht’s use of technology (e.g. using film projections on stage). However, Sircar’s non-proscenium plays lay bare, the inner mechanism of theatre even more radically than Brecht. There is no stage, one actor plays multiple roles and the incorporation of audience ruptures what Richard Schechner in ‘Drama, Script, Theatre and Performance’ calls the ‘seam’ that binds theatre and performance. Sircar does not write his plays in act-scene division but rather as a collage of random episodic scenes. This is another similarity between his and the Brechtian Epic Theatre form. The Sircar-actor is miles away from Stanislavskian realistic actor. He is a combination of the corporeal acting of Antonin Artaud’s ‘theatre of cruelty’ and Grotowski’s ‘holy performer’, but without the spiritual charge of Grotowskian ‘poor theatre.’ In his pamphlet on the ‘third theatre’, Sircar marks an Artaudian insistence on corporeality. He situates the postural writing of the body as a new theatrical language that makes a direct impact on the senses of spectators. Artaud’s point that “it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds” (Artaud, 1958, 99) finds an echo in Sircar’s declaration that “the basic tool of trade of the art of theatre is the human body” (Sircar, 1982, 17). This may well have its share of Brechtianism in what Brecht had called ‘gestic acting’ (gesture as a way of gisting the entire performance and encapsulating its message in the single gist-like gesture) in ‘A Short Organum for Theatre’ (1949). While Western postmodernist and poststructuralist theatre practices often privilege verbal action over its corporeal counterpart to drive home the linguistic constitution of human subjectivity, Sircar makes the verbal secondary to corporeal acting on stage.
Sircar’s theatre workshops (held within West Bengal and outside, in Manipur, Gujrat, Goa, Haryana, Mizoram, Nagaland and in the sub-continent, including Bangladesh and Pakistan) constitute another feather in his cap. He acknowledges that he learnt it from Richard Schechner. Theatre workshop is an interactive process where there is learning on both ends: director and participants. Most of these workshops were conducted through games. In an interview with Subhendu Sarkar, Badal Sircar sees his workshop-method in diametrical opposition to Drama schools where the basic modality is always that of specific realistic detailing. Sircar states:
[…] our attempt is to lay stress on the state of being. We try to remove the restrictions one by one. It’s like peeling an onion. Our method is that of subtraction. That is why we favour acting by the “state of being”, not acting by enactment’ (Sircar, 2010, 114).
This subtractive method highlights the affinity of Sircar’s position with what we have called a ‘generic theatre’ following Badiou. Participants shed all social inhibitions by playing games like ‘mirroring’, ‘slow motion’ and ‘trust game.’ As Sircar himself confirms, workshop method is a communitarian step toward developing a collaborative compositional method. It leads to writing plays like Stale News. It is a method built on democratic multiplicity. It is different from his proscenium writing where a single playwright is at work in his solitary room. Sircar himself diagnoses an element of narcissism in his proscenium writing, wherein he only writes the ‘production notes’ and “the actors followed the notes without ever thinking about anything” (Sircar, 2010, 122). If proscenium is about the dramatist’s individualistic authorial prowess, third theatre allows Sircar to open up theatre as collective and democratic process.
Ebong Indrajit is generally labelled the first absurdist play in Bengali language, and perhaps the first Indian absurdist play. But a closer look reveals a complex use of the existentialist and absurdist discourse in Sircar’s play. The play is self-reflexive and stands at a critical distance when it comes to its acknowledgment of Western philosophical (Albert Camus’s) and theatrical discourse of absurdism (Beckett and others). It deploys absurdism by citing it as a discursive import from the West. The play politicizes its content in an engaged manner by assimilating it into contemporary Indian situation. Indrajit is separated from the social stereotypes (Amal, Bimal and Kamal) by an ‘and’ that both distinguishes and alienates him in a paradoxical way. Indrajit is not just an absurdist character. He is also an angry young man. There are repeated references to his anger in the early exchanges with Manasi. The whole play is a meta-theatrical act of playwriting by the ‘author’-figure, trapped in writer’s block due to drudgery and the monotonous everyday routine of bourgeois life. His random numerical incantations which he calls ‘poetry’ indicate his manic-repetitive enclosure within the drab quotidian. The play thus contextualizes the absurdist discourse of metaphysical meaninglessness and grounds it in financial crisis and unemployment in post-Independence India. Towards the end of the final act, Indrajit refers to the Sisyphean impossible task of pushing the rock endlessly to the mountaintop. This Camusesque absurdist iconography in Sircar’s appropriation becomes a heroic appreciation of labour that is not determined by the lure of ambition and success. This is how the absurdist de-centring of essence and foregrounding of existence is given a radical political edge here. It is not that this left political dimension was absent in Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), but there is no doubt that Badal Sircar resignifies it within the political and cultural specificity of an Indian absurdism. As Subhendu Sarkar observes, the play ends with a positive assertion about a goalless journey which is important for the sake of it (Sarkar, 2010, xv). The realistic potential of labour on the road without the illusion of a destination animates this endless quest for significance. It has to go on, despite the certainty of failure, as with Sisyphus. Spatial fluidity, typified characters, rotational routines, obsessively repetitive dialogues, the same actor playing many characters and the active audience participation – there are many aspects in Ebong Indrajit to suggest that it is a play, waiting for non-proscenium form.
Sanibar is an early proscenium play about anxieties of the youth of the 1950s and 60s in Bengal in the wake of financial crunch. It is about the dictatorial nature of office jobs, commoditization of the human at the hands of oppressive job sectors and repressed aspirations of love, sexuality and domesticity that haunt the protagonist Dibyendu in the form of an intermittent day dream. From a theatrical perspective, fluidity of space in the play, triggered by the dreams, craves once again for an opening on to non-proscenium space. Changing light and use of ‘tabla’ that mark a switch from Dibyendu’s house to his office, the imaginary pistol with which he kills his boss in the dream and the way the dead boss gets up from the chair the very next moment to act as the judge in the following scene, shifting to the courtroom – these apparently unreal moments interrupt the realism of proscenium theatre.
Pralap (‘Delirium’, 1966), inspired by James Saunders’s play Next Time I’ll Sing to You, also reminds one of Peter Handke’s play Offending the Audience. The play reworks an absurdist interrogation in the form of Pirandellian meta-theatre. Phatik, Jyoti and Chhaya along with the playwright-figure, Torun, speculate about the philosophical significance of human existence by examining the meaning of life for a dead everyman figure (‘Manab’, meaning ‘man’ in Bangla). The structure of this investigation is couched in the performative vocabulary of cricket. The play is an implicit parody of the absurdist position about the meaninglessness of existence as the insignificance of Manab’s life is registered as a political effect of the way his life is turned into a discourse by Phatik, Jyoti and Torun. Sircar thus locates insignificance in discursive effect and not in real world. As the scripters of his life fail to find great ‘events’ in his rather ordinary life, the spectre of Manab makes a humanitarian plea and requests them to consider the tiny signifying acts of his life – his emotions and ideals as well as his untold personal history of salvation and significance. By referring to Sartre and Schopenhauer by name, the play not only signposts but also referentially restricts the existentialist discourse to a model of imported textuality. Though the play ends with Manab’s death and a re-articulation of the contingency of the human condition, the dissenting voice of Manab lingers as a significant remnant.
Sircar turns to an idea of supplementary history that produces telling remnants in Baki Itihash, written while he was in Nigeria in 1965. One of his proscenium masterpieces, this three-act play has the structure of a ‘well made play’ and concentrates on Shitanath’s suicide and its imaginary reconstruction by the husband and wife, Sharadindu and Basanti. The first two acts demonstrate Basanti and Sharadindu’s speculative story-building in an attempt to find out reasons behind the suicide. Their stories evoke a complex psycho-social pattern where binaries of poverty and high-education are connected with social morality and sexual repression. The theme of pedophilia in Shitanath’s act leads us to a complex trans-medial (from theatre to novel) intertextual web, consisting of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita and D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In the fantastic finale, Shitanath’s spectre visits Sharadindu in a horrific scene of mutual identification where the microhistory of an individual’s suicide is seen against the larger backdrop of a global history of the oppressed. This historical dialectic is often left unwritten and unrepresented. Though the play ends with the news of Sharadindu’s material success, the other history of timeless inequality and exploitation keeps haunting him like a nightmare. What these plays underline is a post-colonial contestation of mainstream history through counter-factual alternatives. This revisionary notion of supplementary history is at the core of Sircar’s politicized, if not parodic, use of absurdism. As images conjured by the spectral Shitanath in Baki Itihash suggest, from Roman slavery to the Joan of Arc, from Hitler’s concentration camp to the atom bomb in Hiroshima – it is “a history of insignificance running century after century. It is a history of the innumerable insignificant human beings, of innumerable insignificant insects [translation mine]” (Sircar, 2004, 62).
Pore Kono Ekdin (Some Day in Future, 1966) is another play that deals with a deconstruction of linear history. This time it is the science-fiction genre, put to task. The play uses the trope of time-machine and tells the story of creatures, coming from a distant human future to coexist with human beings of present who are nothing but a historical past to them. The future human beings return to the past to witness a catastrophe which can only be witnessed and not altered. Serin, the poet of future humanity, tells Shankar, the man of the present, about what would happen in Hiroshima nineteen years from this catastrophe (the fall of a destructive comet on earth). Shankar asks him the helpless but crucial question whether the disaster can be prevented. Serin’s reply is heart-rending in its irony: he says all that has already happened and that too a long time ago. The entire play is Shankar’s desperate effort to chronicle this history of a disastrous future as a note of warning. It gives the play a complex ethical charge about human responsibility behind environmental horrors and imperial history of violence.
With the switch to ‘third theatre’, much like later plays of the British playwright Harold Pinter, Badal Sircar’s late plays become more explicitly political in both tone and subject. There is political clarity in this propagandist and controversialist theatre, that reminds us of Dario Fo’s comedic provocations. Bhul Rasta (‘The Wrong Road’, 1988) is a ‘third theatre’ play, exploiting the native storytelling mode of ‘pandavani’, rendered in a mythico-musical narration in a mixture of Hindi and Bangla language with one or two English words, thrown in between. The play foregrounds a carnivalesque form of performance. Subject wise, it offers a subtle critique of the divine right of kings and depicts a transformative encounter between the prince, in pursuit of some magical fruit to cure his mother and a tribal woodcutter. The wrong road in the jungle takes him to the woodcutter’s alternative world where the only king is the ‘asmaan’ (the sky). At the end, the prince becomes a fellow woodcutter, flattening out the boundaries between right and wrong roads.
Hattamalar Opare and Roopkathar Kelenkari are Sircar’s theatrical adaptations of vernacular literary texts. The former is a take-off from Hattamalar Deshe, a novel by Premendra Mitra, completed by Leela Majumdar after Mitra’s death, while the latter is inspired by a Premendra Mitra short story. Both plays portray a fairyland, far away from the world of high-capitalism. They show a contamination in this capitalist world that leads to a resolution in the form of distillation. The purgatorial process not only stops the contamination but it also reforms the contaminators: the two thieves, Kenaram and Becharam in Hattamalar Opare. After drowning in the river, they land up in Sircar’s ideal commune where there is neither money nor market. People work hard and share the fruits of their labour in a state where everything is free. They are aware of this counter-mythical land of ‘Hattamala’ where money rules. The play thus skews the worlds of fantasy and reality by making the capitalist world stand out as an absurdly distant world of oddity while action takes place in the real utopia without money. While at the end of Hattamalar Opare, the two thieves stand reformed at the threshold of a new life of honest labour, Roopkathar Kelenkari shows a fraudulent heroic cult in Prince Thunderbolt’s false ogre-killing projects. The play makes use of newspaper-hawking ritual as a performance routine, much like Basi Khabar and exhibits Sircar’s collaging technique. It exposes media politics of concocting truth. In a cynical ending, the media baron is exiled and he happily goes away to the fruitful soil of ‘Bengal’ and we see the newspaper boy, mourning poor sales of the new government newspaper.
Basi Khbar (‘Stale News’, 1978) is a play chiefly intended to present the entire political history of India against the global backdrop of changing political equations and like many of Sircar’s ‘third theatre’ plays, it engages with historical dissemination by referencing as it attempts to create awareness among the rural audience of Bengal and India. Khat Mat Kring (1983) is a hybridization of histories where Mahabharata meets Auschwitz. Couched in a native narrative form, i.e. the ‘panchali’, Sircar offers a historical collage in which he connects images of injustice across nations and cultures in a provocative way with multiple timeframes operating together. Characters of Mahabharata come alive along with those of a post-War, post-independence India and what we glimpse is a fundamentally shared image of humanity. This is what Badiou calls ‘generic humanity.’
Sukhapathya Bharater Itihas opens up the pedagogic field of classroom and depicts an endless class of teaching Indian history, right from pre-colonial past through the colonial period, the independence movement and the post-colonial present. The classroom and the entire system of education along with its construction of Indian history are seen as a shifty locus of complicity and protest – colonial mimicry turning into anti-colonial resistance. The Ideological State Apparatus of the colonial classroom is thus intermittently undercut by a contestational spirit of opposing voices. Contrasting roles of Britannia as the colonial and ‘Ma’ as a native mother are interesting. Sircar’s play critiques rigid distinctions of pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial by locating an empire before the arrival of the British from the Sak to the Mogul. It also signals the continuation of a capitalist colony in the phonetic affinities between the signifiers, ‘Ramrajya’ (the mythical projection of post-Independence India as the restoration of an ideal indigenous rule) and ‘Samrajya’ (empire).
Bagalacharitmanas (the title echoes the native narrative storehouse of Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas) is the story of an orphan child Bagalacharan Batabyal’s transformation into a smart and confident working person. The signifier of anger (‘Bastard’) plays an instrumental role in this changeover. It is through the ventilation of a strong anger at a large-scale banter from all quarters of society that Bagala finds his real identity. The fantasy element comes in with characters of an old man and his pet fairy whom he hands over to Bagala to assist him. As the play goes on, this master-slave relation turns upside down into friendship, if not love. Bagala slowly gains the strength not to require the aid of supernaturalism or magic. He becomes self-dependent and starts to focus on his work. This is how the play mediates through the trope of fantasy only to bypass it and arrive at a progressive social logic of self-reliance. At the end, it is Bagala who teaches Nila, the fairy, how to do domestic chores. The fairy is thus dissociated from the realm of fantasy and adapted into the real world.
To conclude, I have attempted to show here how Badal Sircar’s theatre is political not just in its thematic concerns but also in its appropriative mode of adaptation as performance. We have shed some light on his handling of both native and European narrative forms. Sircar’s theatre is a place of distillation and simplicity, meant for one and all. It uses intercultural dialogue in a project of adaptation as subversive appropriation. A self-reflexive pastiche of various literary and theatrical models informs Sircar’s theatrical practice. Sircar finds his contesting voices vis-à-vis western colonial canon from within the Western fabric itself and makes these models interact with indigenous narrative and dramatic traditions. His theatre uses dialogic intertextual and intercultural strategies to combine the global and the local. This way, he indigenizes the Western anchor-points in his work. In this indigenizing process, genericity and subtraction in relation to western canonicity become important tools. The old man with tearful eyes who embraces the performers of Michhil at Kapastikuri village in Burdwan district underlines the affect which is produced as a result of this sensitive dialogue. It is what the Bengali poet Shankhya Ghosh would call the deep dense touch of the blind, embedded in the experience of the human chain of sightless performers at the end of a performance by Blind Opera.
Artaud, Antonin. Theatre and its Double. Trans. Mary Caroline Richards. New York: Grove Press, 1958.
Badiou, Alain. On Beckett. Trans. Alberto Toscano and Nina Power. Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2003.
Lal, Ananda (ed.). The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 2004. 495-96.
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Sircar, Badal. Two Plays: Indian History Made Easy and Life of Bagala. Trans. Subhendu Sarkar. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Sircar, Badal. Tritiyo Dharar Natak: Lakshmichharar Panchali, Hattamalar Opare O Udyogparba [Third Theatre Plays: Lakshmichharar Panchali, Beyond the Lands of Hattamala and Udyogparba]. Kolkata: Anjali Basu, 1998.
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Arka Chattopadhyay is assistant professor of literary studies in the department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Gandhinagar, India. He is a B.A., M.A., MPhil in English Literature, from Presidency College and Jadavpur University, India and PHD from Western Sydney University. Arka is the chief editor of the online literary journal Sanglap. His first monograph, Beckett, Lacan and the Mathematical Writing of the Real is slated to come out in December 2018 from Bloomsbury, U.S. He is commissioned to produce a translation of Arindam Chakrabarti’s book, Mananer Madhu, in the series, Elsewhere Texts, edited by Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak and others for Seagull. He has co-translated Saubhik De Sarkar’s book of poems, The Evening Gnome.
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