Chetana, the Kolkata based theatre group, was first formed in 1972 by Arun Mukhopdhyay in the heyday of group theatre. The group’s history has to be written in the larger context of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (henceforth IPTA) and the Group Theatre Movement of India. On the other hand, keeping in mind that the initial manifesto of the group was singularly designed by Arun Mukhopadhyay, who also went on to write and direct the most important productions of the group for over two decades after it started (until Suman Mukhopadhay grew as a director to share this space), tracing Arun Mukhopadhyay’s growth as a playwright and director is of central importance to gain an understanding of Chetana’s repertoire. In this article, I attempt to do both, following on to the more recent history of Chetana.
Marxist Cultural Movement in India in the 19th Century
The early 1900s had witnessed a rise of nationalist fervour in India. There was a widespread disregard for imperialism and discontent about the condition of human life around. International events including the First World War contributed to this. The October Revolution in Russia led to the creation of Soviet Union, a socialist state, in 1917. This victory of Socialism inspired the then colonies struggling for independence. The revolution was followed closely by Indian newspapers. Hereby, for a section of patriots, attention of the Indian freedom struggle was focussed on the need of economic independence along with political independence (Nirula 2005:1-9, 99). The Communist Party of India, established in 1920, aimed at fighting for independence as well as for a future of socialism. The need for literature and performances conscious of the immediate lived realities was felt by many, which lead to the establishment of the All-India Progressive Writer’s Association (henceforth AIPWA) of India in 1936, followed by the IPTA in 1943.
The manifesto of the AIPWA, drafted by writers including Mulk Raj Anand, Sajjad Zaheer and Jyotirmaya Ghosh, adopted by the organisation in 1936, said:
Radical changes are taking place in the Indian society. The spirit of reaction, however, though moribund and doomed to ultimate decay, is still operative and is making desperate efforts to prolong itself … It is the duty of Indian writers to give expression to the changes taking place in Indian life and to assist spirit of progress in the country… (N)ew literature in India must deal with… the problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness and political subjection. (Pradhan 1960:20-21)
The resolution drafted in the first meeting of the IPTA echoed this, noting that 'the urgency of organising a people’s theatre movement throughout the whole of India as the means of revitalizing the stage and the traditional arts and making them at once the expression and organiser of our people’s struggle for freedom, cultural progress and economic justice (Pradhan 1960:130).' The IPTA functioned zealously till the 1960s, producing plays like Nabanna, Maa Bhumi, Tumne Mujhe Communist Banaya, choir productions and dance dramas. After the eventual disintegration of the IPTA, individual theatre groups went on to do socially and politically driven work, bringing forth the ‘group theatre movement.’
A Brief Background of Arun Mukhopadhyay
Arun Mukhopadhyay spent his childhood in Howrah. He was an ardent cinephile and used to run away from school to watch films. Sometimes, he used to script whatever he could remember from these films and enact them in the family natmandir (a hall-like structure), always taking up the main role. He fondly remembers playing the character of Sachimata, in his version of the film Sachimata Go. These adventures were fraught with minor accidents—in the last case, his elder sister, undermining the seriousness of the on-going play, took off his wig in jest (Mukhopadhyay 2014:96)!
This natmandir played a defining role in his later career. There were regular kirtanasars (kirtan is a genre of religious songs from Bengal and asar refers to gatherings, especially for a performance) in this natmandir where he used to participate. He once replaced the lead singer in one of the asars, did very well, and eventually became a regular substitute. He traces back the development of his music sense to this practice. Later, he had gone back to the natmandir to perform his plays, including Kabir.
He dropped out of Presidency College after studying there for a year (1952-53) and joined Shibpur Dinabandhu College to study B.Com. Here, he started directing plays with enthusiastic students. His first group, Tarun Shilpi Sangshad (which was later called Ritwik Sampraday) was created around 1955-56. By that time, he had already decided that he would primarily be a director. This was partly because of his voice (which was permanently affected due to his continued kirtan performances in the natmandir, where he had to reach out to a considerable audience without a microphone). In this group, he directed and acted in plays including Dipantwar, Sangsar Simanta, Bibhab and Raktakarabi. It was here that he staged one of the first adaptations of Brecht in Bengali, Bidhi o Byatikrom (adapted from Exception and the Rule by Soumitra Chatterjee) in 1962. The play was not well accepted by the audience, but it was the beginning of a long tradition of Brechtian adaptations in Bengali. Ritwik Sampraday disintegrated as Mukhopadhyay became creatively involved in other organisations.
In 1957, he joined the Government Service and soon started directing plays for the Office Recreation Club and also for the Cultural Wing of the State Coordination Committee. He had access to a huge rehearsal space and a good number of actors, all office-goers, who attended rehearsals regularly and punctually. He staged Ma (adapted from Maxim Gorki’s Mother) and Spartacus (adapted from Howard Fast’s novel by the same name) with some sixty or seventy cast members in each.
In 1966, he was approached by the Shibpur branch of IPTA to write a play. He adapted Haraner Natjamai—from Manik Mandyopadhyay’s short story of the same name—and directed as well as acted in it. From 1966-72 he wrote and directed, and often acted in several plays for the IPTA, including Buno Ramnath, Khetu Bagdi O Gopal Kahar (both from Mani Mukhopadhyay’s short stories) and Concrete (adapted from Manik Bandopadhyay’s short story). IPTA’s requirement contributed to his writing practice. The Coordination Committee chiefs too, encouraged him to write new plays for each annual programme, a challenge that he lived up to. During this time, he also made several poster plays.
When the IPTA and the Coordination Committee’s activities narrowed down with the political turmoil in the early 1970s, Mukhopadhyay grew restless. He wanted to devote his time to something fruitful. Chetana was created by several like-minded people—a lot of whom were associated to the Coordination Committee—on November 22, 1972.
Chetana: The Beginning
The initial manifesto of Chetana, and several other documents published by the group later, mentions the term ‘thik (right) theatre.’ 'It was not just from the urge to act; Chetana was born from the urge to do theatre. And not just any theatre—doing the ‘right’ theatre was the promise made by Chetana at the moment of its initiation (Chetana Natyotsab 1976, translation mine).' This idea of the ‘right’ theatre, Mukhopadhyay says, has not swayed much with time. It is the theatre that takes the side of the oppressed. It is important to note here that while Mukhopadhyay was eager to contribute to the IPTA or the Coordination Committee to build political consciousness, he consistently maintained that he would not stand party instructions that affect creativity (Mukhopadhyay 2014:117).
Marich Sangbad had already been performed as a production of the Coordination Committee in a shorter form—it was a reaction to the on-going Vietnam War. The central theme of the play is the coercion of common people by the powerful in order to maintain the status-quo. An Ustad who claims that he would present a brilliant show to the audience calls in three groups of characters from different times and spaces: Marich-Kalnemi-Raban from Ramayana, Ishwar-Nayeb-Jamidar from contemporary rural Bengal (time not specified) snf Gregory-Macky-Williams from USA (in the backdrop of the Vietnam War). In each trio, there is the oppressed who is unwilling to cooperate; the oppressor; and the mediator who tries to convince the oppressed to change their stand. Of the oppressed, while Marich and Gregory submit initially, Ishwar goes off-script and cannot be subdued. This act of resistance inspires Marich and Gregory and the Ustad slowly loses control of the game. In a later version of the script, Balmiki was called in to sort out the trouble. This enhanced version of Marich Sangbad (which, as of February, 2018, is still running with at least a few of the original cast members) was the first play that Chetana staged in January, 1973. It was an immediate hit—accepted by a huge range of audience in different ways. The play’s expenses were sparse and it could be performed in any space. The popularity of Marich Sangbad made Chetana a group of repute at its very inception and marked the entry of Arun Mukhopadhyay into Kolkata group theatre.
The success of Marich Sangbad gave the group some license to experiment and Mukhopadhyay decided to stage Bhalomanusher Pala from Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan in 1974, which he had translated way back in 1966. Bhalomanusher Pala turned out to be a flop. Mukhopadhyay now suspects that he was too bookishly Brechtian for the play’s good. At the same time, Bhalomanush, adapted (Indianised) by Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay from the same play and produced by Nandikar, gained popularity. But the latter production, Mukhopadhyay says, was more dramatic than instructed by Brecht. Especially, Keya Chakroborty’s brilliant acting in the double role—one male and one female—was glamorous and highly applauded while Brecht had wanted it to be a plainer affair (Mukhopadhyay 2014).
Spartacus (1974, previously produced by the Coordination Committee) and Ramjatra (1975, a sequel to Marich Sangbad) did not gain much popularity either. But the group functioned on the revenue they earned from continued shows of Marich Sangbad, which single-handedly fed the later three plays. When Mukhopadhyay began work on Jagannath, the group members were sceptical about it. Mukhopadhyay took a long time to adapt Jagannath from Lu Xun’s novella but once the script was ready, the group rehearsed for a little more than a month before the play was staged at The Academy of Fine Arts (1977). It was an instant hit and gave Chetana secure space for the experiments which followed. Jagannath and Marich Sangbad became the two legendary plays of Chetana, both of which are running even in 2018.
Chetana: An Established Group
Chetana continued staging translations/adaptations of Brecht: Ulki (1977, from The Chalk Cross), Samadhan (1980, from The Measures Taken) and Maa (1982, from The Mother). Openheimer (1977), a translation from Kipphardt’s play In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, that was produced in association with the Max Mueller Bhavan, ran only for a few shows to make way for the immensely successful Jagannath.
Mukhopadhyay adapted Roshan from Mohammad Israil’s then unfinished Hindi novel in 1985. The play was set just before Independence, in the industrial areas of Bihar, were Roshan is an underdog labourer. Both Jagannath and Roshan reflected in different ways how politicians and revolutionaries have failed to understand or work against the oppression of the poor people who formed a major section of Indian population. Unlike Jagannath, Roshan was not accepted by the audience.
Jyestha Putra, adapted from Alexander Vampilov, was a drawing room drama, a departure from Chetana’s initial oeuvre. Mukhopadhyay maintained that a play revolving around human relationships is not necessarily divorced from socio-political realities of the time (Mukhopadhyay 2014). Kabeer, adapted from Bhisham Sahani’s Kabeera Khara Bazaar Mein in 1989, was clearly relevant in the backdrop of the rising communal tensions, but even this was shelved after a few shows. It was revived after the attack on Babri Masjid in 1992, when the show was invited for staging by a few organisations.
In 1993, Suman Mukhopadhay invited Leonardo Shapiro to direct a translation of Beckett’s Endgame for Chetana. Shapiro’s process of facilitating an actor’s contribution inspired Arun Mukhopadhyay. In the 1980s, he had also worked with Fritz Bennewitz in Galileor Jeeban, produced by Calcutta Repertory Theatre. With these experiences, he moulded his process of working and grew more inclusive and collaborative as a director. He later thought that he had been unable to internalise the Western influence and has moved away from his audience in abandoning his connection to Indian folk that was instrumental in the making of Marich Sangbad.
However, the work process proved to be beneficial for Dukhi Mukhi Joddha, staged in 1985. Dukhi Mukhi Joddha was based on Dale Wasserman’s musical Man of La Mancha, which, in turn, is an adaptation of Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote. It was Mukhopadhyay’s response to the dissolution of the Soviet Union—signifying the possibility of dreaming on, even when continuing the struggle is hardly a feasible solution (Mukhopadhyay 2014). Dukhi Mukhi Joddha received mixed reviews, while some hailed it as a milestone production of Bengali theatre, many scoffed at it. But it remains one of Mukhopadhyay’s favourite productions.
The Suman Mukhopadhyay Phase
Suman Mukhopadhyay, Arun Mukhopadhyay’s son, got involved in Chetana’s experiments with theatre early in his life and also worked in other theatre groups. He started his career as an actor in the legendary plays Marich Sangbad, Jagannath and Madhab Malanchir Koinya (directed by Bibhash Chakroborty), which were performed throughout Bengal and elsewhere, introducing him to a wide range of audience. He also assisted Utpal Dutt in Choitali Raater Swapna, the latter’s adaptation from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1991, he went to pursue the La Mama Performing Arts Programme; an intensive Programme in Performing Arts and Theatre hosted by the Trinity College in New York, where he was acquainted with the work of Joseph Chaikin, Anne Boggart, Pina Bausch and their likes.
He began working with Coriolanus (1992) and Noteer Katha (1992), and rose to fame with Gantabya (1997), an adaptation of Rod Langley’s play Bethune. Teesta Paarer Brittanto (2000), adapted from Debesh Roy’s complex novel of the same name, was staged after year-long workshops with the whole team on traditional dance, mime, classical music, etc. It received rave reviews and won the West Bengal State Theatre Academy Award for best direction. At the same time, it irked the Left front government of the state who considered the play a critique of its policies (Ghosh 2008).
Another play in this phase that stands out in Chetana’s rich oeuvre is Mephisto (2002). Like Kabeer, Mephisto was staged at a very significant juncture, right after the Gujarat riots of 2002 which shook the nation. The play, set in pre-war Germany, follows the journey of Hendrik Hofgen, a ruthlessly ambitious actor who abandons his friends and forgets his communist background in order to rise to fame as the best actor in Nazi Germany. It was an adaptation based on both Arriane Mounchkine’s play text and Istvan Szabo’s film of the same name. The leading theatre artists of West Bengal collaborated on this play, taking a stand against the 'rehearsal . . . of initiating the ideal of Fascism in India (Theatre: Mephisto, n.d.).'
Arun Mukhopadhyay’s More Recent Plays
In the early years of 2000, Arun Mukhopadhyay was not directly associated with Chetana due to some internal trouble in the group. He was, at this time, working around West Bengal to conduct workshops for Natya Akademi, a process that facilitated healthy exchange across the theatre fraternity of West Bengal. In 2003, he returned with Nirnoy, a play that was rehearsed for twelve to fourteen months. Nirnoy, again, was a drawing room drama of immense potential, based on David Aburn’s play Proof.
Apni Kondike, based on Taking Sides, the essentially anti-Fascist play by Ronal Harwood, was produced for the Utpal Dutt Festival in 2005. Mukhopadhyay was also inspired by Istvan Szabo’s film of the same name.
Putul Nacher Itikotha in 2007 was adapted from Manik Bandyopadhyay’s novel—the play was noted for its episodic structure and the use of commentary, apart from the richness of performance and text. Both Putul Nacher Itkotha and Apni Kondike make it to Mukhopadhyay’s list of his five favourite plays.
The last notable play Mukhopadhay has directed for Chetana is Ela o Bimola (2012)—one of his few adaptations from Rabindranath Tagore. His interest in the two novels of Tagore, Char Adhyay and Ghare Baire (from which Ela o Bimala are adapted) stems from the fact that both novels explore how political aspirations can affect personal lives.
Chetana under Sujan Mukhopadhyay
Sujan Mukhopadhyay, also the son of Arun Mukhopadhyay, first directed for Chetana in 1995. He directed three short plays in quick succession between 1995 and 1997: Bhul Rasta, Bagh and Ulki. All the three were originally directed for the Jadavpur University Drama Club and were re-produced by Chetana since they were primarily well-received. After this, Sujan Mukhopadhyay pursued his career as an actor not only on stage but in films and television as well, and did not aspire to remain a director. However, in 2012, when there was a dearth of new plays and young people in the group, and Arun Mukhopadhyay was unwell, Sujan Mukhopadhyay felt that he had to take up the responsibility of the group. He directed Ghasiram Kotwal in 2016 and Magan Rajar Pala in 2017. Under his direction, Chetana is currently working on the production of Don, Take Bhalo Lage—a contemporised and edited version of Arun Mukhopadhyay’s Dukhi Mukhi Joddha where a young brigade would go up on stage, along with seasoned actors like Suman Mukhopadhyay (enacting Don) and Arun Mukhopadhyay.
Sujan Mukhopadhyay believes that the group can be kept alive and healthy only by the incorporation of the youth into the existing system. He has already organised workshops under the banner of Chetana for training and recruitment with the known theatre artists of Kolkata as faculty members along with Chetana’s strong in-house team. One can hope that these workshops would be instrumental in carrying forward Chetana’s tradition of carving conscious, humane and beautiful tales for the audience of Bengali theatre and beyond.
Chetana.Chetana Natyotsab 1976. Kolkata.‘Festival Brochure’.
Ghosh, Suktara. 2008. ‘A Different Angle.’ The Telegraph ‘Graphiti’, Kolkata, November 23. Online at https://www.telegraphindia.com/1081123/jsp/graphiti/stry_10143761.jsp (viewed on February 28, 2018).
Mukhopadhyay, A. 2014. “Arun Mukhopadhyayer Songe Anshuman Bhowmick”. Interview by Anshuman Bhowmick. Sayak Natyapatra Sakkhatkar Sonkhya,12(20).
Nirula. Indian and the Soviet Union, 1917 to 1947. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation. 2005.
Pradhan, Sudhi. Ed. 1960. Marxist Cultural Movement in India. Calcutta: National Book Agency Pvt. Ltd.
“Theatre: Mephisto”. Online at http://www.sumanmukhopadhyay.com/html/mephisto.asp. (viewed on February 27, 2018)