Suchetana Banerjee (Sahapedia): Samik Da, thank you for agreeing to talk to us about IPTA. I would start by asking, why was Indian People’s Theatre Association formed?
Samik Bandyopadhyay: It is a very interesting critical point, juncture at which the IPTA emerged along with the Progressive Writer’s Association. The two organisations came almost at the same time and under the same pressures. It was in 1940s, the Second World War was already on and there had been a major political shift in 1942-43 with Germany attacking the Soviet Union. And internationally the communist movement spread all over the world and taking a very leading role in the anti-colonial struggles in different parts of the world in the different continents. There was a shift of focus, a kind of consensus circulated that for the time being fascism is the greater danger and therefore we can keep the anti-colonial conflicts in a state of abeyance for some time and resist fascism. And that led to a kind of alienation or isolation of the communist movement or the left movement as a whole from the mainstream anti-colonial struggle in India.The communist left got isolated because the Congress was pressing for a different kind of politics at that point of time, from the feeling that since British power was cornered all over the world and also in India, why don’t we take advantage of that and try to claim from the British rulers some more privileges, some more advantages and facilities and take a small step towards independence eventually.
So with the communists taking a different kind of position, not taking part in the non-cooperation movement, there was this kind of crisis in the left. So separated or isolated from the political mainstream, the left chose to create a site for what I have started calling for the last four or five years, the cultural left as a parallel to the political left. So if the political left is not in a position to play its militant role in the mainstream, let the cultural left fill in the gap and bring in the international perspective of the anti-colonial movement. That the anti-colonial movement in a single country is not ‘a national venture’ but it means much more than that. And particularly at a point where the realisation was slowly dawning among the cultural left which was defining itself, which was positioning itself in the 1940s, that somehow the nationalist consensus that Gandhi had been driving at from 1917–1919 after his return to India. All the major issues of conflict, class, caste, gender, all of these had been driven under the carpet to achieve a ‘national consensus’. And in the process these were being marginalised with the assurance that once we have independence, these can be addressed, there will be time for that.
But history doesn’t work like that. You can’t wish away, you can’t marginalise, you can’t throw away issues which are so vital and so central. So the cultural left found a fertile ground for thought, for cultural activism through the Progressive Writer’s Association and the IPTA. That is how I think the IPTA comes into being. The thought, the ideas may not have been that clear as I am trying to put it now but obviously these ideas were germinal to the growth of the IPTA in the 1940s.
Sahapedia: IPTA claimed, IPTA’s motto was people’s theatre stars the people. So how successfully, do you think, IPTA productions were trying to represent the contemporary reality in theatre as it emerged out of the democratic struggles of people against a) anti-imperialism b) anti-fascism. So I would want you to talk about the IPTA productions, the major ones.
S.B.: Before we go into the productions proper, I think another perspective has to be brought into view. Now you have to remember that the colonial intervention in our cultural history had created a massive rupture in the cultural production and the cultural processes of the country in a very big way primarily because the colonial knowledge package that we were offered with colonialism was essentially a product of the 18th century enlightenment. So the natural continuity of a cultural, I would call it a cultural stream where music, dance and the more verbally centred theatre were part of one continuity, a seamless continuity which was ruptured and cracked up by the Enlightenment divisiveness and classification, categorisation which came in the wake of enlightenment rationalism and scientism. With that the natural, cultural flow of the country was also disrupted when the new urban intelligentsia, the product of the colonial knowledge system in practice and application, they break off these things and the audiences are immediately broken off. As a result, let’s face the fact that the so-called new theatre that emerged in the colonial period whether in its Parsi variation or in its Sangeet Natak variation or in the Calcutta variation of the commercial theatre. In all these variations, these theatres never found the larger public, the larger collectivité which had nurtured cultural production pre-colonial. So this loss of the audience, the Calcutta commercial theatre, for example, was never, never, never a popular theatre with a wide enough reach. If you go into the history of that theatre, it is a history of failures followed by failures followed by failures.
So what IPTA did, before it went into productions as such, it went into creating what I would call a cultural platform or rather platforms. And platforms that could circulate throughout the country, that could create variations. So the productions, the initial productions of the IPTA particularly Spirit of India or India immortal and the several regional, local variations that grew around those models of the Spirit of India and the India Immortal. What did these really offer as productions? These are the first productions. These are not plays per se. What did they offer? They offered a view, a landscape of Indian culture in its and with its regional variations giving the audience a perspective of the variety, the divergences, the different voices and the different bodies. I harp on the bodies rather than just the voices and I bring the two together because that was the IPTA project.
And even that idea beginning from the concept of the people’s theatre stars the people, that the Spirit of India or India Immortal performance, call it a production begins with सारे जहाँ से अच्छा (sare jahan se accha) put to a completely different tune by Pandit Ravi Shankar for the IPTA, very different from the lilting lyrical ghazal which was its earlier incarnation. So it gives you the feel of India, of a 'Hindustan hamara' and then showing the diversity of that Hindustan Hamara, not a singular national India. And the different bodies and the different voices and the different classes and the different cultures, the different regions, they all come into play on that platform. And this platform becomes also a kind of a model that the regions when they start their productions, they work on that concept of a platform rather than the theatre production or the musical production or the Sangeet Natak production which had been the models in the colonial period.
So I think before we talk about a Nabanna or a play done by the Bombay IPTA or a variation or a construction, reconstruction of the burrakatha in Andhra, we should talk of this concept of a platform. But this concept of a platform and this carried on once the IPTA had brought the concept in, brought the model in, the production model of the platform into the scenario, it continued for years and even beyond the IPTA when the IPTA was weakening, falling apart in the late 1950s into the early '60s, the peace movement was a great cultural rallying point and the peace movement also worked on and along the same project of providing a platform, offering a platform.
For example, one of my early memories of call it a production in a platform or projecting a platform through a production, one of my earliest memories go back to 1952 in Kolkata at the Mohamad Ali Park, a peace conference was being held and it was an evening, a cultural evening. And I remember very clearly and hauntingly, the evening begins with the legendary K.C. Dey–Krishna Chandra Dey, the blind singer, singing in his rich baritone a D.L. Ray song, যেদিন সুনীল জলধি হইতে, উঠিলে জননী ভারতবর্ষ (je din sunil jaladhi haite, uthile janani bharatbarsha) followed by a song in Hindi, हिमालया पार हैं देश हमारा (Himalaya paar hai des hamara). Immediately followed by Khirod Notto, a drummer, a traditional dhol player who had been ‘discovered’ by the IPTA and introduced to urban audiences. So Khirod Notto comes and plays the dhol which represents a completely different cultural history, a class, originality, very different from what the earlier singer, what K.C. Dey was offering. And these two items are followed by a full-fledged performance of Bohurupee’s Chhenra Tar and incidentally in that version of the Chhenra Tar which was later revised and truncated, the first scene takes place in Kolkata with a role being played by Debabrata Biswas, the legendary singer who appears. And he is a singer and his friend from the village, Rahimuddin played by Shombhu Mitra comes to meet him in Kolkata. And comes to meet him after partition. So you can see the situational politics of this scenario of a platform. K.C. Dey, Khirod Notto, Shombhu Mitra, Debabrata Biswas. Now this becomes more important in the short lived rich history of IPTA in the 40s, pre the ban in 1948.
More than the individual play productions or some musical productions, it was the concept of the platform, the travels of the platform. For example, when IPTA does the shorter Hindi version of Jabanbandi called Antim Abhilasha which travels throughout India and invariably as part of that platform where there would be songs, where there would be other items culminating in this Antim Abhilasha. So it’s that project, platform, whatever you call it, that becomes the IPTA product, its cultural product.
Sahapedia: In fact, P.C. Joshi had started something called the Bhooka hai Bangal campaign which even travelled to Punjab and the north of India with this. Now as we are talking about the cultural platform, and IPTA’s project was to travel to the villages also to involve those marginalised workers of the village, the agricultural labourers, how far do you think they were successful in making this cultural platform accessible or available both to the urban and to the rural?
S.B.: I would say that it was not a success story. There were several problems. a) it needed and that was part of Joshi’s vision also and he was aware of this very much that it needed the local party organisation to create the space, this opportunity, bring the audience in because this is not an audience that would immediately identify with it, lap it up just like that. It was a product which was alien, culturally alien. A completely new model. Different idioms, languages coming into play. So there was that barrier that question of unfamiliarity, however we idealise it or valorise it, this was a difficulty, a kind of an inaccessibility at the ground root level which you can’t wish away. Language is a barrier. Language is a problem. And different looks, different voices, they are a problem. They are alien. So it needed a party apparatus to support it, to mobilise the people for it, organise it around it, then this could go on. Somehow from whatever history I have tried to recover or reclaim from my conversations with people, different generations throughout the country. The party apparatus at the ground root was not prepared for that. Not even aware of the need for what I am calling a cultural left. That awareness was not there at one point. The other problem was that when it was the urban artist, the ‘Artist’ with a capital 'A' had already been defined, had gathered a kind of a cultural capital. With that why should this artist demean himself to take on the discomforts of what you call the travelling. Travelling is never something that this new Artist, the bourgeois Artist with a capital 'A' accepts naturally. The contempt for the travelling theatre, the contempt for the Jatra, the contempt for the Parsi theatre, the contempt for the Sangeet Natak tradition which was so strongly embedded in the culture of the new intelligentsia, left intelligentsia which moved into this space created by the cultural left.
If you take the instance of somebody like Shombhu Mitra who had emotionally right from his origins identified with the commercial theatre, chosen Sisir Bhaduri as his model, gone to Sisir Bhaduri and came away from Sisir Bhaduri with the feeling that Sisir Bhaduri didn’t recognise his genius or his quality. And he had to prove himself to be right and prove Sisir Bhaduri wrong, that becomes almost a mission to him. But that will come slightly later when he can define it more strongly. But before that there is this phase when he comes into the IPTA, that he had just left it all together, he had become a tantric in fact, he would go to the Kalighat burning ghat, spend hours there meditating with skulls and bones and things like that, becoming extremely spiritual but holding on to his loyalty to the magic of the voice of the actor, the supremo. That he nurtures and that is how Bijan Bhattacharya and Benoy Ghosh discover him. After Bijan Bhattacharya had written his Jabanbandi and writing his Nabanna, he is convinced and so his friend, Benoy Ghosh that this is a theatre that could not draw on the theatre of the Girish-Sisir tradition. It had nothing to do with that. It had to capture the real, the real in its bloody nakedness. And that theatre was a no-no. At the same time, even as they were depending on actors who came from non-actorial backgrounds, non-actorial sentiments or feelings or desires, they needed a theatrical frame, a theatrical structure, something to hold all these acts together and they were groping for that.
And as they would go by, they would hear this rich voice intoning the D. L. Ray texts and the Khirod Prasad texts at 11:00 on that night and they went up to this man, identified this man, heard his story and told him, why don’t you join us. You have had an experience in staging, so share with us that experience and let us build a different kind of theatre. And Shombhu babu joins IPTA but remains a marginal by choice. Provides them with what you can call conventional theatrical expertise to a certain extent but stays out of it.
For example, when I interviewed in the 1960s all the surviving actors of the original Nabanna, all of the surviving actors, I did not miss out on any one, they were unanimous that the acting was given to them by Bijan Da totally. Shombhu babu was designing the staging and taking care of that. But once Nabanna works, I am not describing it as a success as such, it works, it has its impact, tremendous impact, the first clash with the IPTA comes when Shombhu Mitra insists that Nabanna can’t travel. Nabanna shouldn’t travel. It can have its theatrical perfection, its staging artistry perfect only with a revolving stage. And it is the art of theatre that comes first and all this rest can come after. So basically, it is the individual artist and the individual artist is so much of the cultural politics that had generated and come into its own by that time thanks to colonial education, our exposure through the colonial system, very carefully moderated delivery system of knowledge that somehow the IPTA model of an open and free platform, a travelling platform but the travels have to be carried on, monitored, handled organisationally. And any any any any left intervention in history, any left mobilisation demands organisation.
So the clash between the individual and the organisation, the organisation being treated as a promoter of the individual, as a projector of the individual rather than the organisation organising the individuals creating a collective, a new people, a new constituency for the performing collective, creating these constituencies which is an act of organisation. And the fact remains that somehow the party apparatus was not conscious of the great political need at that point of the cultural left and its functioning. And I seriously think that this is an issue which has to be reexplored, represented once again at this critical juncture.
Sahapedia: If you could talk about Nabanna because you have extensively written about Nabanna, about Bijan babu. And the second thing is, we will come to the party and the culture politics, you have spoken about it, but whether it was really responsible for the IPTA’s failure, whether really party intervention was a cause why IPTA failed. But I think we will talk about Nabanna first.
S.B.: In the 1960s for my studies in theatre I felt need to study Nabanna very closely. And I was instrumental in reopening the Nabanna story in a way because I had come close to Bijan da personally at that point of time and I tried to probe the Nabanna story with Bijan da helping me out in being such a great support and such a great friend. The story as it emerged, the Nabanna story and I was instrumental in leading on to a fresh publication of a new edition of Nabanna with a more corrected, checked script and a long introduction that I provided based on these interviews and my research on Nabanna.
Now in the process the Nabanna that I rediscovered and tried to historicise, for Bijan da theatre did not exist, theatre did not matter in any way whatsoever in 1943. What mattered to him, he was a committed communist, a cardholding communist. He was a natural singer with some training in classical music, did his riyaz quite systematically, regularly out of whatever he had learnt. He was a journalist. He was a story writer. He was a poet, a lyricist and a composer drawing on a large repertoire of folk musical traditions because he loved travelling and he had travelled extensively as a reporter, as a journalist. And I would say that the communist journalist as an institution plays a very important part in the making of what I call the cultural left. In the sense that these journalists love travelling. Travelling becomes a major mode of gathering news and making a new politics out of the gathering of news itself. The gathering of news is a political act for these communist journalists. A very strongly committed act. And this is something that I gathered from and learnt from my exchanges with both Bijan da and Subhash Mukhopadhyay. Both of them were very clear in their perceptions in the 1940s of the need for travel, news gathering, bringing the news, bringing the story of the living, the existence, the being of a large mass of people who are not covered by the knowledge areas, the knowledge fields defined and set down and charted out by the colonial knowledge system.
So both Bijan Da and Subhash Mukhopadhyay, later on even somebody like Sidheshwar Sen, the poet, journalist with whom I had the joy and privilege of working when I worked in Swadhinata. All of them brought this culture of the travelling, news gathering left journalist. And bringing in all that information and turning that into a literature. Bijan da in the form of his songs and plays, Subhash da in the form of his great prose writings from Amar Bangla and beyond. Also Ghulam Kudoos I should mention, walking with a march, travelling miles from an industrial town to Calcutta to bring in their grievances and demands and a communist journalist travelling, literally walking with them and reporting it, recording it, making it part of a larger literature. A body of writing.
So Bijan da was very much part of this process. Theatre did not mean anything to him at all. In fact, what he told me that he hadn’t watched theatre in Shyambazar ever. There were these rare occasions when there would be a theatre performance and the Shyambazar theatre travelled very little around the '30s and '40s for various reasons. But on the rare occasions when they would be travelling to some district town or somewhere, he had seen Sisir Bhaduri but not Srirangam and he admired Sisir Bhaduri but from a distance. It was not his area of interest. He was not interested in theatre. But he tells me this moving story of the famine of 1943–44 when he has to walk every day, every morning from his D.N. Mitra Square place, close to the D.N. Mitra Square, a small park, he has to walk by the park to go to his tram stop, take the tram and go to the Ananda Bazar Patrika office where he was employed at that point of time. Even by feeding information and news to Janajuddha, the party weekly.
As he walked along everyday, he told me about this settlement of the famine stricken that had taken shelter, one shouldn’t say shelter because there was no shelter, it was under the sky and under the sun, in that park. And Bijan da told me as he passed by, he said, I never had the guts, I never had the courage to look at them. The shame of it, the shame of this thing happening before my eyes and me witnessing it and not being able to do anything about it, not change things in the least. This was such a shame that I didn’t dare, I didn’t have the guts to look at them. So every day I passed them. I would be looking to the ground. And one day as I was crossing them, I hear a man and a woman talking and laughing and joking about the fun that they had had the previous year during Nabanna when the first harvest had come in. And how somebody had cut a practical joke on another and the great fun they had about it. He passed by. Three days later as he was passing by, he saw a dead body under tattered rags and in a flash it struck him, it could be the man who was speaking the other day. And that gave a kind of a shock. And he felt they should talk, they should speak for themselves. I do not have the right to speak for them. But how can they and what can I do about it. And that is when for the first time in his life he tells me he thought, maybe a play where I try to bring in their voices and give the voices bodies.
So a man comes to theatre from this sort of a realisation where the real has to be represented, nothing else mattered. This is the take-off point, the trigger. And the first thing he decides when he starts working on writing plays, first Agun, then Jabanbandi, then Nabanna. Trying to get the hang of writing a play before he can write Nabanna. He needs to learn the thing. So in this learning, even as he goes through this learning process, he is determined that he won’t have actors, trained actors because the actors have been corrupted in that process. I need human beings with experiences and with a desire to identify towards representation. And he realised that it is a very difficult process to identify and then to represent, not just play the identification. And he was prepared to go the whole hog, learn that process through praxis. So it had to begin with the choice of the performance.
One of his choices was Tripti Mitra whom also I extensively interviewed as part of my Nabanna project. And what came out and what went into the making of Nabanna, when I asked Tripti di what she had desired to be in life, she smiled and said, I wanted to be a doctor and help people to heal but if I couldn’t be a good enough student, then I would be happy to be a nurse, I wouldn’t mind it. That was the scope of her desire. So when Bijan da chooses Tripti di, one can see the vibes. And Tripti di shared with me these two experiences which I have often spoken about repeatedly.
Experience one, she was living at that point of time on Sadananda Road as a house guest with an uncle of hers. Satyendranath Majumdar, an outstanding left wing journalist of the period, editing the Ananda Bazar at that point of time, in a way Bijan da’s employer. And Bijan da was related to Tripti di also, it was the same family. And that is how Bijan da had picked up Tripti di. But Tripti di tells the story of how she lived in this big joint family, studying in Ashutosh College in Calcutta and the way it happened in those days, people from small towns or villages who had made it big in the city, they would be following a kind of an open doors policy where relations, even distant relations or people in the village, if they would like to come down to Calcutta looking for a job or studying in college for two years or four years, they could stay on with this person. And this is how Tripti di had landed up in Satyen Majumdar’s house on Sadananda Road. And it was a joint family, retainers, family, people, kinspersons etc. etc. So about 20 or 30 people together would have their lunch, would have their dinner etc. And the lunch would be cooked at a particular point of time, afternoon and by then Tripti di had done her classes in Ashutosh College which was a morning college for the women, the women’s department and the day was for the males. So she would finish her classes, come back, time for lunch and the lunch would be cooked then and the rice would be done together for all these people, all the dependents and the extra water of the rice would be poured out from a first floor or a second-floor kitchen and it would drain down the water pipe outside the house and drop into the open drain on the street. And just opposite the house on the other side of the road there was a small opening where again some of these refugees, famine refugees had taken shelter. And it was almost a ritual and she would stand in the terrace, Tripti di would stand and watch it and bear the pain also everyday where some of the women from over there would come rushing as the water started pouring down, dripping and they would carry their small enamel bowls and gather the water, the rice water and go back to and to use it for their food. This was a daily ritual but one day there was a departure. She was standing there, watching the scene and a woman comes up, a woman who had three little children there, leaves them and rushes, gathers the water in the bowl, crosses, goes back, the children rush upto her, they circle her, they wrap her up, she just ruthlessly pushes them away. They literally fall, the three of them and she takes the bowl to her lips and she starts drinking it up. The children don’t cry, they stare in amazement, something like this had never happened with their mother. They can’t take it. They do not know how to deal with it. They don’t cry. And that is the first thing that shocks Tripti di, that they don’t cry. And then when the woman is almost finished draining it out, she realises what she has done for the first time, she had been so hungry that she hadn’t been able to wait. She realises what she has done but it is finished already. She looks at it, there is nothing there. She looks to the children pleadingly. They come up and they wrap her up once again. And she breaks into tears. This is one scene, one whole dramatic scene, a piece of theatre.
And the other scene. Around 3:00 Tripti di would be part of a makeshift camp in Hazra Park, next to Ashutosh College close to Sadananda Road where the members of the Student’s Federation, the women’s group affiliated to the Student’s Federation, volunteers, they would cook and provide a gruel to about 30 odd women everyday around 3:00. And that one day when she was serving the gruel and these women were sitting in a circle, very disciplined, and she had a bucket and the gruel was there and she was pouring out into their bowls, they all had their own bowls. As she was walking up, she looked at the face of one of those women and she had an eerie feeling, something wrong. She kept the bucket aside, walked up, rushed up and stretched out her arm and the woman fell on her arm and passed away. The other women would tell Tripti di later that she had been starving for five days at a stretch and they had picked her up and they had brought her along to share the food. She couldn’t wait for that.
So Tripti di told me these stories and told me at once that when she acted in Nabanna, these memories stayed with her, stuck to her and she had two feelings or two ideas which she tried to put across very clearly. She said, one, I had to convey and share that experience with my audience. Of course, I will do that, try to do that. That pain, that horror that I felt. But two, they must be prepared to give the money at the end of the show when I went down and gathered their contributions because we had to buy the stuff to cook the gruel for next day. So these two ideas remained together for every performance of Nabanna that I performed. 'And it was Bijan da who taught me how to speak the words and how to use my body. And of course, those memories would be working around, within my body. I didn’t have any trained actorial skills to bring into it but the authenticity that Bijan da treasured and tried to put into us and the politics of that entire situation, that gave me the act.' And this was true for somebody like Charuprakash Ghosh, Gopal Haldar, Shobha Sen, Monica Chakraborty, all of whom I interviewed.
So a very different kind of handling, projecting, theatricalising the real and this theatricalization of the real in the case of Nabanna reached a kind of poetry which if you don’t read through the text and the language because the language itself takes body, that is how Bijan da felt about it and that is the kind of theatre that Bijan da was trying to create in Nabanna and later on also in all his works, Jiankanya, Mara Chand, Gotrantar, Debi Garjan, Garbhabati Janani, Hanskhalir Hans, Chalo Sagare, in all these plays. But something that remained a loner’s voyage, the IPTA didn’t follow him. He was carrying it on as a lonely mission. And drew in different kinds of people in the trajectory. But again and again he found people, he discovered people who were prepared to take that risk, who were non-actors, no actors but would join in, in the performance and live that performance through.
In fact, at one point, it did sound very funny and absurd, for the Lenin centenary in the '70s sometime, Bijan da translated this Russian play by Nikolai Pogodin called Kremlin Chimes. And he wanted to do it for the Lenin Centenary, '...and I need a good Lenin but I can’t take any actor. How can an actor do Lenin?' So his first choice, extremely stupid choice was me. So I said, No, no, no, I can’t. No, you have to do it because you have read Lenin, you know Lenin and you can do Lenin. And I said, no, I can’t because I am a stammerer, I am a lousy stammerer and I can’t. So ultimately, I managed to persuade him. So then his next choice was Badal Sarkar. And Badal babu did come for two or three of the rehearsals but the thing didn’t materialise, so it fell off. So that kind of a madness but a madness for the authentic which should have been one of the pursuits of the cultural left and the IPTA.
These are the visionary utopics that the IPTA should have caught on to. Whereas IPTA post-'50s, post-ban became a kind of a bandwagon for stars, celebrities who had some strains of conscience and they felt well, here is a bandwagon, we can jump onto that and the IPTA would grab them, make heroes of them. So all that the IPTA had started as being against, they now become through a kind of strange, ironic reversal. So now IPTA swears by the Ritwik Ghataks and Balraj Sahnis etc.
Sahapedia: IPTA had another agenda, the revival of folk forms. And I think it is more evident in the ganasangeet part of the IPTA but when one reads Bijan babu, one can’t neglect really the traditional forms or the folk forms or the kind of, as you mentioned, the use of language and I have read Bijan babu’s interview where he says that after every 2 kms the language changes. So all of this is what people’s theatre should have been... The theatricalization of the reality of the people and not of this artistic ego that you were talking about. So we more or less know what happened, you said that it became a bandwagon and people went upto it but do you think that whatever folk forms today we want to celebrate or the kind of folk forms that we can today recognise even that …., was it partly due to the project of IPTA. This revisiting folk forms after the colonial intervention and bringing them up to the stage in these variety programmes that you were talking about, the platform. So do you think that we should give IPTA some due that it was able to bring these in too.
S.B.: It is a problematic question for me in the sense that, now again I’d go back to the concept of the platform and also the Central Squad because the Central Squad was the site where ‘folk artists’ and urban artists and people from the working class and party activists, whole timers in the party, they would share a commune. And a commune with all the overtones, associations etc. etc. of the communist vision or the communist hypothesis. The communists were central to it. Living a communist life, living communism. So it was part of that. But right from the beginning, if you read—you must have read because you have read your stuff—you must have read Reba di’s wonderful autobiography (Jiboner Tane Shilper Tane) and there very casually and very honestly Reba di says that since Ravi Shankar and Annapurna and the young child, they were living there, Reba di and others, they naturally felt that they should be washing their utensils for them. So already in the commune, the divisions (was evident) and nobody in the organisation, in the party…. now if you are really thinking of a commune and a real commune, then try to explore its utopics. This was not being done. So the politics was lacking already. So the folk performers who were coming in were being fast transformed into the bourgeois Artist with a capital 'A' because it was already there. (The design was already there.)
So the larger vision, the larger programme, the larger programme of the cultural left, of the cultural platform that the whole country would be able to share, that all the classes would be able to share and the knowledge, the awareness of other people’s, all this was being eroded from within right from the beginning with the performance becoming central, the show, the big show.
And I have serious problems at that point. I would like to argue some day with somebody who has studied the Joshi case, the Joshi instance, the Joshi biography, the Joshi history more carefully than me, but I would like to understand how things started going wrong with Joshi because what I find when I talked to Shombhu babu or even Ritwik in his writing also, recently reading it, it became Joshi’s focus at that point to individuate them as artists, to give them special treatment so that Shombhu babu till the end of his life would say, it was Joshi who understood us or Ritwik in his late-Bangladesh phase, in a letter he writes to Sarama, Sarama quotes it that I met Joshi after a long time and he kissed me and said, you are the only genuine artist.
So even Joshi must have fallen into that trap and that bandwagon trap rather than the platform where these artists, my Shombhu Mitra, my Raj Kapoor, my Balraj Sahni, my Deena Gandhi, I present them and they feel, they also feel gratified for a time that I am for the people, with the people, working with the people, I am the people’s voice. But in the process the people get marginalised once again a second time where their voice, their representation is taken away from them. So this process I think sets in already in that phase. And so it becomes so easy in the 1950s when the Nehruvian state has a state policy for culture, the people who exercised that policy, the people who carry that policy out, in the front row there are the IPTA people. It is Shanta Gandhi, it is Sachin Sengupta of the IPTA, Nirmala Joshi, Nemi Chandra Jain, Deena was there, very much there, (Balraj Sahni), Shombhu Mitra, they are the people whom the state immediately takes up, appropriates, immediately.
Sahapedia: Because they have no other model to follow also.
S.B.: Yes, no other model. I now have very serious reservations about the word folk and the associations and the concepts that have grown around it. In my classes at JNU, I don’t use the work folk. Very consciously.
Sahapedia: So now to come to near-concluding questions, what do you think—because you have studied so much of history of theatre in India, you have engaged with these people—what do you think could have been a possible way of promoting people’s theatre in India. How do you envision one? One is travelling which you were certainly suggesting and what do you think could have been…
S.B.: What was necessary and this I am harping on more and more, is that if there had been a clearer conception of the cultural left and the political left and what could be the relationship between the two. For example, now when we have more access to literature, materials, documents of the earlier revolutionary Soviet Union before Lenin’s death, the kind of role that somebody like Mayakovsky plays, Meyerhold plays, so this wonderful thing about Meyerhold where Meyerhold is branching off from the Stanislavsky kind of realism to giving realism a body rather than just a culture of memories. Which is a wonderful thing which has to be there but give it also a body. So while he is experimenting with that, somehow there is in that phase particularly with the role that Lunacharsky and Maxim Gorky played at that point of time and the kind of respect, the kind of recognition that the party gives to them, in that process for a short-lived history, Meyerhold says that, Meyerhold is given, is allowed the space to experiment and Stanislavsky offers him his first studio. Look at that. The bigness, the generosity of this man and the institution opening up. It is not just an individual choice; it is an institutional choice also. And Meyerhold experimenting there and Meyerhold being given the responsibility of setting up the palaces of culture all over the Soviet Union. And the concept of the palace of culture is identify a place and situate yourself there, gather its culture and give it a palace. And Meyerhold travels throughout Russia locating, identifying these sites, these areas, going into their histories, exploring their cultural histories and setting up the models for the first palaces of culture.
So he says that here I am serving as a loyal member of the party, as a follower of the party, this is a political programme, so this is my role in the political left, I am taking instructions straight from the party and the party is giving me the support, the institutional support, the local support, the organisational support, I can’t do it by myself as an adventurer but back in Moscow I still have my other site, my other space where I give cultural left a body, a place and I am preparing an audience, I am preparing a constituency for a later phase. With this culture, the political culture grows and there would be associations and conjunctures. That is something and that is something to which I think we should still try to go back to.
Sahapedia: Thank you so much Samik Da.