How a Bengali theatre group brought West Bengal politics to the Delhi stage

It was 1969, and Dilip Basu (79) had just returned to Delhi after spending a few years in Kolkata to complete higher education. A professor of English Literature at Rajdhani College at that time, he was particularly interested in the genre of novel and poetry. He remembers a conversation with his dear friend, Shatrajit Majumdar, who took a dig at him saying that he was wasting time on poetry and novels. “This is the time for theatre,” said Basu who, along with Majumdar, started a Bengali theatre group in Delhi that November, calling it ‘Natyakal’ or ‘the age of theatre’.

The Naxalbari uprising in West Bengal had happened a couple of years ago, and among the members of Natyakal, the spirit of socialist revolution was running high. “There were several other Bengali theatre groups in Delhi, but we wanted to make a statement both regarding the art form and with regard to what was happening in the country at that time,” said Basu.

Their first play, Lok ta maara jaachhe (the man is dying), was staged at the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society (AIFACS) on December 11, 1969. Long before Mandi House became the centre for theatre activities in the city, it was AIFACS which hosted almost every major theatre group. The plot revolved around a man who was shown to be controlled by the state to an extent that even his wife was decided upon by the government.

How a Bengali theatre group brought West Bengal politics to the Delhi stage

“We were suggesting that incipient fascism and dehumanisation of people was happening all around us,” said Basu. “Unfortunately, our language and gimmicks were not appreciated by the audience. Nearly everyone missed the political point and thought it to be vulgar.”

The second play, Amra; Kolkata (Us; Kolkata), was influenced by a play by Peter Brooks called Us; Vietnam. The two-and-a-half hour production showcased the history of Kolkata juxtaposed against the contemporary city. “A group of 15 people played 120 characters. One person played 17 roles and I had done 14,” said Basu. “We were not building characters, rather we were building social and economic types.”

Basu had moved to Delhi in 1950 from Narayanganj (in present day Bangladesh), and grown up at Gole Market, which was back then one among a few hubs of Bengalis in the city. By the 1920s and 30s, a thriving Bengali community had come to exist in areas like Kashmere Gate, Timarpur, Karol Bagh, Chandni Chowk, Sadar Bazar, Daryaganj, Nai Sadak and Gole Market. As the Bengali diaspora in the city were trying hard to keep alive their cultural identity, theatre had become an important tool. The first Bengali play in the city is believed to have been staged back in 1932 by the ladies of Sen Baari (the family of Dr Hemchandra Sen) on the occasion of the visit of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

Basu founded ‘Natyakal’, along with his friend Shatrajit Majumdar, in Nov 1969. (Adrija Roychowdhury)

Since then, Bengali theatre in the city had grown and transformed as a genre of its own. Initially, they would mostly be performed during the annual Durga Puja and Saraswati Puja celebrations.

“In the 1950s and 60s, in fact, the Delhi University theatre scenario was dominated by the Bengali theatre society,” said Ashish Ghosh, a veteran theatre personality and also a children’s theatre activist. “Then there were the English theatre groups in St Stephen’s and Miranda House. But for most other colleges, it was Bengali which was predominant among theatre groups.”

Natyakal with its emergence in the late 1960s, however, brought a remarkable change in the performance of Bengali theatre in the city. Until then, the Bengali theatre groups of Delhi would mostly reproduce plays that had done well in Kolkata or translate on stage popular Bengali short stories. Natyakal did not just produce original scripts, but also for the first time made statements on the politics of West Bengal.

They also made improvisations in the art form itself, which marked them out from theatre groups in Bengal. Natyakal had improvised a style of collective playwriting which was rarely seen in theatre groups across India at the time.

“Nostalgia for Bengal, its landscape, art and culture, was of course dealt with in the other Bengali theatre groups. But Natyakal was most focused on politics of West Bengal,” said Roop Kumar Ari, Professor of Bengali in Dyal Singh College, who has also authored a book on Bengali literature in Delhi . “Their plots were centered around how Bengalis of Delhi gazed towards and perceived the political, economic and educational developments in West Bengal.”

Ari explained that the majority of Bengali literature in Delhi, including theatre, was produced by first generation immigrants who had a strong connection with their homeland. Ashish Gosh said that “the Bengali community in Delhi was diasporic in their mindsets”. “We were fairly Kolkata centered. There was a natural tendency to connect anything good happening around to Kolkata,” said Ghosh.

Within the span of 25 years that Natyakal performed, they created 12 plays. Their rehearsals would take place inside the building of a school in Karol Bagh. One of their most successful plays was Oho Bijnapan (Oh advertisement), staged in 1972. It was centered around how advertisements were dominating people’s lives.

The productions and performances of Natyakal started reducing from the early 1980s. In 1994, on the occasion of their silver jubilee, the group officially announced its closure.

“Since the 1980s, the vibrancy of Bengali theatre activities had subsided. By then, the diaspora tendencies of the community had given way to permanent settlement. Now the community was seeing itself more as Delhi Bengalis,” explained Ghosh.

In recent years, however, there has been an emergence of newer Bengali theatre groups in the city, who look at their language and the art form differently. “Earlier the whole idea was to hold on to Bengali culture and theatre was a means to that,” said Shomik Ray, theatre worker with the Bengali theatre activist group, Shapno Akhon (Dreaming now).

“The theatre groups are more interested in experimenting with the form and script. Moreover, the Bengali groups are also doing Hindi, English or non-verbal plays because language after a point has become inconsequential,” he said.

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