Not too many people know of the innovative “Third Theatre” movement pioneered by Badal Sircar in this city, a theatrical medium that is quite separate from the folk or traditional forms of rural India as well as the urban proscenium frame that we have imported from the West. Even those people who do know about it, mostly know of it in theory—few actually go to see any Third Theatre productions, even though they occur with fair regularity every Saturday after 4 p.m. at Curzon Park. And fewer still know that there are other groups, besides Sircar’s Satabdi, who proudly belong to this movement, such as the Alternative Living Theatre.

ALT is based in the industrial town of Khardah, 20 km north of Calcutta. It was originally named Living Theatre by its brain Probir Guha, who, inspired by theatrical trendsetters like Jerzy Grotowski and Eugenio Barba with whom he worked many years ago, put together his own deliberately anti-metropolitan troupe because “I seek a transformation of theatre from a celebration shared by a leisured class to a mass practice”.

One of the tools of Guha’s practice is violence. According to the newsletter that ALT publishes, Living Waves, “Our intention is to create an impression of shock among the spectators, cracking their self-composure through a violent assault on their senses and minds.” The concept of shock tactics in theatre is not new, having originated in Antonin Artaud’s theory of the Theatre of Cruelty in the early part of this century. But what purpose can it serve for Indian audiences? In Guha’s words, “so that their complacence cracks and they discover themselves within an oppressive system and feel that urge to liberate themselves from it … social oppression and exploitation and deprivation have created a field of potential violence where the seeds could sprout with the loving care of a theatre that would nurture such a positive violence.”

Now this may sound very revolutionary, with ideologically leftist overtones, but ALT considers itself apolitical and indeed very sceptical about Indian political parties. Guha makes no bones about his disenchantment with formal Indian Communism: “I have a personal history behind this philosophy of theatre. As an activist in the radical left, I went and lived and worked through an experience of the movement fragmenting and disintegrating and sometimes compromising under the looming shadow of a Left Establishment selling away to formal democracy. I dropped out of the movement at this stage, and chose theatre as a new battleground to negotiate with my people at the closest grassroots level”.

These ideas are not just Guha’s alone, but they are shared by the young members of ALT, most of them boys from Khardah who come from a background of poverty. Tapan Das, who grew up in the slums near the Khardah railway station and earns his money helping to build pandals, puts it in his own way: “I have walked with the flag and shouted slogans on several occasions—but no one explains anything to us—they are not bothered with us. So, no more politics.”

These feelings find expression in the plays Guha writes, many of them adapted or dramatized from respected works of Bengali literature. The violence engendered by our political parties was the theme of one of Living Theatre’s earliest productions, Ekhan Mājhrāt; in one of their most recent plays, Shonā Kathā, rival partied engage in their favourite activities like vote-buying and trying to opportunistically capitalize on a villager’s death, with Guha simultaneously satirizing the TV and media who cover these events. In a work of their middle period, Ahalyā, ALT dealt with violence against women.

This predilection for violent subject matter makes it self-evident why ALT incorporates in their acting techniques from Indian martial-art forms such as Chhau, Kalarippayattu and Thang-Ta. Guha places a lot of emphasis on body training, and ALT spends considerable time in workshops devoted to fine-tuning the physique. Many images from their work are visually striking. The physicality of their performances combines with their musicality (often breaking into song or percussive rhythms as in their latest, Kālo Basti) to create an unusual, sometimes unnerving effect.

Not all of ALT’s productions succeed on popular terms. Works like Shonā Kathā or the early Grāmer Pānchāli do well because of concrete storylines, and frequently because of their humour, whereas generalized statements on oppression like Kālo Basti sometimes overdo the obvious by repeating points to excess. Occasionally they even get romantic—artistically a bad word nowadays, but one feels still relevant—as in the idealistic Āmi Tumi Āmrā, albeit from the early period.

It was good to find ALT participating in the Anamika Kala Sangam/Four Square Critics Choice festival, because viewers got an idea of this different form of theatre. Yet it was puzzling that Guha agreed to compromise by performing on the proscenium stage of Gyan Manch, when their Third Theatre colleagues, Ayna, insisted instead on acting in the second-floor room upstairs. Whatever the spaces they use, however, it is clear that as the critic Rustom Bharucha observed, “Living Theatre expresses, without ever making an issue of it, that theatre is for them a way of life.”

(Written in March 1993; clipping of printed issue misplaced)