Published as “Bengali Drama” in Take on India, December 2019:

It has become a knee-jerk reflex among Bengalis, habitually bemoaning their lost glories, to write off contemporary Bengali theatre compared to past achievements in that art. Most of them don’t go to see theatre anyway, yet perpetuate the misconception, and hardly anyone has analysed the present scenario. My purpose here is to give a cycloramic view of 21st-century Bengali theatre to prove that it not only flourishes, but quantitatively and qualitatively still stands among the tallest in India. Only Mumbai can compete with the numbers and variety that Kolkata offers. But Bengali theatre’s humanistic concerns and dissent remain second to none. It is the most committed to progressive (as opposed to commercial) ideology. Per capita, Bengali groups and their members want to communicate socially important messages to their viewers and effect change in society much more than theatre in any other Indian language.

In the last two decades I have reviewed nearly 2000 productions, but refer to just the crème de la crème for this article. Theatre historians place a premium on original drama as an indicator of the art’s vitality, so I focus on that area. Bengali groups frequently revive classics in new interpretations and adapt fiction for the stage, but to discuss these would demand much more space. Regrettably, therefore, I cannot mention the work of such troupes as Nandikar and such directors as Suman Mukhopadhyay who excel in these domains.

Significantly, the pioneering group Bohurupee continued its policy of discovering dramatists with Asim Chattaraj’s Itihāser Ātmā, revisiting the Mahābhārata, directed by Kumar Roy. As Roy grew older, he groomed Debesh Raychaudhuri to don his mantle, who directed another discovery, Arupshankar Maitra. His Nishiddha Thikānā dealt with the domestic generation gap, and Mukhosher Mukh treated the disadvantaged conditions of tribals.

Other established groups also cultivated new playwrights, probably the most favoured among them being Ujjwal Chattopadhyay. His finest work of this period was Dhruva-tārā, on steadfast adherence to truth, directed by Meghnad Bhattacharya for Sayak. Theatre Workshop patronized the even younger Sumitro Banerjee, whose Bāish Gajer Jiban on the unusual subject of cricketmania was directed by Ashok Mukhopadhyay.

Anya Theatre and Samstab, directed by Bibhash Chakraborty and Dwijen Bandyopadhyay respectively, picked up late plays by the last of the great senior dramatists. The former did Manoj Mitra’s Nākchhābitā, describing the rural past symbolically; the latter, Mohit Chattopadhyaya’s Ei Ghum, satirizing an executive who dozes off whenever faced with unpalatable decisions. Ramaprasad Banik boosted the unknown suburban group Barasat Anushilani with his incisive Ek Rasik Daubārik, addressing the societal dangers of lumpenization. But within a few years, Kumar Roy, Chattopadhyaya, even Bandyopadhyay and Banik – most untimely – all left us for the great stage in the sky.

So did the legendary Badal Sircar, whose contributions in this century had not added much to his prior renown. His Third Theatre movement stagnated, though his follower, Probir Guha, keeps the non-proscenium flag flying with his Alternative Living Theatre based outside Kolkata. In the city, a novel excursion into intimate “found spaces” took place when Sohag Sen of Ensemble directed the improvised and entertaining Jogājog in a bookshop, its theme the cellphone menace that has hijacked our lives.

A very important phenomenon is Sima Mukhopadhyay’s arrival as director of her group Rangroop. Sohag belongs to the earlier generation of women directors; Sima leads from the front in gynocentric drama now. She herself wrote the trailblazing all-women Mukhosh Nritya, even if borrowing an idea from a short story by Bhagirath Mishra. For the powerful Chhāyāpath, she asked the other prolific dramatist of today, Tirthankar Chanda, to prepare a docudrama on Irom Sharmila. She discovered another young writer, Sounava Basu, directing his Abyakta, which related the untold but inspiring biography of Dr Mahendra Lal Sircar in 19th-century Calcutta.

The most popular dramatist-director currently, Bratya Basu, composed several anti-establishment plays before he joined the Trinamul cabinet when Mamata Banerjee won in 2011. For Lok-krishti, he directed his own Krishna-gahwar, possibly the first to bring homosexuality out of the closet on the Bengali stage. For Kalyani Natyacharcha Kendra, his Bābarer Prārthanā (from the seed of a poem) indicted the growing political violence. His partnership with director Koushik Sen of Swapna-sandhani produced two disturbing enquiries: Darjipārār Marjinārā, on the sex workers of Sonagachhi, and Bhay, on India’s insurgencies.

Among other dramatist-directors, Sekhar Samaddar created the best metatheatre of these years. In Ramanimohan, directed by Prokash Bhattacharya for Nandipat, he portrayed destitute Jatra artists sensitively through Chapal Bhaduri as the protagonist. In Sundar Bibir Pālā, for his own group Abhash, Samaddar spotlighted other neglected folk styles, giving them much-needed visibility. Manish Mitra of Arghya reinterpreted Abhimanyu’s story in Bhārat-kathā, syncretically integrating traditional forms and dialects.

Always a conscientious objector, Koushik Sen directed Sumitro Banerjee’s Birpurush, on the common man and Maoists, for Swapna-sandhani. In the same breath one must name Abhijit Kargupta of Chokh, whose strength lies in solidly research-based drama: in Antahsalil, he juxtaposed powerful media against powerless performers; in Khun, he told the horrifying tale of a killing in Sonagachhi.

Political protest in Bengali theatre surpasses that in other states. Let me point to three more examples by groups so far unnamed. In Sandarbha’s Gahwar, dramatist-director Soumitra Basu asked what levels “Bengali civilization” has descended to. Rangapat’s Krishna-paksha, written by Debotosh Das and directed by Tapanjyoti Das, depicts the terror of communal riots. Tirthankar Chanda’s Hantārak, directed by Shyamal Chakraborty for Rangalok, features the prevailing culture of violence.

I must emphasize the unnoticed labour of theatre in the districts. Perhaps the oldest consistently performing even now is Natadha in Howrah, just across the river from Kolkata. There are many others, in Barasat, Gobardanga, Baharampur and in north Bengal, but Natadha merits special mention here by virtue of director Shib Mukhopadhyay’s original drama Palāshi, on the historic battle, an ambitious attempt that brought together actors from various groups. Kishore Sengupta of Kalyani’s Natyacharcha Kendra has directed besides Bābarer Prārthanā, Samir Dasgupta’s Tritiya Ārekjan, a two-hander on female self-fulfilment.

I cannot even begin to talk about the enormous wealth of accomplished actors that Bengal possesses, particularly among the juniors now making their mark. Some of them were recruited into the Minerva Repertory Theatre, an initiative of the state government. That company staged Manoj Mitra’s Devi Sarpamastā in a stunning display of energy directed by Debesh Chattopadhyay.

But I must not skip the innovative endeavours of Story Teller, a relatively new group whose dramatist-director, Arindam Mukherjee, pays special attention to design, a department unfortunately often given short shrift. His 221B Baker Street, a murder mystery, showed off a double-decker set by Saumik-Piyali that could rival the best internationally. His F M Mahānagar, about a ratings-driven radio host, occurred inside a recording studio.

All is not rosy, though. The most obvious evidence of a certain conservative mentality lies in the lack of adventurous approaches to theatre spaces. Our artists most commonly complain about the paucity of auditoriums (only about ten in Kolkata), but I must blame them for not thinking out of the box, literally, and not clipping their unhealthy attachment to the old proscenium arches. Theatre experimentation worldwide, even in Delhi or Bangalore – happens in tiny, flexible venues with fewer than 100 seats, usually servicing neighbourhood communities that are proud to support them. In a sprawling megalopolis like Kolkata where evening commutes are itself a problem, and where the pārā culture has a long tradition, people no longer feel like going long distances after a hard day at office, and prefer something nearer their homes. But no Bengali group has explored this model, to adopt rooms in their locality creatively for a frequent turnover of performances. The inexplicable fear of leaving the stage for an intimate black box deters them. This amounts to unimaginativeness of conceptual thinking.

Many groups have also grown obsessed with becoming popular, though it seems a sine qua non that one worked in modern theatre precisely because it liberated one from the gross demands of the marketplace. Repeatedly I hear their doubts about thought-provoking scenes or plays expressed in these colourful terms: “Kintu darshakrā khābe?” (literally, “But will the spectators eat [consume] it?”). The preoccupation with popular consumption can sound the death knell of any art form worth the name of “art”, since it implies a wilful downgrading of experimentation and anti-commercialism, coupled with deliberate goals of catering, if not pandering, to public tastes. I do not deny artists their right to cultivate success, but want them to negotiate it thinkingly.

Instead, I observe a strong proclivity among actors to gravitate towards sentimentality and melodrama, our old folk techniques still appreciated by audiences, and towards their contemporary incarnation: television acting. Modern theatre’s job is not to let viewers luxuriate in emotions, but to stimulate their minds. However, most of our performers know exactly how to elicit an instantaneous ovation, and uncritically, or perhaps instinctively, move in that direction. This can take the form of tearjerking soap-opera mode or – frequently encountered nowadays – virtuosic physical actions and acrobatics out of context, more suited to the circus but guaranteed to generate resounding applause nonetheless. Our genuinely best actors are not immune to this Achilles’ heel in their method. Subtlety and restraint, highly recommended in our own classical forms and theory like the Nātyasāstra, leave alone in imported realism, get thrown for a toss, though the very same actors have shown these qualities brilliantly when directed with intelligence.

What have I left out? A plethora of other exciting enterprises: prison theatre involving the inmates of correctional homes; forum theatre according to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed; puppet theatre, some quite magical; school theatre, especially the full-length live musicals that can match their peers abroad; children’s theatre, organized by many groups to inculcate in pressured minds the love of this art. And the excellent productions by Hindi, Urdu and English troupes from Kolkata that receive rave reviews when they travel in India, but most people do not know of.