An interview printed in The Times of India, March 2018:
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THEATRE EDUCATION IS ALMOST MISSING IN INDIA: ANANDA LAL
It has been a 17-year-long journey and the Jadavpur University Department of English (JUDE) will never be the same again without Professor Ananda Lal, who, besides his fascinating classroom lectures, has gifted us, annually, a play from the department. From William Shakespeare and Rabindranath Tagore to Euripides and Kalidasa — Lal has directed his students in several fascinating plays over the years — first as an extracurricular annual activity, and later, as a part of a formulated optional course, Drama in Practice. With his retirement, uncertainty looms over JUDE’s productions. But before it ends, Lal is here with his final bow, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Winter Hill, that was staged on Tuesday in Gyan Manch. In a candid chat with us, the professor talks about theatre as a career option, the prospects of group theatre in Kolkata and his retirement plan. Excerpts…
Tell us about your new production, Winter Hill, which has an all-women cast…
Between 1993 and 2001/02, the annual drama used to be an extracurricular activity for the students. Then, it became an optional honours course, Drama in Practice. It is very difficult to find a play with a women-only cast. Even in women-centric plays, you need men. What happens is, in most arts departments, especially in English, women outnumber men.
Now, Drama in Practice is an elective course, and this is the fourth year when only women students signed up for this particular optional course. Thankfully, I found this play and am grateful to the author Timberlake Wertenbaker. This is a new play — about a year old. When I wrote to the playwright, she agreed to give us permission. She has been very generous. Since it is a university production, she waived the royalty charges. I think it is a feather in our cap. We have been doing old plays, classics of course, but we normally can’t do new plays because royalty fee becomes a factor. Even if you look at the general theatre scene in India you will rarely find someone working with a new play. We got a chance and it is a big thing for us.
Does It make sense for students to pursue theatre as a career option?
There is no career in theatre and these students know it. They do it out of sheer love and passion. See, if they take up something related to theatre, then they have to earn their living from somewhere else. You cannot earn your living from theatre. One of my students, Aritra Sengupta, who is in charge of Mad About Drama is doing it full time and I don’t know how he manages it. He is an exception.
What Is the scope of student theatre in Kolkata?
It Is limited. One of the reasons is that there is no education… there is no choice. I have seen some wonderful school productions in my life. But what after that? There is no place to go after Class XII except Rabindra Bharati. Ours is a department-specific course. It is not even open to the rest of the campus.
What are the differences between theatre abroad and in India?
In western countries, they have drama programmes in which students can enrol. They get a degree, and more Importantly, training on theatre. In the UK and US, there are hundreds of such courses. Here, in India, it is extremely sad to see that such education on theatre is not there. It is a big problem. One of the reasons why Indian theatre is slightly backwards is that young people don’t have the required training. They join theatre groups and then they learn on the job. That is very different from having a degree in fine arts.
You need to learn the entire history of drama, the style and so on. Here in India, we have so many different theatrical forms and that’s why I find it ironic, surprising, and I would say, shocking to find such few courses on drama. In West Bengal, we probably just have Rabindra Bharati University and that’s it.
You have worked a lot on non-proscenium theatre. What Is your take on group theatre and their fixation on big auditoriums?
Non-proscenium theatre should be stronger. Again, this Is one of my problems with several groups. Bengali theatre groups are obsessed with auditoriums, especially with the Academy of Fine Arts complex. They think, if they can’t perform there, it is a failure. That’s not the case. Theatre opens up in neighbourhoods. And these neighbourhoods support it.
Para theatre was actually a big thing at one point of time. See, you require vision and some sort of will for adventure. Young people can do it and some have done it. But that number is small. The majority has an obsessive fascination with proscenium theatre. And within proscenium theatre, they are obsessed with the Academy of Fine Arts. Apart from Badal Sircar, there has been little work on non-proscenium theatre. And it is up to theatre workers to change this. As an artiste, you should explore other avenues. Some, like Kaushik Sen, have taken a decision not to perform at Academy. He Is also working with Padatik. But how many places like Padatik are there In Kolkata? You’d expect Kolkata to have more such places. There are various kinds of theatre. I have done theatre in open air and natural light. As dusk descended, we used fire… no electric lights. We have staged theatres at people’s houses. Many friends opened their houses for our plays too.
What’s the future of JUDE productions?
I have already retired and this is my last production. If somebody wants to teach this course, it will continue. It is on the syllabus. As of now, there is no one there. I can’t tell you about the future of JUDE’s yearly production. I can’t come back. The state government will not allow a retired professor to come down for this. And the university doesn’t have the funds to call me as a visiting director. It Is cashstrapped. There Is an uncertainty looming over JUDE productions because as of now, I can’t see anybody taking over immediately. In the future, perhaps somebody with a theatre background can take this on. I feel sad, but life has to go on.
What are your retirement plans?
Oh, I really don’t know. So far I have been busy with many things. I have to look after my publication house. I have to start working on a few books and translations, which have been put on hold because of my other duties. There are certain other universities, which have invited me as a guest lecturer. The National School of Drama is holding a theatre Olympiad all over the country. I have been visiting that. But I haven’t planned anything else yet and I don’t think anyone can plan his or her retired life. I wish one could (laughs). But there is no sense of emptiness. I am glad that I did what I could.
‘Anandada has always given me the freedom to express my opinion while working. I am very opinionated, mind you. Even then, he never imposed anything on us’
— Sohini Sengupta, actor-director, Nandikar
‘I worked with him in Iphigenia in Aulis and it was a magical experience. Our first show was on the rooftop of our department. We used natural light and a fire was lit at sunset. He is an excellent teacher and mentor’
— Paramita Saha, dancer, Sapphire
‘Working with him has always been an enthralling experience because of his commitment towards evolving the language of performance. His productions transcended the ambitions of the average student production’
— Aritra Sengupta, founder, Mad About Drama
‘This is one occasion when ‘end of an era’ is not a cliche. Jadavpur University was, in many ways, a whiff of fresh air and the last two years working with Anandada were really elating’
— Shahana Chatterjee, stage and screen actor