The departure of Swatilekha Sengupta comes as a major loss to Bengali theatre. This is not the stale cliché found in garden-variety wreaths, which focused exclusively on her acting, primarily in movies and only secondarily in theatre (which most obituarists don’t see). What those homages don’t reveal is that Kolkata’s theatre has lost a complete artist, who mastered not just acting but three languages and literatures (Bengali, Hindi and English), direction, music, design, and dramatizing for the adult as well as children’s stage. Her kind of Renaissance woman—or man, for that matter—has become a rarity in Bengali theatre.
Her upbringing in a prabāsi Allahabad family made her fluent and knowledgeable in Hindi. Her brilliant academic record in English literature gave her the wider, formal, intellectual horizon that most theatre workers lack. Coming to Kolkata and joining Nandikar in 1977, she gradually developed into a pillar of that group, next to and eventually equal to her husband Rudraprasad Sengupta. I have seen nearly every Nandikar production since 1986, and thus had the privilege of watching Swati-di (as I began to call her) evolve. Here I pay tribute to those achievements of hers that I regarded as truly memorable—and they add up to a considerable number.
Unfortunately, she had a rough time getting recognition in her early years in Kolkata theatre, which she confided in a letter to me in the early 1990s, ostensibly about critics like me who do not lavish praise! Bengalis passionate about their theatre often hold very fixed opinions, and Swati-di was up against the formidable barrier of older spectators who remembered the incomparable Keya Chakrabarti, Nandikar’s tragic leading lady.
I think Swati-di finally laid that spirit to rest with her split-personality portrait in Shankhapurer Sukanyā (1990) of the same heroine whom Keya had made her own in Bhālo Mānush (1974), Nandikar’s original Indianization of Brecht’s Good Person, particularly whenever Swati-di took on the disguise of her gruff, frowning, paunchy, wicked male cousin.
In 1995, she demonstrated a major, hidden, supporting talent: on Meghnādbadh Kābya, her violin expressed perfectly the moods and rhythms of Michael Madhusudan’s epic. Her musical confidence established, on Nagar Kirtan in 1997 her lead violin solos soared above the ensemble. Her signal contribution to theatre music is overlooked by most commentators. She combined her classical Western and Hindustani training with contemporary idioms felicitously.
She truly blossomed as an actor in Shānu Roychowdhury (1998), adapted from Willy Russell’s sunny one-woman show, Shirley Valentine, about the liberation of a 42-year-old working-class wife. Swati-di did a star turn, both as Shanu and playacting others like the husband, for over two hours. Then she took up the pioneering task in India of writing a theatre-based book aimed at children, Theatre Games for School Children (2000).
Another dimension opened in 2003, when she impressed in her maiden directorial endeavour, Khunje Nāo, briefly stepping out of Nandikar to direct it for Rangroop. Adapted by Rudraprasad from Olwen Wymark’s Find Me, it shocked with its traumatic portrayal of personality disorder in the true story of a 20-year-old whose parents could not cope with her mood swings and physical outbursts, sending her to a mental hospital. Even less understood there, she set a chair on fire, which led to her prosecution and incarceration in prison for arson. Swati-di treated the protagonist’s “madness” sympathetically, questioning ideas of sanity and lunacy—for we are all insane in our own ways.
Another new direction: she turned to dramatization on Bardā (2004) and to her deep reading of Hindi literature for her source, Munshi Premchand’s poignant story Bade Bhāi Sāhib, innovatively structuring it as a television interview of a respectable citizen-narrator who in all sincerity credits his elder brother for his success.
Back to acting, but now in older parts, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay’s Dāini dramatized as Chokh Gelo (2005) galvanized Swati-di, who brought her whole histrionic experience into the characterization of the ostracized “witch” who lives alone in the sandy wilderness, individualizing it with her eccentric chuckles and mumbling to herself. Such idiosyncratic features emerged again for Sukanta Chaudhuri’s Jāhā Chāi (2006), where she cleverly put on an eccentric attitude as the mother that convinced us as to where her son inherited his traits!
Next came children’s theatre. She dramatized Leela Mazumder’s story Pākhi in 2007, where eight-year-old Kumu goes to her grandmother’s house in the village to recuperate from a leg injury. There, she rescues a wild duck in their garden wounded by a hunter. A bond grows between her and the migratory bird, both lame; she sees herself in her feathered friend, both yearning to fly home. Swati-di also directed it with sensitivity, composed the music, and designed bright costumes and muppet-like bodies of ducks.
She continued to act major roles, now of more senior characters. In Sukanta Gangopadhyay’s Ajnātabās (2008), she easily walked away with the honours in an understated yet emotional performance of a lonely old woman, and in Tendulkar’s Kanyādān (2010) for the group Swapna-suchana, an inwardly lacerated portrayal of the mother. Deservedly she won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for acting, 2010.
The same year, Swati-di tried her hand at original scripts as well, in two one-acts for children, Kānu (inspired by a Vietnamese short story) and the autobiographical Tomār Nām, on a double bill that also displayed the range of her directorial skills, from large-ensemble choreography to near-solo storytelling respectively.
Her musical creativity peaked on Anta Ādi Anta, Indianized from Marguerite Duras’ La Musica in 2011. Debsankar Halder directed this pas de deux, understanding the implications of the title, consequently sensitive to rhythms like a conductor of chamber music. Appreciating this aspect, Swati-di conceptualized a score that almost took on the part of a third actor, and contained a good dose of Rabindrasangit innovatively rearranged.
Although affected by niggling health issues, she soldiered on in powerful acting, as the oldest of the exploited rural performers in Nāchni (2013), dramatized from Subrata Mukhopadhyay’s novel, Rasik; and in Debatosh Das’s Bipannatā (2014), depicting intensely the latent fear that many urban mothers in Kolkata have to contend with on a daily basis, thinking of what their children may have to encounter, and in doing so, she stole the show.
Finally, in 2017 she rendered sterling service against the general ignorance about pathbreaking personalities of 19th-century Calcutta by dramatizing Narayan Sanyal’s Rāni Kādambini, for only cognoscenti know of Kadambini Ganguly’s accomplishments as one of the first two Indian women to graduate (1882) and earn a medical degree (1886), then practise as a qualified doctor.
Strong women from a strong woman. Swati-di inherited shakti from her mother, who attended the annual Nandikar National Theatre Festivals unfailingly and kept a warm home in Allahabad where (on a personal note) Swati-di insisted my family should visit on a trip to Allahabad; and Swati-di passed shakti on to her daughter Sohini (who I taught and directed in Jadavpur University before her Nandikar career had taken shape). No one can replace Swati-di’s smiling presence in the patio outside the Academy of Fine Arts auditorium at those winter festivals showcasing Indian theatre. But I know that in Sohini her legacy lives on.