His school, Bangur Multipurpose, recalls playwright and director Bratya Basu, did not lay too much stress on uniforms and occasionally allowed students to stroll in in sandals. Bunking classes, understandably, was par for the course—Basu would use the opportunity to go fishing. One day, disgusted by the small fish he caught, Basu threw it back in the lake, much to the chagrin of his friend Boncha. “Boncha’s dad, a bus conductor, hadn’t brought fish to their house for days, while for me fishing was merely a hobby. It was my first brush with society’s class divide,” Basu says.
Voice of dissent: (top) Ruddhasangeet being performed in Kolkata; and Bratya Basu. Photographs: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Going by the response to his latest play, Ruddhasangeet (Song of the Stifled), one can safely assume that Basu’s concerns find a resonance with Kolkata’s theatre-going audience. It was first staged in March and 25 shows later, not a single seat has gone unsold. An estimated 25,000 people have watched the play so far, according to Rajarshi De, who enacts the role of music composer Salil Chowdhury in the play. “You need to be swift, for tickets disappear within hours of booking opening,” advised the person behind the ticket counter at the Academy of Fine Arts couple of weeks ago, ahead of the next staging of Ruddhasangeet.
Basu, 40, contends that his career in theatre has seen upheavals similar to those experienced by Debabrata Biswas, widely acknowledged as the greatest and most daring exponent of Rabindrasangeet (Tagore songs) in Bengal, and on whose life Ruddhasangeet is based. The play centres around Biswas’ estrangement from the Left-leaning Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) movement and Communist politics in Bengal, and his falling out with the music board of Viswa-Bharati university, which held the copyright of Tagore’s works and barred any experimention with time signature, style, melody or instrumentation of Tagore’s tunes.
The play begins with the banning of the Communist party in 1948, followed by the introduction of a cross section from Bengal’s erstwhile socio-cultural and political life. Characters of film-maker Ritwik Ghatak, singers Hemango Biswas and Suchitra Mitra, poet Subhas Mukhopadhyay, danseuse Manjushree Chaki-Sircar, theatre director Sambhu Mitra and political leaders such as Jyoti Basu and Promode Dasgupta appear at various moments. The play ends with the spotlight on Biswas—brought alive on stage with remarkable conviction by actor Debshankar Halder—a year before his death in 1980, by when he had become a marginalized figure.
Basu points out similar attempts to marginalize him. He had moved out of the Communist party fold after his years at Presidency College in Kolkata (“Here it is all about the CPM, not communism”), and the turn of events at Nandigram and Singur in 2008 prompted Basu to share the stage with Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. He says gradually, the state-funded theatre groups he was associated with began moving away from him, with one even organizing a press conference to publicly disown him.
For months Basu was left with no work, even as he became a prominent face of the anti-CPM intellectuals’ collective in West Bengal which includes author-activist Mahasweta Devi, and film-makers Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh. With Ruddhasangeet—which is based on Biswas’ autobiography, Bratyajoner Ruddhasangeet (Stifled Song of the Outcast)—the theatre group formed and led by Basu (named, incidentally, Bratyajon) has been quick off the block with its maiden production.
Still, Basu’s penchant for formulaic polemical content in many of the 20-odd plays he has penned, where he has taken a dig at the establishment and the established in Bengal, has not escaped critical scrutiny. The staging of Ruddhasangeet just ahead of the last Lok Sabha elections was also criticized by some as Basu’s effort to serve his own political agenda through theatre. “If the play was for the elections, we wouldn’t have got capacity audiences even now,” he vigorously counters, adding, “Power corrupts, and I think if the Trinamool comes to power in West Bengal, they shouldn’t be allowed to stay for too long. For me, I’ll always need an opposition, be it the audience or the establishment.”
Ruddhasangeet will be staged today at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata. It will be shown in the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, organized by the National School of Drama, in Bhopal and Delhi on 18 and 20 January, respectively.
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