Bengali theatre has its origins in British rule. It began as private entertainment in the early 19th century. In the pre-independence period, Bengali theatres played a pivotal role in manifesting dislike of the British Raj in India.
After the independence of India in 1947, leftist movements in West Bengal used theatre as propaganda tool. This added some unique characteristics, but the aftermath is still strong. These groups differentiate themselves ideologically from commercial Bengali theatre.
There are many theatres in West Bengal, which can be divided into Kolkata-based theatres and rural theatres. The Kolkata-based groups perform in Kolkata. The rural theatre groups are less known though they perform year round. Outside the area, Kolkata-based groups are regarded as Bengali theater. The two types are similar in n form and content, the two types of theatres are similar, but the Kolkata-based theatres are better funded and staffed. This is mainly due to the influx of expertise from rural areas to Kolkata in search of a larger audience.
There are some Bengali folk theatres. Bengali has many dialects in West Bengal and Bangladesh. The standard Bengali language is that spoken in Kolkata. The Bengali folk theatres vary in language.
Bengali theatre is not run commercially by any group or company. A famous Bengali commercial theatre after independence is Nahabat. There is a category of Bengali theatre called Jatra, which is run commercially in rural West Bengal and Bangladesh. The most prominent characteristic of Jatra is over-acting with extreme use of traditional musical instruments. At present, Jatra has been modernized to feature crisis through stories. Jatra is good employment for those who can do it. Many popular Bengali film-artists participate in Jatra.
The evolution of theatre in Bangladesh, which follows more or less the South Asian tradition with a European mix later, may be narrated in terms of three distinct streams: (i) Sanskrit theatre and derivatives, (ii) the indigenous theatre and (iii) the European theatre. In the South Asian tradition dramatic conflict is not an indispensable structural element.
Sanskrit theatre and derivatives
Ancient period With the Gupta annexation of the greater portion of Bengal by the 4th century AD, the Aryan culture of the upper Gangetic plain penetrated into the region. The flourishing trade of Bengal led to the rise of urban centres patronising art and culture. It is quite logical to believe that in such urban centres, performances of classical Sanskrit theatre would be a part of cultural life, at least among the urbane classes of the society. A few literary evidences strongly support this assumption. The most important of these is a Sanskrit play titled Lokananda by chandragomi (6th c), a reputed Buddhist grammarian from Bengal. Lokananda is structured in four acts with a prologue. The play must have been popular, for I-Tsing states, 'people all sing and dance to it throughout the five countries of India'.
Bengal was connected with the Aryan culture until the mid-8th century, during which period Harsavardhan of Northern India, Bhaskaravarman of Kamarupa, Yashovarman of Kanyakubja and Lalitaditya of Kashmir exerted influence. Harsavardhan a renowned Sanskrit playwright, was a patron of Bengali theatre. Bhavabhuti, the author of Malatimadhava, was the court-poet of Yasovarman. However, the most interesting account of a performance is recorded by the Kashmiri poet Kalhan in his Rajatarangini. According to him, Jayapida, the grandson of Lalitaditya, witnessed a performance given by a highly skilled dancer named Kamala in the temple of Kartikeya in the city of pundravardhana. The performance was given in accordance with Bharat's Natyashastra (a Sanskrit treatise on theatre ascribed to Bharat).
Nothing much is known about Sanskrit theatre during the Pala Rule in Bengal (mid-8th to mid-12th c) although the Tibetan historian Taranath mentions 'a grand dramatic performance that formed part of seasonal festival' in the city of Vikramapura.
The Senas, with their strong Brahmanical and south Indian background, were patrons of performances derived from Sanskrit tradition. King Vijayasena (c 1096-1159) and Bhavadev Bhatta (minister of King Hari Varman and a noted scholar) sponsored deva-dasis in the temples they established. Highly skilled in song, dance and music in the classical tradition as formulated in the Natyashastra, deva-dasis performed publicly in the temples and privately at royal courts. There are references in religious tracts of the period to nata (actor) as a separate class. Halayudh Mishra's sekhshubhodaya, a historical kavya or poem written in Sanskrit, also mentions nata (actors) and nartaki (danseuse) in the Sena court. Vidyapati's Purus Pariksa refers to a performance by an actor, Gandharva, in the court of King Laksmanasena. Prevalence of classical Sanskrit theatre in the Sena court can also be inferred from Govardhan Acharya's work, Aryasaptashati. Shlokas 174 and 538 of Aryasaptashati clearly refer to acting, curtain, and actress, which obviously imply the existence of Sanskrit theatre in the court of the Sena rulers.
Ragatarangini, a critical work on music composed in 1160 by Lochan Pandit, refers to an earlier text, Tambaru-nataka, a critical work on dramaturgy. A significant play written in this period is a Sanskrit performance-text, Gitagovindam (c 1200 AD) by Jaydev, the court-poet of Laksmanasena. In the Gitagovindam, Jaydev blended the existing popular tale of radha and krishna with one of the uparupakas of the classical Sanskrit tradition and set a new trend, which was to be echoed in the centuries. Jaydev performed the Gitagovindam as a singer with his wife Padmavati as a dancer.
The Gitagovindam has twelve parts and features three characters: Krishna, Radha, and Sakhi. The characters may be performed by three dancers or by a single dancer. The dancers sing their lines simultaneously as they dance with mimetic gestures (angika abhinaya). Between songs, the sutradhar (narrator) speaks verse narration, describing and commenting on the action, and introduces the characters and describes their mental states. The structure follows the pattern of Sanskrit theatre. The text resembles sangit-natakas (verse-plays) of the Nepalese court. The Gitagovindam and the Aryasaptashati bear evidence that in Laksmanasena's court, the love theme of Radha and Krishna, performed by courtesans, was a regular feature. Jaydev's text stood out as the model, to be emulated by the later poets in vernacular during the course of the following centuries.
Medieval period Sanskrit theatre received a serious setback towards the beginning of the 13th century when the Turkish took north-western Bengal from the Senas. Sagaranandi composed a critical work on Sanskrit dramaturgy, Natakalaksanaratnakosa; the very existence of a critical work on drama presupposes the continuance of the tradition of Sanskrit theatre in Bengal.
From the 16th century onwards, literary evidence appears in greater number. Towards the end of the same century, King Laksmana Manikya of Bhulua composed two plays, Vikhyata-vijaya and Kuvalayashva-charita, his son, Amara Manikya composed Vaikuntha-vijaya and a court poet, Kavitarkik, composed Kautuka-ratnakara. Krishnachandra Roy, tributary king of Nabadwip, continued the tradition in the 18th century. Chandi, unfinished play of court poet Bharatachandra, based on the mythological tale of Mahisasura Vadha (the slaying of the buffalo shaped asura), was influenced by Sanskrit dramaturgy, although the play is not entirely in Sanskrit. Although the play was never performed, the court of Krishnanagara is known to have produced a similar play, Chitra-yajna by Vidyanath Vachaspati, in 1777/78.
Rupa Goswami, one of Chaitanya's close associates based at Vrindavan, composed three Sanskrit plays, Bidagdha Madhava (1524), Lalita Madhava (1529), Dankeli-kaumudi (1549), as well as a critical work on Sanskrit dramaturgy, Nataka Chandrika. Jagannathavallabha by Ramananda Ray, Chaitanyachandrodaya by Kavikarnapur and Sangit Madhava by Govinda Das, were written outside Vrindavan. The plays by Rupa Goswami and Ramananda Ray are based on mythological tales of Krishna. Kavi Karnapur's play is based on the life of Chaitanya. Only Jagannathavallabha is known to have been performed. All save Govinda Das's play were translated into Bangla in the 17th century.
Modern translations of Sanskrit play-texts continued in the 19th century. A few of these are Krishna Mishra's Prabodhachandrodaya, kalidasa's Abhijnana-shakuntala (1848) and Ratnavali (1849). Scholars in Bengal composed Sanskrit texts in the modern period. Amara-mangala by Panchanan Tarkaratna (published c 1913), Nala-damayantiya and Syamantakoddhar by Kalipada Tarkacharyam are examples. Sanskrit theatre influenced Bangla plays initially. Jogendranath Gupta's Kirtibilas, credited as the first original Bangla play and the first tragedy, uses Nandi, the Sutradhara and Nati. The first Bangla play to be performed on stage, Ramnarayan Tarkaratna's Kulinkulasarvasva (composed in 1854, performed in 1857), uses the Nandi, the Sutradhara and the Nati.
With rising social consciousness and effects of western education, the conventions of Sanskrit theatre were seen to be ineffective in portraying the social ethos of the period. Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873), the literary giant of this period, bridged the transition to an urban theatre independent of Sanskrit influence by introducing techniques of European dramaturgy. From the mid-19th century onwards, Sanskrit theatre and its derivatives ceased to be an effective force in the theatre of Bengal.
Narrative forms In the narrative forms of theatre, the lead-narrator (gayen) describes an event, portrays various characters related to the event and enacts the action, all in the third person. While engaged as described above, s/he partly speaks his/her lines in prose, partly recites in verse, and partly sings his/her story. S/he is assisted by the choral singers-cum-musicians (dohars), who employ musical instruments (Mridanga and Mandira) and sing choral passages. The gayen carries a chamar (whisk) in religious performances and occasionally dances while singing. Usually, the performer makes effective use of vocal inflections and physical gestures in his/her portrayal of the characters. Sometimes s/he also readjusts his/her basic costume, and uses a few props to make the portrayal more effective.
The earliest evidence of narrative theatre in Bengal can be traced to the charyapada or charyagiti, a form of songs popular in Bengal from the 9th to the 12th century AD. These songs were composed by Tantric Buddhist mendicants to expound their religious doctrine. They were presented to the lay populace with the help of dance, in a manner similar to the charya dance still seen in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal.
Ethnological studies indicate a long tradition of narrative theatre in the Natha cult. These performances were based on oral compositions of those dealing with the origin of the Natha siddhas and the subsequent rescue of Minanatha by his disciple Goraksanatha from the enticement of worldly pleasure and = those dealing with the exploits of Queen Maynamati and her son King Govindachandra (or Gopichandra), the disciple of Hadipa. Narrative performances based on the Maynamati-Gopichandra legend were created after the 11th century and gained wide currency in northern India. On the other hand, the performances based on the Goraksanatha-Minanatha legend are more difficult to date. If the Natha cult evolved in the 9th century, it is possible to place the earliest performances of the Goraksanatha-Minanatha legend in the 10th century.
None of the extant literary and liturgical texts of the Dharma cult can be dated beyond the 17th century. It is possible that in the 12th century, when the cult was in existence, there existed a body of oral narratives on which the later texts were built. Extant texts and current practice among the followers of the cult indicate that celebrations of the ancient period included narrative performances of oral compositions.
A large number of orally composed folk tales prevail at the popular level, such as Madhumalar Kechchha, Sakhisona, Malanchakanyar Kechchha, Shit-Basanta, Kanchanamala and Malatikusumamala, indicate that their original nuclei were created in the 12th century. All the tales are secular in content, and some of them are still performed in Bangladesh. It has been only since the first half of the 20th century that they have been scribed and published in editions such as Thakurmar Jhuli. For a predominantly non-literate audience, stories would be told rather than read, and the most expedient way to commit a story to memory is to have it composed in verse. Terra-cotta plaques depicting secular (Sanskrit Panchatantra) stories have been discovered in the temple of Somapura Monastery. It can be argued that the secular tales of the ancient period were orally composed in rhymed metrical verse and rendered as narrative performance.
Various political and social factors, including state-patronised Brahmanical hegemony in the 12th century and the advent of the Muslims in the early 13th century, caused a qualitative change in the culture of Bengal. There was a gradual acculturation, decay and transformation in Buddhist, Dharma and Natha cult performances. On the other hand, a new set of narrative performances appeared in the indigenous theatre of Bengal. Distinguishing between their subject matter, these can be divided into performances glorifying the Aryan pantheon and legendary heroes as recounted in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the indigenous pantheon as recounted in the mangalkavya or those on Muslim legendary heroes. The tradition of secular narratives continued, invigorated by interaction with the above. Early bangla literature was dependent on lyric. Literary compositions of the period under study should be held as performance-texts, rather than written and printed texts.
Largely based on the Bhagavata, Srikrishnavijay was composed in 1473-80. It is possible that narrative performance based on oral compositions of Krishna legends existed since the beginning of the 13th century. The translation of Valmiki's Ramayana in the first half of the 15th century presupposes the existence of narrative performances drawing from oral texts based on the exploits of Ramachandra.
Initiated in the early 16th century by Chaitanya (1486-1533), Gaudiya Vaisnavism made a significant contribution to the theatre of Bengal by giving rise to the narrative form known as Lila Kirtan, which had its formal inception at the famous festival of Kheur in 1576. Narottama Das, credited with having given structure to Lila Kirtan, strUng together brief Vaisnavite devotional songs known as padavalis to produce a coherent narrative based on a particular lila of Radha and Krishna. He synthesised the indigenous musical tradition of Bengal with the north Indian classical tradition.
Vijay Gupta's Padmapurana (1494) and Bipradas Pipilai's Manasavijaya (end of 15th c) are clear indications that narrative performances on the serpent goddess Manasa existed in the 15th century. Narrative performances based on oral compositions were prevalent in Bengal in the 13th and 14th centuries, before written texts. From the 16th century onwards, there are a number of mangalakavyas on Manasa, such as Narayan Dev's Padmapurana (first half of 16th c) and Ketakadas Ksemananda's Manasamangala (mid-17th c). Quite a few popular versions based on oral compositions came up during this period. Vijay Gupta's Padmapurana is still performed in south-western Bangladesh as Rayani Gan, while an adaptation of Narayan Dev's text is performed in north Bengal as Padmapurana Gan.
The 16th century is known as the era of mangalakavyas on chandi, for it was in this period that these gained widest currency. The most renowned mangalakavya on the goddess was composed by Kavikankana Mukundaran Chakravarti (c 1555-56). The signature-piece (bhanita) indicates that the poet performed Chandimangala and parts of it were rendered in lyric. His signature-pieces suggest that the poet was in the company of skilled musicians (kalanta, lit. well versed in classical music) and actors (natuya). Another section indicates that the performance was composed of git (song), badya (music), natya (acting) and dance, executed by actors and skilled musicians. This textual evidence proves that Chandimangala was in narrative form in the 16th century.
References in Chaitanya Bhagavata (Part I, Chapters 2 & 13; 1535-36) indicate the existence of Mangal Chandir Git (narrative performance based on eulogies of Mangal Chandi), in the first half of the 16th century. The same text testifies that narrative performances of Shiver Git, based on oral compositions in praise of Shiva, existed in the first half of the 16th century. A lone performer, who danced and played the damaru (drum) as he sang, would perform in a courtyard.
The appearance of yusuf-zulekha (c 1390-1410) marks the entry of a new element, the Perso-Arabic influence, in the history of performance in Bengal. rasulbijay (1474), which recounts the life of the Prophet, emphasised the keen interest of the Muslims in exerting their distinct identity by attempting to create a tradition parallel to the Hindu puranas. Both texts were composed under court patronage of the Muslim rulers and point to the beginning of narrative performances based on Islamic root-paradigms. By the 16th century, a number of texts dealing with Islamic cosmology and legends began to appear. Some of these (such as Maktul Hosain, Kashemer Ladai, Karbala and janganama), focus on the deaths of Imam Hasan and Imam Hosain and the revenge of their legendary half-brother, Hanifa. Others (nabi bangsha, Rasulbijay and amir hamza) illustrate a vast area, often beginning with the creation of the world, running right through legends related to various prophets, and ending with the life and accomplishments of the Prophet. The textual composition suggests that most of these were given as narrative performance.
Besides the two groups of texts mentioned above, there evolved a third, the stories of which were indigenous in origin. Based on various legends associated with a number of Muslim saints (pirs), these can be termed 'miracles of saints'. Most of these texts, composed in rhymed metrical verse, profess the efficacy of the cult of their respective pirs ie, Khwaja Khizir, Pir Madar, Gazi Pir, Satya Pir and Manik Pir. They seek to generate devotion in the cult followers and warn the non-believers of dire consequences.
Khwaja Khizir is the earliest Muslim saint whose miracles gained wide currency in the form of narrative (Khwaja Khizirer Jari) and processional performance (Beda Bhasan). Historical records on the celebration of Beda Bhasan by the ruling elite in 1626-27 indicate that the celebration was in existence by the mid-16th century. The hey-day of the cult and its performances were the 17th and the 18th centuries. On the other hand, granting privileges to the followers of Pir Madar by a Mughal viceroy of Bengal in 1659 (which included taking out processions in honour of the pir) indicate that narrative and processional performances related to the cult must have evolved by 1600 AD. Celebrations in honour of Pir Madar on the day of the full moon in Magh (mid-January to mid-February), accompanied by processions with bamboo poles and music played on dhak, dhol and kasi, date back to the first half of the 15th century when the cult was introduced in Bengal. Performances of the cult, which still exist in Bangladesh, are Madariya Michhil, Madar Bansher Gan and Madar Pirer Gan. These performances show that the cult had incorporated elements from Tantric practices. Historical accounts (Risalat al-Shuhada, second half of 15th c), textual evidence (Sheikh Faizullah's Gazibijay, second half of 16th c), ethnological studies and traditions reveal that the legend related to Pir Gazi arose shortly after 1600 AD. The earliest performance of the cult of Gazi, a narrative form known as gazir gan still seen in Bangladesh today, arose by the mid-17th century. The earliest literary reference to satya pir is to be found in kavi kanka's Vidya-Sundar (1502) while the earliest written text on the miracles of the pir was composed by Dvija Giridhara in 1663. It is believed that a form of narrative performance (Satya Pirer Gan), based on oral compositions, evolved in the second half of the 16th century. It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that the performance gained wide currency. Literary references to Manik Pir begin to appear in the first half of the 18th century and extant written texts in his honour were composed in the same century. It is possible that narrative performances based on oral compositions (Manik Pirer Jari) began to develop in the second half of the 17th century.
Secular narrative performances based on folk and fairy tales continued in the medieval period. Chaitanya Bhagavata mentions performances known as Yogi Paler Git, Bhogi Paler Git and Mahi Paler Git. The most significant development occurred in the kingdom of Arakan, where Bahram Khan (16th c) composed laily-majnu, a free translation of a Persian poetic text of the same title. Bahram Khan's text is important for it is one of those rare specimens of Bangla literature which end in separation and pathos. The text marks the beginning of a new trend of pathetic lore. The Arakanese court was a fertile ground for Muslim poets, the most famous of whom was Alaol (c 1607-1680), whose compositions include masterpieces such as padmavati (1651) and Saiful Muluk-Badiujjamal (1659-69). All these texts are secular and romantic in character. They draw their material from Hindi and Persian sources, thus enriching the theatre of Bengal with new vitality. All these texts were performed in narrative form and gained currency among the Muslim population. By the late 18th century, the pala gan appeared, the form that features the oral version of maimansingha-gitika.
The charyagiti reveal that song-and-dance performances were well known among Tantric Buddhists of the Pala society. The song composed by Kahnapa (text no 10)is an example; it contains the words 'dancing' and 'the profession of acting' as well as in the concluding two lines of another song composed by Vinapa (text no 17) which contains the words 'dancing', 'singing' and 'Buddhist drama'. Sketches of siddhacharyas in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries show Vinapa and Sarahapa with musical instruments, while Minapa, Dombipa and Jalandharipa are shown in dancing postures. These and other references to performances made in Tantric esoteric texts (such as Guhyasamajatantra) suggest that song-and-dance performances, aiming at spiritual liberation, were held in secluded spots at night or in temples. These song-and-dance performances were given by a male ascetic with his female partner and were accompanied by song (dohas and charyas sung by fellow ascetics) and dance.
The Tantric Buddhist tradition of song-and-dance performances continued among the followers of the Natha cult in performances such as Yogir Gan and Yugi Parva, seen in Bangladesh today. A glimpse of ancient song-and-dance performances of the cult can be seen in Goraksanath's performance in the presence of Minanatha as recounted in three narrative texts composed in the 16th century: goraksavijay by Sheikh Faizullah, Gorkha-vijay by Bhimsen Ray and Minachetan by Shyamadas Sen, and a play-text, Goraksa-vijay, by Vidyapati c 1403. Gopichandra Nataka (17th c), another play-text from the Nepalese royal court, further substantiates the contention made above.
Krttivas, in his preface to the Ramayana (1415-1433), records the popularity of song-and-dance performance in the royal court of the Muslim rulers of gauda. The so-called account of ma huan recorded in Ying Yai Sheng Lan (1408-1411) also confirms song-and-dance performance in the Muslim royal court. According to the Chinese text, song-and-dance type of performance were given by 'good singers and dancers' in gorgeous costume 'to enliven drinking and feasting'.
The composition of Srikrishnakirtan by c 1400 indicates that, by the 13th century, there existed among the people a song-and-dance performance based on oral compositions featuring three characters: Radha, Krishna, and Badai. The characters danced as they sang their lines. Like the Gitagovindam, these performances could be given by a single performer who would enact all the three characters or by three performers who would enact the characters separately. These were performed in rural festivals or during ritualised worship of deities in temples.
The existence of song-and-dance performances in the early 16th century is substantiated by Chaitanya Bhagavata (II, 18) which elaborately describes Chaitanya and his disciples enacting such a performance. Characters portrayed were Rukmini, Radha, her companion Suprabha, Badai, Kotala, Narada and his follower. One part of the performance featured Rukmini while the other, Radha. The spectators, all Chaitanya's followers, sat on all four sides of the performance space; the green room was situated at a little distance. At least one source of lighting was a torch held by a stagehand who moved with the performers. There exist only two more references to early song-and-dance performances within the fold of Vaisnavism. One is from Sylhet, in the first half of the 16th century, which may have given rise to ghatu gan of mymensingh. The other, from the second half of the same century, to a form referred to as Shekhari Jatra featuring Radha, soon became extinct. By the late 17th century, these early attempts matured into what is known as Pala Kirtana in Bangladesh today.
Supra-personae forms The masked dance of the Gambhira festival was originally an ancient shamanist or spirit cult performance of the Koch community. By the 9th century, the Tantric Buddhists in Bengal assimilated the performance to evolve their own forms of masked dance, which were similar to Astamatrika Dance, Mahakali Pyayakhan, Devi Pyayakhan (Kathmandu, Nepal) and Tibetan Buddhist masked dances. These dances were performed in the Buddhist monasteries during religious festivals, very much as in Tibetan and Nepalese practice. These performances were given at the year-ending celebration of chaitra sangkranti and were given after processional performances.
By the end of the 12th century, when Tantric Saivism in Bengal had assimilated decaying Tantric Buddhism, Buddhist masked dances were also adapted to give rise to Mahakali Pyayakhan, Devi Pyayakhan and similar dances. Tantric Saivite masked dances in Bengal, unlike those of Kathmandu Valley (Nepal), decayed because of Muslim conquest. What remains today can be seen in Mukho Nacha, Kali Kach, Gambhira festival and Sang Jatra.
Performance with scroll painting The existence of patuya sangit (performances with scroll paintings) in ancient Bengal is confirmed by two sources: Yama-pattika as referred to in Harsa-charita (7th c AD) and scroll painting of the santals. Banabhatta (the court-poet of Harsavardhan) in his Harsa-charita briefly describes a popular performance of Yama-pattaka witnessed by Harsavardhan on his way back to the capital after he learnt of the death of his brother. It was given by a performer with the help of a scroll-painting showing Yama, the King of the Underworld. On the other hand, recent ethnographic studies have shown that the Santal people have among them a type of scroll painting representing the origin of life (Ko Reyak Katha) and the passage of the dead from the mortal world to the life beyond (Chaksudan Pat). These too point to the ancient origin of Patuya Gan performances in Bengal. In the medieval period, scroll painting performances eulogising Ramachandra, Krishna, Manasa, Chandi were extremely popular. By the 18th century, scroll-painting performances gained popularity even among the Muslims, as evinced by Gazir Pat (scroll-painting performances eulogising Pir Gazi), which can still be seen in Bangladesh today.
Puppet theatre It is not known when puppet theatre was introduced in Bengal. The earliest extant literary evidence of the existence of the form in Bengal is a couplet in Yusuf-Zulekha (1391-1410). As signified there, these performances were given with the help of string puppets. It is possible that orally composed tales of gods and goddesses, such as those of Krishna, Rama, Manasa etc, were produced in these performances. Mukunda Chakravarti's Chandimangala (1555-56) and krishnadas kaviraj's chaitanya charitamrita (c 1560-80) definitely point to the existence of puppet theatre during this period. Judging by the popularity of cults and the existing tradition among current performers, it could be safely assumed that these were related to Krishna, Rama, Manasa, Chandi and Chaitanya. Interestingly, no Islamic narrative ever seems to have been performed by puppets in Bengal. String puppets still exist in Bangladesh today.
Processional Forms Processional performances are characterised by the use of tableaux, music, song and dance, all of which form a part of large processions (jatra) attended by adherents of a particular religious faith. In many ways, these performances hold the key to the history of indigenous theatre because they brought together all the three types discussed above, to give birth to jatra, the most popular form of the indigenous theatre which can claim to be indeed the national theatre idiom.
From the description provided by fa-hien during his visit to India (399 to 414 AD), it is known that on the 8th day of the second month (roughly the last week of May), a highly popular Buddhist religious festival used to be held in Pataliputra. In it, a number of well-decorated chariots (ratha) with the image of the Buddha and other deities installed within, were drawn through the streets and were accompanied by 'singers and skilful musicians'. Hiuen Tsiang witnessed similar festivals at Kanauj and Allahabad. Harsavardhan himself accompanied the procession dressed as Indra, and his friend, Bhaskaravarman, the king of kamarupa (assam), appeared disguised as brahma. Each day of the festival opened with lavish performances of dance and music, vocal and instrumental. I-Tsing also reports about similar processions in samatata (eastern Bangladesh) in the second half of the 7th century. These evidences clearly point to the existence of Buddhist processional performances in the 7th century Bengal, which featured chariots with images of deities, song, music, dance and character impersonation (such as Indra and Brahma). At the end of these processions, masked dance and narrative performances were given in the monasteries. The existence of Matsendranatha Jatra in Nepal makes it possible to believe that the followers of the Natha cult in Bengal may also have developed their own procession in 10th or 11th century.
By the early 12th century, processional performances had spread among the followers of the Dharma cult. Extant literary and liturgical texts and current practice among the followers of the cult indicate that in the 12th century, its followers participated in religious celebrations, which included processional performance. The processions would be led by 'the sandal of Dharma (placed) on a golden palanquin', followed by music (played on various instruments), song and dance of the devotee. The processions also included a sang, ie, a clown with a painted face (or wearing a mask) and dressed as a mythical character. The clown may also be seen today in Dharmer Gajan processions. The clown of ancient Dharmer Gajan processions possibly performed brief mimetic dance pieces which depicted legends related to the cult. In all probability, these performances would begin from the temples of dharma thakur, circumambulate neighbouring habitations and end at the temple again. There, narrative performances and masked dances were held in honour of deities of the cult.
By the end of the 12th century, Tantric Saivism had assimilated the Tantric Buddhist and the Dharma cult processions. Tantric Saivite processions, given as a year-ending celebration of Chaitra Samkranti, included impersonation of various deities, mythical heroes, animals and supernatural beings singing and dancing to music played on drums and cymbals. The processions began from Saivite temples, circumambulated neighbouring habitations and ended at the point of origin. Ritualistic and masked dances would be given at temple precincts in the evening and would continue through the night. Remnants of these ancient performances, known as Shiver Gajan, Niler Gajan, and processions of Sang Jatra and Astak Jatra, can still be seen in Bangladesh.
Possibly around the 14th century, the Shakta cult was beginning to incorporate processional performances into its fold. Kalika-purana specifies that the celebration in honour of Kali (in her manifestation as Durga, the slayer of Mahisasura) is to culminate on the 10th day with a procession for immersion of the idol (visarjana). The procession is to be made up of virgins and courtesans well-versed in music, performers (nata) and musicians who are to play sangkha, turi, mrdanga and dhak. Others are to carry colourful flags, scatter fluffed rice (khai), flower, dust and mud. It is also prescribed that erotic conduct is to prevail in absolute carnivalesque abandon in order to please the goddess. It is possible, as recent ethnological studies reveal, that some form of performance would also be given in temple precincts after the procession. By the late medieval period, the Sakta cult had developed a large number of processional performances. Bamakesvar-tantra (a Tantric text) specifies sixteen processions to be taken out annually in honour of the goddess Bhagavati.
By the 16th century, processional performances were immensely popular among the Vaisnavites as well. Raghunandan, a famous smrti scholar from 15th-16th century, ruled twelve processions in honour of vishnu. The Vaisnavite processional performances gradually incorporated tableaux of Vaisnavite mythologies placed on chariots drawn by devotees and characters representing major mythological characters accompanying the procession on foot. During his lifetime, Chaitanya brought out processions accompanied by singing and dancing of his followers, for mobilising mass support. Vaisnavite processional performances still exist in Bangladesh today in the form of Janmastami Michhil in dhaka (initiated in 1555) and Nauka-vilas Michhil in tangail (possibly acculturated from ancient Buddhist/Dharma cult practice).
The Vaisnavites (particularly the Gaudiya Vaisnavites) are to be credited with further development of the processional performance. During his residence at Puri, Chaitanya and his followers enacted a curious form of performance, best described as 'environmental', which has been recounted in Chaitanya Charitamrta (Part II, Chapter 15). In one of these, they appeared in a procession at a festival site, dressed as Hanumana and his army of monkeys. There they enacted an excerpt from the Ramayana (the attack on and the destruction of the castle of Lanka), on a locale that was created in advance at the festival site. References to similar performances have also been given in the Chaitanya Bhagavata, where it is described that in their childhood, Nityananda and his friends play-acted various tales of Rama and Krishna. In these, the locale of each scene was created in advance in natural environs in a manner similar to Rama Lila of north India. At some time during the lifetime of Chaitanya, the processional performances got linked with the environmental so that the performers and the spectators moved bodily in procession from one locale to another. Narayan Bhatta, a disciple of the 16th century goswamins or ascetics, Rupa and Sanatana, is credited with having established Bana jatra in the countryside of Braja (north India). In Bana jatra, devotees moved in procession to spots where Krishna lilas are believed to have occurred; in each spot, young boys enacted a particular lila associated with the spot. After Chaitanya's death, processional-environmental performances based on various legends associated with Krishna (such as the slaying of the Kaliya serpent) appear to have continued and can still be seen today in nauka-vilas michhil of Tangail. Some scholars believe that similar performances existed in the Shakta fold as well, in the form of Chandi Jatra, the content of which was based on Chandimangala.
The basic characteristics of these processional-environmental performances were (i) the enactment of each scene in separate out-door environs specially created or adapted from natural sites and (ii) processions of spectators who accompanied the performers from one environment to another. Generally, these performances were given during religious festivities and celebrations as a part of processions in honour of the cult deity. By the end of the medieval period, the Buddhist-Dharma-Natha processional performances of the ancient period (which entailed narrative performances and masked dances at the end of the procession in temples/monasteries) had evolved into Vaisnavite processional-environmental performances (which incorporated performances in specific natural environs). During the evolution, the two performances were linked by the processional performances of the Tantric Saiva-Sakta cult.
By the second half of the 18th century, professional performance troupes began to produce various lilas of Krishna not in actual environs but in nat-mandapas or courtyards of rural homesteads and public grounds, that is, any 'non-environmental' space. More importantly, these began to be given not only on religious festivals but also on other days as desired by sponsors. Generally known as kaliya-daman jatra, these performances may have had some interaction with the court-sponsored Sanskrit theatre of Nabadwip. The kaliya-daman texts were based on Krishna legends, drawn from the puranas and popular sources. Kaliya-daman jatra was predominantly lyrical. The adhikari (regisseur or proprietor of the troupe) played the role of Vrinda (a companion of Radha) or Muni Gonsai (Narada) and guided the entire action like a sutradhara by narrating parts of the action in improvised prose and pre-composed verse and lyric. The other parts were rendered as dialogue between him/her and various characters. Shishuram Adhikari (c mid-18th century) was possibly the earliest exponent of the form. Concurrently with kaliya-daman jatra, a few more forms were also popular in Bengal, all of which were similar in form but varied in content. These were Chaitanya jatra (based on the life of Chaitanya), Chandi jatra (with content drawn from Chandimangala) and Rama jatra (with content drawn from the Ramayana). By the early 19th century there evolved the Bhasan jatra, the content of which was drawn from Manasamangala. However, vestiges of medieval processional-environmental performances continued with rasa jatra in which the rasa dance of Krishna and the milkmaids was enacted.
Kaliya-daman jatra lost its popularity after 1840s, to be replaced by Krishna jatra, which can still be seen in Bangladesh. Although both the forms were based on Krishna lila, the texts of Krishna jatra were entirely dialogic, with a greater portion being in prose. Its popularity faded after the early 20th century. Similar structural changes affected Chandi jatra and Bhasan jatra as well. The latter still exists in Bangladesh.
The first half of the 19th century ushered in a qualitative transformation in the social life of the Bengalis belonging to the Hindu community, especially in urban areas such as calcutta. The essence of the change can be summed up as laying greater emphasis on the material as opposed to the spiritual and Eurocentricism as opposed to tradition-bound conservatism. A section of the indigenous theatre based in Kolkata responded to the social changes. Thus from Krishna jatra arose natun jatra (lit. 'new jatra') in the 1820s. Natun jatra aimed entirely at secular entertainment by enacting pseudo-mythological tales with emphasis on the human aspects (such as vidyasundar) but its structure was similar to Krishna jatra. Natun jatra performances were given by professional troupes, the most famous of which was that of Gopal Ude (1819-1859). In the 1860s, the sizzling sensation of natun jatra began to wear out and gitabhinay appeared, which projected a curious blend of bhakti from Krishna jatra, merriment from natun jatra and pathos from European-influenced Bangla theatre. Gradually, gitabhinay reduced emphasis on lyric and dance, and, in its place, prose dialogue began to play a more dominant role. In terms of plot construction, it gradually began to assimilate techniques of building action based on conflict, from the European theatre. However, its content was drawn from Hindu mythology. The rise of Neo-Hinduism in the 1870s brought about a temporary reversal by reinstating the spiritual and religious tradition. Consequently, there grew a demand for performances which would promote religious devotion. Madanmohan Chattapadhyay responded to the demand and reformed natun jatra by drawing elements from gitabhinay. Known as Pauranic jatra (lit 'mythological jatra'), the new form drew its content from the Ramayana, the Bhagavata, the Brahma-vaivarta Purana, the Harivangsha, etc.
The partition of bengal (1905) raised the question of nationalism to the forefront. Consequently, social life in Bengal witnessed a surge of interest on the theme of national identity. This trend is reflected in the indigenous theatre with the evolution of aitihasik jatra (lit. 'historic jatra'), and swadeshi jatra (lit. 'nationalist jatra'). Whereas aitihasik jatra drew its content from semi-historical stories, swadeshi jatra incorporated contemporary issues such as colonial exploitation, patriotism, anti-colonial struggle, oppression of feudal lords etc. The latter, under the guidance of actor-playwright Mukunda Das, earned unprecedented popularity in Bengal. The colonial government banned three of his plays and he himself faced imprisonment.
From the 1920s, jatra failed to respond to the rising heat in the political arena and chose to dwell safely on mythologies and histories. From the mid-20th century, jatra turned to social themes and reflected crises in family life in confrontation with society. Popularly known as samajik jatra, it did raise questions of Hindu-Muslim relationships, but the approach was sentimental rather than analytical. The jatra is a spent force today, and its principal device to arouse public interest is erotic song-and-dance numbers.
No major innovation can be noticed among the 'Islamic' forms in the 19th and the 20th centuries. The number of followers of Pir Madar declined sharply after their rebellion failed. Performances related to Khwaja Khizir also declined after the rise of the Islamic reform movement of the Faraizis (1818-1860s), which called for pristine purity of Islam. Performances related to the three other pirs managed to survive in pockets where the faraizi movement was relatively weak: Gazi (around Sundarban Forest), Satya (in Dinajpur-Rangpur-Rajshahi belt) and Manik (in Khulna-Jessore belt). The followers of the last three pirs were drawn into the rising popularity of jatra performances and, by the mid-19th century, evolved Gazir jatra, Satya Pirer jatra and Manik Pirer jatra. These forms can still be seen in Bangladesh.
European theatre Political and economic measures undertaken by the English colonisers from 1757 onwards led to the bengal renaissance in the early 19th century, which affected all aspects of intellectual pursuits in Bengal. Its immediate effect was a bifurcation of society into the rural and urban cultures. The elitist urban culture and the European theatre of the economically powerful minority fashioned itself around European models. It demonstrated tremendous vitality, opened new directions, but, as in most cases, also lost touch with the majority and their rural culture. The indigenous theatre, which in most cases remained a part of the rural culture, has failed to meet the demands of the 21st century life in Bangladesh and a process of fossilisation has already set in. On the other hand, the European theatre has been dynamic because the elite urban intelligentsia, who have been responding to the needs of urban spectators, have sustained it.
Until 1947, the theatre of the urban elite in Bengal was centred in Calcutta, the economic and political seat of power of 19th century India. With the creation of Pakistan, Dhaka gained importance as the urban cultural centre of eastern Bengal and continued its dominance in independent Bangladesh. In the following section, the history of theatre of undivided Bengal will be traced until 1947, following which it will focus on eastern Bengal, later Bangladesh.
Introduction of European theatre The earliest known English theatre in Bengal, a proscenium playhouse known as 'The Theatre', was built in Calcutta in 1753 and was closed following Nawab sirajuddaula's attack on the city in 1756. In 1775 'The New Playhouse', also called 'The Calcutta Theatre', came up. Until 1808, when it went out of business, the theatre performed Shakespeare, Massinger, Congreve, Sheridan etc. Initially, male actors performed female roles but the practice soon gave way to female performers. A host of other proscenium playhouses soon followed, of which the Chowrangee Theatre (1813-39) and the Sans Souci Theatre (1839-1849) gained wide fame and renown. dwarkanath tagore was the only Bengali associated with the Chowrangee and he later purchased the theatre. However, until the day the Chowrangee was burnt down, the English managed it, produced English plays (Sheridan, Goldsmith, Shakespeare and other popular plays from the London stage) and the performers were all English. However, by the time of the Sans Souci, Bengali participation was on the rise. A number of Bengalis were associated with it and a Bengali performed the title role in Othello (1848), although all the other performers were English. However, the Sans Souci too performed only English plays. The English theatre continued in the second half of the 19th century, but lost its significance due to the rise of native Bangla theatre.
Imitation, assimilation and formation The first performance of a play in Bangla, on a proscenium stage, by an all-native cast (both male and female), was produced by a Russian named gerasim stepanovitch lebedeff (1749-1817), on 27 November, 1795. The play, a translation of Richard Jodrell's comedy, The Disguise, was performed at the Bengally Theatre at 25 Doomtullah (presently Ezra) Street, Calcutta. Lebedeff himself translated the play. Although the cost of admission was high, the interest of Bengali spectators can be gauged from the full house the performance enjoyed.
In the first half of the 19th century, colonial educational institutions such as Hindu college and Oriental Seminary played the most influential role in disseminating interest in European theatre. As a part of the newly introduced educational curricula in the schools and colleges, Shakespeare soon assumed the position of an ideal model. After a few stray attempts in the first half of the 19th century, the proscenium theatre was considered fashionable enough to be sponsored by affluent zamindars as private theatre in and around the mid-19th century. The most important of these was the Belgachia Theatre (1858-1861), credited as being the first permanent proscenium theatre of Bengal, which was built by the Rajas of Paikpara at their Belgachia Villa. The theatre took pride in its quality orchestra, fine perspective backdrops, gas-lanterns, and limelight.
From the mid-19th century, Bengalis began attempts at assimilating European dramaturgy. Michael Madhusudan Dutt paved the way for future playwrights by successfully demonstrating the techniques of European dramaturgy with plays such as Sharmistha (premiered at the Belgachia where he made his debut in 1859), Padmavati (published 1860, premiered 1865) and a historical tragedy titled Krishna Kumari (published 1861, premiered 1867). Madhusudan shines most brilliantly with his farces, where the language is easy, the attack is sharp and relevant, and the characters are drawn distinctly. In Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyata (published 1860, premiered 1865), he ridicules the ultra-progressive Young Turks who blindly copied European culture and in Buda Shaliker Ghade Ron (published 1860, premiered 1867), he aims at unmasking the hypocrisy of the affluent. Ironically, the Sanskrit theatre, whose fetters he tried to break, tightened its grip on his last play, Mayakanan (1874).
dinabandhu mitra (1830-1873), a contemporary of Madhusudan Dutt, wrote Nildarpan (1860), which effectively deals with the ruthless exploitation of Bengal peasants by the powerful English indigo planters in rural Bengal. Considered a realistic play of popular protest by many, the play is in effect melodramatic in its treatment of blood and torture but its content reflected contemporary social reality in a manner meaningful to urban middle-class Bengali society. Although he composed a number of other plays, Mitra is also celebrated as 'a veritable magician of laughter' for his farces: Biye Pagla Buda (1866), Sadhabar Ekadashi (1866) and Jamai Barik (1871).
Early years of the public theatre (1870s-1920s) On 7 December 1872, history was made with the opening of the first public playhouse in Bengal, the National Theatre, with Mitra's Niladarpana. The playhouse with its proscenium stage was a temporary construction in the courtyard of a private residence in Calcutta and was formed by a group of theatre-crazy youths belonging to Baghbazar Amateur Theatre (1869-1872), some of whom were to become stars of professional theatre in the next few years. The public playhouse opened European theatre to the urban middle class. No longer the handmaid of the affluent, the theatre was free to serve a wider public and thereby gain strength and maturity. The Bengal Theatre, which opened in 1873, was the first permanent playhouse with a proscenium stage in Bengal. The maiden performance of Bengal Theatre, Madhusudan's Sarmistha, also created history because for the first time in professional European theatre, female performers (Jagattarini, Golap, Elokeshi and Shyama) enacted female roles. Gaslight was used to light these playhouses until 1887 when dynamo-produced electric lighting was introduced for the first time at the Emerald Theatre. Stage locales were usually established with the help of painted wings and backdrops. In playwriting, the five-act romantic tragedy, especially that of Shakespeare, was the model. The acting was mostly declamatory and melodramatic. At the risk of oversimplification, one may describe the productions as escapist entertainment in which songs and dances of dancing girls (sakhis) and other sensational contrivances were indispensable elements.
Soon after its inception, public theatre faced the wrath of the British Raj when the Great National Theatre staged a farce named Gajananda O Yubaraj (19 February 1876). The play was immediately banned. Soon after, the British government passed the Dramatic Performance Control Act of 1876, which empowered it to 'prohibit certain dramatic performances, which are scandalous, defamatory, seditious, obscene or otherwise'. The Act was repealed in 2001. As for the public theatre of Calcutta, it found political criticism too hot to handle and the wrath of the state too strong to defend with its tinsel arms. Hence, after the first skirmish, for the most part it chose to play shy, even when faced with the swadeshi movement beginning in 1905. The major exceptions were some of the historical plays of girish chandra ghosh (1844-1912) and dwijendralal roy (1863-1913).
The second half of the 19th century saw a gradual rise of religious revivalism and traditionalism within the urban middle-class Bengali Hindu society in Calcutta. In theatre, the trend was reflected in plays by girish chandra ghosh, an exceptionally versatile actor and director of high merit. He wrote about seventy plays, many of which were based on mythological tales, lives of saints and religious heroes and projected intense devotional fervour. An example of these is Chaitanya Lila, based on the life of Chaitanya. Whereas Michael Madhusudan and Mitra strove to emulate European dramaturgy both in form and spirit, Girish Chandra Ghosh chose only the form (for him, Shakespeare); his ideological frame and mental makeup was structured on Krttivas's Ramayana and Kashiram Das's Mahabharata. It is only in his social and historical plays (Prafulla and Sirajuddaula, respectively) that Ghosh manages to extricate himself from a revivalist fervour. He is also credited for introducing psychological dimension in character interpretation, acting, and training of performers.
From about 1900 until the Great War, historical plays, often based on patriotic themes began to dominate the scene. Although Girish Chandra Ghosh continued to exert his influence, Dwijendralal Roy was an equal if not a greater factor to be considered. A good example of an intellectual of the colonial period who successfully assimilated the culture of the ruling race, Roy was not directly attached to any theatre. Infused with patriotism that was at once secular and humanist, he redirected the attention of his spectators to the spiritual realm of humanity. Some of Roy's better known plays are Rana Pratap Singha (1905), Nurjahan (1908) and Shajahan (1909).
Beside the mythological and historical plays mentioned above, the period also produced social dramas, domestic comedies, and gitabhinay musicals. Two other playwrights of this period were jyotirindranath tagore (1849-1925), and amrita lal basu (1852-1929). Jyotirindranath contributed a number of quality translations (Julius Caesar, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme etc) and historical plays. Amrita Lal Basu, also a well-known actor, earned his fame for his farces, which ridiculed the influence of European culture on Bengali society.
Blending of the indigenous and the European: Rabindranath Tagore Parallel to Girish Chandra Ghosh, Dwijendra Lal Roy and others in the public theatre but distinctly independent, rabindranath tagore (1861-1941) wrote and directed plays that were unique for their blend of the indigenous and the European - a blend so subtle that it almost appears organic. The form of theatre which Tagore evolved in his so-called symbolic-allegoric plays is a fusion of the song-and-dance (in the abundant use of song and in the absence of cause-and-effect formula for building action) and the European dramaturgy (in the use of conflict and a few techniques in building character). The conflict of spirit and matter that drives Raktakarabi (1926) and Muktadhara (1922), also Achalayatan (1922) to a large extent, disappears after the battle in Raja (1911) and is hardly present in Dakghar (1912). The influence of the song-and-dance tradition continues in Basanta (1923), Nabin (1931) and Shrabanagantha (1934). The absence of dramatic conflict is so apparent that a few scholars have refused to acknowledge them as plays.
Finally, in Chitrangada (1936), Chandalika (1938) and Shyama (1939), when he successfully blends the song-and-dance tradition, plays low on dramatic conflict and instead focuses on rasa, the influence of the indigenous is more than apparent. Vocal against the painted backdrop and the proscenium frame, Tagore preferred an intimate performance space like that of the jatra. His work, other than a few farces, mostly proved failures in the public theatre on the rare occasions when they were performed until the 1950s when Bahurupi, a theatre group in Calcutta, performed them. Nevertheless, his work has proved to be immensely influential on theatre practitioners and in literary circles.
Social concerns and nationalism (1920s-1940s) The First World War and the death of the two stalwarts, Girish Chandra Ghosh and Dwijendralal Roy, saw a decline in the public theatre. When it began to revive again in the 20s, a qualitative change was noticeable. Socially, theatre began to be accepted by the cultured elite as an artistic medium, and an increasing number of persons with institutional education began to take up theatre as a serious artistic career. Plays on social themes began to attract greater attention than those on historical and mythological themes. The five-act model began to give way to the techniques of Ibsen and Shaw. The mythological plays that survived shifted focus from the supernatural to the human, while the historical plays attempted to project historical accuracy instead of melodramatic heroism.
The shift of emphasis was noticeable in production style as well. The acting style, pioneered by shishir kumar bhaduri (1889-1959), became less declamatory and more natural. Ensemble acting, meaningful composition, and non-melodramatic speech began to acquire importance. Picture-frame illusion of contemporary social life began to acquire increasing dominance. In 1931, Satu Sen returned from America to revolutionise lighting and set design in the Calcutta-based Bengali theatre. Foot-lights gave way to overhead directional lighting. The painted backdrop began to be replaced with the 'Box set'. Historical accuracy in costume and set design gradually replaced anachronism. Background music played by a live orchestra began to take on a more subdued note. The quality of songs and dances improved, and the indispensable troupe of dancing girls (sakhis) of the previous era gradually disappeared. The period also marked the emergence of the director as a co-ordinator who sought meaningful unity of all elements of a production.
Important playwrights of this period were Manmatha Roy (1899-1988), Sachindra Nath Sengupta (1892-1961) and Bidhayak Bhattacharya (1907-1986). Manmatha Roy shot into prominence in 1923 with his one-act play, Muktir Dak, and set the trend of one-acters. Roy's plays reflected current issues, although he made use of mythological and historical materials. In Karagar (1930), banned by the British Government, he uses a familiar mythological tale from the Bhagavata Purana to project Krishna as the liberator from Kangsha's oppressive regime. Shachindranath Sengupta is remembered for his historical play Gairik Pataka, which proclaimed patriotism when the Civil Disobedience Movement was at its height. However, Sengupta's primary contribution to Bengali theatre was the change he initiated both in content and form in plays on social themes. Here he abandoned the five-act structure and attempted to depict the psychology of his characters. In Jhader Rat (1931), an avant-garde play of his time, Sengupta probed into feminine psychology and championed the emancipation of women. Bidhayak Bhattacharya, who made his public appearance with the social play Meghamukti (1938), is known for his depiction of the urban middle class in a changing society and the resulting clash of values in family life experienced during the 30s and the 40s. Some of his well-known plays are Matir Ghar (1939), Bish Bachhar Age (1939), Rakter Dak (1941).
However, even with the best of Manmatha Roy, Shachindranath Sengupta and Bidhayak Bhattacharya, the public playhouses of Calcutta failed to project critical consciousness regarding contemporary social and political reality. Leading artists with socio-political concerns attempted to join the Progressive Writers' Association (1936) and the Anti-Fascist Writers' and Artistes' Union (1942), without significant success. Fhe Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA; 1943) organised the city-based artists in an honest attempt to join the rank and file. Soon after its creation, Bengal was faced with a man-made spectre: the famine of 1943, which left 5 million dead. Faced with the reality of hunger and death, the Bengal branch of IPTA produced Bijan Bhattacharya's Nabanna (1944), which had a far-reaching influence on Bengali theatre. It initiated a new era of play- writing (by projecting immediate reality in familiar language) and acting (that was closer to daily life. Primarily it challenged the role and function of theatre practitioners in society and infused political direction in theatre. The post-Nabanna theatre of Calcutta created the trend of Group Theatre, ie, ideologically motivated groups of theatre activists who strove to attain artistic excellence as well as socio-political relevance in their work. Since such a concept of theatre was not economically viable, they chose not to accept payment for their work and therefore, for their daily sustenance, sought alternative employment.
The language movement of 1952 intensified the political polarisation of the language-based and the religious-based camps. In the theatre scene, there was a marked rise in social awareness and political commitment in the language-based nationalist camp. They continued their dominance in Dhaka, with the university as their bastion. Munier Chowdhury wrote his epoch-making Kabar as a political prisoner in the Dhaka Central Jail, and it was performed by other political prisoners on 21 February 1953. Although the play reveals a strong influence of Irwin Shaw's Bury the Dead, it has remained one of the most important theatre pieces for its simplicity and social relevance. The play was performed at night by the prison inmates who improvised a set on a shoestring budget and used hurricane lanterns, lamps, and matchsticks as their lighting source. The appeal of the play lies in its central political issue (the inalienable right of a people to its cultural heritage) and poignant human suffering (police brutality and massacre).
In 1956, the Drama Circle was created. This was an amateur group of committed theatre activists, who played an important role in introducing contemporary Euro-American design concepts and performance techniques through their productions of European classics, contemporary American and local plays. Akm Bazlul Karim (d 1977), associated with the group since its inception, is still remembered for his dedication and directorial excellence.
Martial Law was clamped down in 1958, silencing the growing demand for social justice and political rights voiced by the language-based nationalists. Theatre lay impoverished in terms of socio-political awareness, concentrating on plays toeing the central government's policy of religion-based nationalism or experimental work which were 'subtle' or 'neutral'. In Dhaka as well as district towns, the number of productions grew. These were run-of-the-mill social plays, along with some historical and mythological plays. There was also a short-lived attempt at professional theatre at the Minerva Theatre (1957-1964). Major experimental playwrights were Syed Waliullah (1922-1971) and Saeed Ahmed (b 1931). Waliullah brought to his work (Bahipir, Taranga Bhanga and Ujane Mrtyu) a European artistic sensibility and insight that had been unknown in Bangla theatre. Termed a symbolist, Waliullah's symbolism is far removed from that of Maeterlinck or Tagore because of a strong materialist bias and the absence of spiritualism. Saeed Ahmed's Kalbela (The Thing, 1966) is a milestone in the theatre of South Asia for it introduced the theatre of the absurd for the first time. Later, he came up with two more plays that were avant-garde: Milepost and Trsnay. Zia Hyder's (1936-2008) Shuvra Sundar Kalyani Ananda is another important avant-garde addition to contemporary theatre, where he seeks to explore the myth of peace in human society.
A popular uprising in 1969 cracked the central government's authoritative and suppressive rule. Politically conscious theatre activists responded to the growing language-based nationalist movement with street-plays and open-air performances that projected militant nationalist sentiment. Surprisingly, there were no organised attempts in putting up plays during the war of liberation either in the liberated areas or in the refugee camps in India.
Bangladesh: the flowering that was not (1971-1999) Theatre was possibly the most forceful and exuberant expression of post-liberation Bangladesh. Numerous non-professional theatre groups were formed all over the country, modelled after the group theatre movement in post-Nabanna Calcutta. The most important among these in Dhaka city were Theatre (established February 1972), Nagarik Natya Sampraday (established 1968, first performance August 1972), Natyachakra (established August 1972), Aranyak Natyadal (established 1972), Dhaka Theatre (established July 1973) and, in Chittagong, Theatre '73 (established 1973), and Arindam (established September 1974).
All these groups are committed to a language-based nationalism and, in varying degrees, believe in raising social consciousness through theatre. Most of the members are students, while a few belong to independent vocations. There are no professional theatre practitioners because the profession is not economically viable. During the early years of theatre in Bangladesh, none of the practitioners had formal training in theatre. However, they made up this deficiency with their zeal and exuberance. They raised the money for their productions through individual contributions, advertisements inserted in programme folders and box-office sales. Undaunted by the absence of a proscenium stage equipped with modern technical facilities, the theatre groups staged their productions in the small and poorly equipped Mahila Samity Auditorium that had originally been built for seminars. The range of texts performed by the groups varied widely: from Euro-American plays to contemporary originals written by group members themselves. A completely new set of playwrights appeared, important among whom were Abdullah al-Mamun, Mamunur Rashid, Syed Shamsul Huq, Salim al-Deen, Mumtazuddin Ahmed and SM Solaiman.
The post-liberation exuberance in theatre resulted in saturation in the early 80s when the middle-class practitioners found it difficult to make ends meet with the little money performance generated. There were also developments in various directions. The most significant of these was the induction of a number of theatre practitioners trained abroad, who added technique and skill to acting, design, and direction. By the end of the decade, three universities had theatre as a course of study: Chittagong University (introduced in 1970 by Professor Zia Hyder), jahangirnagar university (introduced in 1986) and the University of Dhaka (introduced in 1989). Two more institutes were also functioning by then: Natya Shikshangan (1976) and Theatre School (1990). Faced with autocratic rule in the political arena, many groups also took up theatre as a viable medium for popular protest. Significant among these were Jago Laksa Nur Hosain by Karak Natya Sampraday, Royal Bengal Tiger by Lokanatya Dal and Maharajer Gunakirtan by Desh Natak. Another important area of proliferation was the Mukta Natak movement initiated by Aranyak, in which members of the group sought to conscientise rural landless peasants and create performances with them. In mainstream theatre, the most interesting development was the attempt taken up by Dhaka Theatre and a number of other groups to incorporate indigenous performance elements in modern theatre practice in productions such as Keramat Mangal and Hat Hadai by Salim al-Deen (produced by Dhaka Theatre), Mahuyar Pala by Nazmul Ahsan (produced by Khulna Theatre) and Inggit and Ei Deshe Ei Beshe by S M Solaiman (produced by Dhaka Padatik).
During the 90s, three important attempts were made towards creating professional theatre: Bangla Theatre (1991), Theatre Art (1992) and the Centre for Asian Theatre (1994). All these, save the last, have failed. Although Aranyak's Mukta Natak movement has lost all its energy, theatre is being used by non-government organisations for addressing issues related to development. There have been some interesting productions, which include Chaka by Salim al-Deen (produced by Dhaka Theatre), adaptation of bisad-sindhu by mir mosharraf hossain (produced by Dhaka Padatik), Shes Sanglap by the Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim (produced by Ganayana), Meraj Fakirer Ma by Abdullah al-Mamun (produced by Theatre), Irsa by Syed Shamsul Huq (produced by Nagarik), Kamalaranir Sagar Dighi (produced by the Department of Theatre and Music, University of Dhaka), an adaptation of Arthur Miller's Crucible (produced by Natyakendra) and Nitya Purana by Masum Reza (produced by Desh Natak).
In 2001, urban theatre in Bangladesh has lost much of its ideological commitment and is gradually being marginalised. The middle-class practitioners who bore the burden of performing for passion appear to have run out of steam. In an increasingly free-market economy and globalised cultural sway, theatre may soon find itself redundant. One option for it to survive is to turn professional, but it does not seem economically viable in the near future. The other option is to trust popular instinct. It has managed to survive against many odds for over fifteen centuries; surely it will survive as a cultural expression of the people*.
In Bangladesh there is nothing called the theatre season. The show goes on throughout the year, there is no recess or official beginning of the new season; in practice, the theatre season begins in Sept-Oct with the advent of autumn and the easing of long monsoon rains. The traditional folk-theatre Jatra had very elaborate rituals at the beginning of its season, which commenced with the harvesting and Durga Puja, the major religious festival of the Hindus. The Jatra season was connected with nature's cycle, performances being held in villages during winter when harvesting is over. Growing urbanization has changed that pattern and the theatre has not replaced it.
Dhaka Theatre, Nagorik, Aranyok continued with their previous productions, drawing full houses. The productions were Nagorik’s Raktokarobi, and Kaalshondhya, Dhaka Theatre’s Prachya and Banapangshul and Aranyok’s Sangkranti. So they have not ventured into any new production during the period under review. Among the new productions we can identify a significant presence of women playwrights and directors. Samina Lutfa Nitra has writtern the play Tirthanker based on the epic Shahnama. It was staged by Subachan Natya Samsad and directed by Faiz Zahir. It can be treated as a reenactment of Persian influence on Bengali culture and Nitra could turn it into a play with strong anti-war message. The young playwright has earned praise for her maiden venture and is now working on a play about Khana, a medieval lady of wisdom. Versatile actress of Dhaka stage Rokeya Rafique Baby has directed the play Golapjan based on contemporary reality. She also excelled in the lead role. The play has been produced by Theatre Art Unit. Munira Yousuf Memy, another talented actress showed her skill in directing Bhubaner Ghat written by Syed Manzoorul Islam and produced by Natyajon.
New plays show a preference for myth or recreation of myth.Recreation of myth proved to be a popular genre with different groups approaching the myth from different angles. Lokanatyadal presented Siddhidata, a plot mixing mythological characters and worldly creatures to achieve hilarious impact, directed by Liaquat Ali Lucky. Nagorik Natyangan Ensemble produced the Sanskrit classic Mrichakatik, directed by Jamaluddin Hossain, Natyadhara presented Atish Dipanker Saparza, written and directed by Alok Basu about a Buddhist monk of 10th century Bengal. Very recently the students of Theatre art and Music Department of Dhaka University impeccably produced a play by classical Sanskrit playwright of early age, Bhasa's Madhyam biyog (Missing the Middle Brother) adapted into Bangla. It was beautifully choreographed and acted. Two major male characters, Bhim and Ghatotchkoch were competently portrayed by two young actresses of the department.
Translated and/or adapted plays are another popular trend in Bangladesh theatre. Prachyanat, a vibrant young group, presented Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros, directed by Towfiqul Islam Imon. Natyachakra staged August Strindberg’s Janak (The Father) directed by Debprasad Delmath. Theatre Art Unit presented Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, directed by Kamaluddin Nilu. Ganayan of Chittagong presented Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (directed by Kuntal Barua). Centre for Asian Thatre (CAT) presented a very well-knit production of Heiner Muller’s The Mission adapted by Saidus Saklaen and directed by Kamaluddin Neelu.
Reinterpretation of folk traditions - a major trend A major trend in Bangladesh theatre is re-interpretation of the folk tradition. Among such notable recent productions we can mention Sojan Badiar Ghat produced by Padatik Natya Samsad, Bahe Prantojan by Anushilon of Rajshahi, Sampan Naia by Uttaradhikar of Chittagong. Nrityanchal, a dance group, presented the traditional folk musical Mahua as a dance-drama.
Children's » theatre In recent years we have seen positive development in children’s theatre. Various groups all over the country are working with children. Although we do not have any permanent place for children theatre, that could not dampen the enthusiasm to work with children in theatre. The Peoples' Theatre Association annually organises festival of children theatre groups. Recently artist and dramaturg Mostafa Monwar established his own puppet theatre and fascinated the young audience with his imagination and innovation. Tona Tuni, a children theatre group performed Torai Bandha Gorar Dim, based on limericks by Edward Lear and Satyajit Ray. This production with dazzling costume, lighting, scenography, music and dance enthralled the audience both young and old. Palakar Kids, a children's drama school, has taken initiative to present weekly performance at their studio theatre. Sishu Theatre has produced two short skits under single bill titled Bhuth Shikar (Hunting the Demon), written and directed by Rezanur Rahman.
Contemporary problems on stage Due to various reasons, intolerance of the people in power being one of them, contemporary reality and problems did not find direct reflection on stage although it was popular even a decade ago. Theatre in their new play Balod (The Fool) based on a story of renowned author Mohmmad Zafar Iqbal and directed by K. M. Haroon has exposed the evil face of religious fundamentalists in the backdrop of liberation war of Bangladesh. The play relate the past with present. Another play with contemporary significance was a docu-drama Tamas (Deep Darkness), presented by a theatre group from Chittagong. It was based on newspaper writings and reports about the brutal attack on religious minority at different places of the country. Sangkranti, the popular play of Aranyak, depicted the problem involved in exposing the evil side of people in power where a group of rural performers put their life and existence in danger by mimicking the power groups in the annual village funfare through their song and dance. Amid such real life backdrop many theatre groups found it safe to revive of their past successful plays which still have contemporary significance. Among such revivals are Ingeet (The Hint) by Dhaka Padatik, (exposing the barbarity of religious fundamentalists), Muntasir Fantasy by Dhaka Theatre (caricaturing the nouveau-riche class), The Captain of Kopenick, translation of Carl Zuckmayer's classic play presented by Nagorik (undermining the autocratic practices) etc.
Festivals Festivals have become an integral part of theatre in Bangladesh, to compensate for the lack of theatre space and also attract new audiences. Street theatres are performed in the open centering major cultural events. Bangladesh Street Theatre Federation organises an annual festival in February at the Martyrs Memorial with participation of groups from all over the country. This year it attracted a large number of audience and proved the appeal of street theatre. Similar National Street Theatre Festival is also organised by Bangladesh Group Theatre Federation is association with Bengal Foundation. There were many different theatre festivals organised by various groups, including a Festival of Theatre of Myth and Festival of Moliere's Plays. The biggest of the festivals was organised by ITI Bangladesh Centre in December, 2003. 'Celebrating Diversity' was the theme of the festival and 16 plays were staged in two different halls during the weeklong festival. There was also open-air performance of music, dance, street theatre children, theatre and folk plays. ITI Executive Council held its session in Bangladesh for the first time. Four of the permanent committees of ITI also held their Board Meeting during the festival. The committees included Cultural Identity and Development Committee, Dramatic Theatre Committee, Theatre Education Committee and Communication Committee. A two day international seminar on the theme ‘Celebrating Diversity’ also took place in Dhaka during this period.
Workshops for young theatre artists Recently ITI Bangladesh Centre organised two regional theatre workshops in succession which generated lot of interest among regional theatre artists. The first of the workshop was held under participatory programme of UNESCO and 26 young theatre artists from India, Nepal and Bangladesh participated in it. The theme of the 10-day workshop was ‘Space in theatre : choreography and innovation’ and the anchor person was Prabir Guha, eminent theatre director of India. The other workshop was initiated by CIDC of ITI Worldwide of which Nasiruddin Yousuff, noted theatre director of Bangladesh, is the President. The workshop was conducted by Alexander Stillmark of Germany and participated by theatre artists from India, Pakistan and Nepal. The workshop titled ‘My Unknown Enemy’ aspired to hold meeting between people of theatre from different countries and regions, which face each other in political, cultural and religious conflict situation. Similar workshops took place in 2002 in Bonn and in 2003 in Cairo. This unique workshop in Dhaka was done on the text excerpts of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot keeping in mind the socio-political realities of India, Pakistan and Nepal.
Theatre for Bangladesh is a celebration of life, but like life in Bangladesh it faces many odds. Nevertheless people tap their great source of energy to move forward and life goes on. Likewise the show goes on and theatre tries to fathom the deeper meaning of existence in order to gain spirit to overcome all the barriers. Theatre is facing many difficulties in Bangladesh but it is as exciting as ever.
Mofidul Hoque is a theatre critic and cultural activist. He is also a Board Member of ITI Communication Committee.
(World of Theatre 2004, International Theatre Institute)
Bibhash ChakrabortyPrabir Guha
Centre for Asian Theatre