They insist your show must be cancelled! – cultural coercion in a post-Nandigram Bengal

May 12, 2008

By Tapas Sinha. Translated by Suvarup Saha, Sanhati

The phonecall came on the 10th of April. One of the organizers of the Champdanga Theatre Festival was on the line. On the receiving end was thespian Koushik Sen, who has been active in the civil society movement of Nandigram.

We will not be able to host your play. There’s pressure from the party. Look, I am also an activist of the party. But there are others here and some of them are very rough. And they insist that we should not allow you to perform here.

This invited performance of Bonkubabu-r Bondhu – a Swapno-Sondhani production – was supposed to be held in Champdanga on 17th April. Incredibly, even a Satyajit Ray short story smacks of politics and treason these days. Advance payment for the show had been made by the festival committee on 7th April. This is not an exception; the number of invited performances of ‘Swapno-Sondhani’ in and around Kolkata has declined drastically in recent months.

Let’s go back to 10th December, 2006. The theatre group ‘Pancham Baidik’ organized a protest meeting against Singur atrocities, outside the Academy of Fine Arts. An open Letter was sent to the chief minister demanding concrete information on the issue. It was signed by many citizens. On 24th December ‘Pancham Baidik’ was supposed to perform at a theatre festival in Bansberia, near Kolkata. But one of the organizers asked director Arpita Ghosh to replace their production Poshu Khamar (a Bengali adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm) with ‘something else’.

The cause of the request was some ‘external pressure’.

Since the director declined to acquiesce, Poshu Khamar was cancelled on 20th December. One of the organizing committee members complained that a theatre group has no business in getting into all this ‘protest stuff’. Arpita had demanded for a written reason of cancellation of the show. The organizers never got back to her.

On 21st December, 2006 there was an invited performance of Poshu Khamar. After the first half was done, one of the organizers rushed to the green room and blurted that it was a ‘very dangerous drama’ and ‘there can be law and order problems anytime’. After the Nandigram incidents, one officer in charge of a government theatre house asked Arpita Ghosh if their production had any references to Singur-Nandigram.

November 2007. Just after the successful ‘Nandigram Recapture’, theatre person Debshankar Halder received a call from a Bakreshwar based theatre festival committee. They wanted to know if their production Furut had any political message or reference. Debshankar retorted that it was an Upendrakishore Roychoudhury story, the question of contemporary politics here was ridiculous. After a few days, another call. “Please tell us if there’s Singur-Nandigram in the play. Rumors are flying here and there may be trouble… “. Debshankar tells us that the queries were made with complete decency and humility.

‘Belghoria Ethic’, in association with a century-old library hall, had been producing plays for the last 6 years. Last year, after the 14th March 2007 massacre at Nandigram, Ethic was instrumental in consolidating the indignant voices into a ‘Anti-Genocide Citizens Forum’.

They arranged a convention in Belghoria on this issue. They even produced a play in protest called ‘Pokay Kaata E Duhsamay’ (This Moth-Eaten Time). Within a few days, the Library authority informed Ethic in writing that all the associated theatre groups needed to discuss their productions first with them. They also wanted written word from Ethic that they would indulge in no further ‘political activity’. Ethic was not prepared to budge. This ended the long-standing relationship of five and a half years. Presently Ethic is renting the same library hall to stage their plays. With a difference.

The rent is almost as astronomical as a premier Kolkata hall like the ‘Shishir Mancha’.

Ethic used to arrange its rehearsal sessions in a local school in Belghoria. They were soon informed that the group was henceforth unwelcome. They were advised not to oppose the party. After their recent play Sthanakan, about the contemporary issues, was staged, ‘well-wishers’ of the members of the group visited their respective homes and advised them to part ties with the group. Debashish Sengupta of Ethic says that even their regular audience is being ‘advised’ to stay away from their shows.

Let us now look at what theatre personality Bratya Basu has to say. One organizer of a theatre group, in which Bratya also acts, requested him not to speak outside about Singur-Nandigram for sometime. All that the poor fellow wanted was not to lose call-shows! But this was nothing new. In fact in 2003, Bratya’s Winkle-Twinkle (a satire on the present state of affairs of the West Bengal CPIM) was barred from being staged at the last moment at Ashoknagar. Even now, Bratya’s Krishnagahvar (Black Hole) is not getting show requests.

Anirban Bhattacharya of the group Drishyapat has a different tale to tell. An actor playing the central protagonist of their play was a Naxalite at one time. Anirban was summoned by a governmental department a number of times to explain the screenplay of this production. And finally he was asked to change quite a few places of the script. Anirban, who was once an SFI activist, declined to budge. In the last one year Drishyapat never got an invitation to perform.

Last year, around April, Kasba Arghya was requested to stage their production Pandabanee from the drama department of a Kolakata-based University. The play was stopped in the middle under the pretext of a time crunch. Just a month before, the group was actively involved in protesting the Nandigram massacres and the creation of a cultural – intellectual solidarity group. Arghya’s Manish Mitra informed us that from last November till January, they hardly got three call shows. The show requests have gone down drastically.

Debesh Chattapadhyay of ‘Sansriti’ informed us that they are hardly getting any government run theatre halls for staging their productions. In the last three years they never managed a booking of Rabindrasadan, the premier theatre hall in Kolkata. They had captured the Aamlashol deaths in their production ‘Cadavarous’. The last show of ‘Fyatadu’ at Rabindra Sadan was way back in 2004. Now they are staging ‘Fandigram’. Till now, there has been only two shows of this drama being staged. An old activist of the DYFI, Debesh is pretty sure that they cannot continue to perform ‘Fandigram’ for long. They are seeing a real dip in number of invited shows in recent months.

Vocal protests against Singur-Nandigram incidents, resignation from the ‘Natya Academy’ has put Bibhas Chakraborty in a precarious situation. The number of ‘call-shows’ are dwindling. To quote Bibhas “..We are pretty certain now that we will not be getting any more show requests outside Kolkata. So, all our performances will be limited to Kolkata. If anyone dares to call us, they themselves will land in trouble…’’.

The theatre-festival committees, who for long have been patronizing these theatre groups, are backing out. Whatever financial difficulties that the groups incur when they stage a new production are somewhat compensated by the invitational performances. But this is no longer a viable mode of operation for some ‘marked’ groups. A few theatre persons are being targeted. Theatre personality Suman Mukhopadhyay terms all this as ‘old tactics’. Screening of his film ‘Herbert’ was stopped at Nandan in similar fashion.

Yes, the tactics are really old. A renewed version of the British ‘Drama Regulator Act’ was once invoked by the first chief minister of West Bengal, Bidhan Chandra Ray. Copies of 59 plays produced by the ‘Indian Peoples Theatre Association’ were scrutinized by the government. Bidhan Ray detailed this list on 10th November 1953 in response to a question asked by Jyoti Basu, Monikuntala Sen, Monoranjan Hazra.

Goons who used to terrorize people by bombing theatre halls where Utpal Dutta enacted ‘Duswapner Nagari’ (City of Nightmares) would probably have been put to shame by the present form of cutural terrorism.

This article first appeared in The Anandabazar Patrika