Utpal Dutt’s play Barricade, translated into English by Ananda Lal for publication by Seagull Books, is set in Germany. It looks at how the results in successive elections led to the Nazi takeover. The genesis of Barricade can be traced to the phase between 1968 and 1972, when Dutt wrote and directed 17 “jatra” – or folk theatre – plays. Wanting to explore the theatre form, he formed the Vivek Jatra Samaj (for rural and suburban audiences), and People’s Little Theatre for the urban proscenium.
PLT survived, and it was the immediate success of its production of Tiner Taloar (The Tin Sword) in 1971 that ensured a second run for Dutt. PLT went on to deliver many more hits, including Barricade (1972).
Born in 1929 in Barishal (now in Bangladesh), Utpal Dutt began his tryst with theatre in college at St Xavier’s, Calcutta, playing in selected scenes from Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Richard III. In 1947, he found his guru, Geoffrey Kendal. His life with the strolling Kendals lasted “from August 1947 to the end of 1948, and again from February 1953 to the end of 1954”.
Success came with Angar (Embers) in 1959 at Minerva (taken on a “long lease” in 1959), followed by Ferari Fouj (Runaway Troop), Titash and Kallol (which made a savage criticism of the Congress, the party then in power). Dutt was arrested and detained in Presidency Jail in Kolkata without trial.
Released in March 1966, he staged a series of documentary plays at Minerva and joined the Naxalite movement, going underground in 1967. Arrested in Bombay in 1968, when he turned up for the shooting of The Guru, he was finally released on the intervention of his American producers.
Ananda Lal has worked on the translation by referring to the printed original as well as the performance of the play which was telecast on Doordarshan. He talked to Scroll.in about the play, the process of translation, and the historical context. Excerpts from the interview:
I read your translation of Barricade aloud. And it was pitch perfect. The simple pleasure of reading good prose. Kudos.
Theatre people, of course, read plays aloud to test the diction, but I wish common readers did the same – because theatre dialogue must be heard, primarily, and read only secondarily.
Barricade is a play that tells an important story. And the foreboding of death of a civilisation. What was your first impression of this play?
When I first saw the original production, I was just a teenager, really not mature enough to understand it fully. I did think it was a good play, but only over the last few years have I realised how much it speaks to us now, immediately and imperatively. Hence, I had to translate it for the benefit of non-Bengalis.
You have translated a difficult play text. In my view a play is the toughest form of translation. In this day and age of compression and contamination of language, what does theatre language mean to you?
For me, translation of both drama and poetry are difficult, in different ways, and I love translating both. In drama, I strive to capture both the original tone or register, as well as the spoken language. In other words, I don’t translate it as prose, but as speech, and particularly demotic talk. So, my translated dialogues may not be grammatically correct, in complete sentences, or with punctilious punctuation, because that’s not how characters speak. We make mistakes, we pause, we stop mid-sentence. Many translators rectify all that in a pursuit of literary correctness; I believe that’s wrong. My language must work on the stage, it need not work on the page. In fiction and poetry, the reader gets everything from print, no mediation; in drama (like in film), the communication occurs from actor to audience. Therefore I’m acutely conscious of my translations being just a script, a skeleton, on which the actor and director put flesh and blood.
It is an interesting method…
This method means something else as well. It is my responsibility to equip the actor and director with everything in the original, including not just text but context. Notes play a very important part in translating all genres, to explain the full social or cultural associations of words and phrases. But unlike poetry and fiction, the theatre audience cannot read my notes; so I like to call these my subtext, supporting the actors and director in characterisation. My notes do the opposite of what you say – compression – with expansion, with full disclosure; and to that degree, they become important to the accurate culture-transference of a dramatic text on stage. Translators who don’t annotate are taking a short cut and neglecting their responsibility of transparency.
You have translated Tagore’s plays and now Utpal Dutt’s Barricade. Tagore’s world is dying, and the new world is struggling. As Dutt infers in his play, now is the time of monsters...
I don’t agree. Tagore’s world faced monsters, too. He created some on stage as well, like the exploitative colonial machine in Red Oleander (Raktakarabi), literally chewing up human beings, which must be fought. That’s why Dutt respected Tagore so much and directed some of his plays, like Achalayatan and Tapati, both revolutionary works: the former against superstitious Hindu orthodoxy and indoctrination, and the latter against anti-democratic monarchy where a proto-feminist sacrifices herself rather than submit to her jingoist and chauvinist husband. Tagore is sadly labelled and misunderstood as a beautiful writer (which he is, of course), when his drama is actually quite anti-establishment.
And you are a bridge between the two worlds. What are you making of it?
I’m no bridge between them; as I said, that structure exists already. I simply choose classic plays that cry out for translation because they say something important to us today and for all times. I’m a bridge between their world and an audience in English.
In your translation footnotes, you refer to the video version of the play production. Please share your experience, impressions and understanding of the words through this process.
Any translator of drama should ideally have access-and-return to the original production. For obvious reasons this can’t happen in reality. I was lucky enough to get to subtitle the video in entirety for Doordarshan when they used to do good things once in a while. As a theatre researcher I know the value of such documentation, so I safe-kept the VHS tape that I had been given to assist in my subtitling. It turns out now that it was the only copy anyone had preserved! Even Dutt’s group didn’t have it anymore. When Bishnupriya (Utpal Dutt’s daughter) asked for a copy, I was happy to share it – her intellectual property, after all.
Did the process of looking at the video help you get better access to the text as you worked on the translation?
If you compare the book and the tape, you find that the performance stayed quite close to the text. At the same time, changes had been made, and the visible expressions, gestures, blocking and music often clarified lines or stage directions. I’ve entered the significant ones in my notes. The book also contained a few printing errors and typos that the video helped me to correct. To highlight the rarity of this translatorial experience, I’ve subtitled my work “Translated from the text and the production”.
Longish question, Professor Lal. There was a group called Avahan Natya Manch which operated in the 1980s. This was a group of idealistic urban theatre makers. Even when they staged street plays it was Brechtian and Eurocentric in its structure. The big debate in those days was over how to be less elite and more rooted. Enter Lok Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat and Vilas Gohre. I remember they staged a play called Nandi Baill, which is about the tradition of villagers questioning a bullock. So, there are questions like: “Will it rain this year?” or “Will my wife return to me?” The bullock nods “yes” or “no”, depending on how its handler nudges it. In other words, the bullock is manipulated by the handler. In Avahan’s Nandi Baill, the bullock became a metaphor of Indian democracy, and how the people are brainwashed, through the bullock, by its handler. My question is: Theatre is an important form of political and creative expression. Could the form and structure that Utpal Dutt chose for Barricade be its failings?
I guess this question is basically about whether we should apply Brechtian alienation in terms of time and space or set plays in our native milieu. There isn’t one yes/no answer; both are eminently possible, depending on the conditions and what the theatre group wants. Dutt could not have attacked Congress politics in Bengal directly at that time because then he could have been arrested and the production shut down. [Lal has referred to the violence Dutt’s group encountered on other occasions in his Introduction in the book.]
The fact that he set Barricade in 1933, when the Nazis rose to power in Germany didn’t make his viewers think that it was remote from their lives. On the contrary, they connected with it viscerally, sympathised and cheered at the right moments. When Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar or Othello or Romeo and Juliet, his aim was contemporary, their exotic locales didn’t matter; and from what we know, these were among his box-office hits. When an Indian director revives, say, Antigone or Medea, Hamlet or Macbeth or Coriolanus, the audience understands the inner political meanings; it does not say, hey, these people are Greek / English / Danish / Scot / Roman, we don’t want their stories. One may argue that this sensibility can be expected only from urban spectators. That’s an elitist superiority complex, not to credit rural viewers with analogical and lateral-thinking capabilities. Dutt did productions of Macbeth (not an adaptation) and his own Mao Tse-tung (jatra) which did spectacularly well in the villages. Mac and Mao are not rooted in India, right?
Barricade is a Marxist play. You say you are not a Marxist. This is a question that was asked of Trotsky’s translator, too.
I don’t subscribe to any specific party’s ideology. In that sense, I’m not a “Communist Marxist”. That doesn’t mean that I can’t accept elements of Marxian philosophy that appeal to me, like an underlying equality of human beings, anti-feudal and anti-capitalist. Label me a humanist if you must; I believe in human values, so I will appreciate any work that offers these to me. I will not join in flying the red banner as at the end of Barricade, but that dramatic action in itself will not make me write off the play as “not to be translated”.
What sort of relationship did you have with the politics of the author you were translating?
Dutt’s politics was complicated; he was briefly a Maoist too. He loved Shakespeare (a royalist and an investor in property) and Tagore (a believer in god and a zamindar). Why not? We are all very complicated, aren’t we? Constantly contradicting ourselves? In Barricade, he shows a couple of Communist workers swearing and drinking. This outraged some of his former comrades, who said that Communists don’t do such things, or at least shouldn’t be shown doing them. One periodical called him the Bengali equivalents of “revisionist” and “counter-revolutionary”, favourite Communist cuss-words of those times. He called them “morons”. I’ve detailed these exchanges in my Introduction. To me, Dutt held liberal humanist values above doctrinaire policies, and I find that stays constant in his best plays.
You are a child of Kolkata. Is communism in Kolkata unique? For example, the Left in Mumbai is a totally different beast...
All national and regional Communisms are different. Consider the Soviet and the Maoist. The Communist Party of India in West Bengal split up so many times into so many parties that it would be funny if it wasn’t so serious (Dutt even hints at that in Barricade). Things got really nasty, though, with Naxalism and after. I find it bizarre that so many young Bengalis now look back at it with rosy nostalgia as if those were the glory days of romantic radicalism. I lived through those years, and even if I’m in a minority, I shall insist that their tactics of killing was horrible.
I’m no political scientist, but in India you should analyse Communism in Kerala instead for its staying power. Yet look at what they’re doing: the K-Rail project is poised to decimate the state’s fragile environment in the name of development. The challenge for Indian Communism is how not to embrace corporate capitalism. How ironic that one has to even conceive of a warning against these onetime polar opposites uniting as in China.
Important plays are about literary prognostications. They are about their own era. Plus they are timeless. In this sense, which are the bits in Barricade which you feel are most prescient?
History repeats itself because we never learn from it. That’s why classics exist, reminding us periodically of their relevance. Otherwise, they are not classics, they can be discarded. Dutt felt that 1933 Germany was being repeated in 1970s Kolkata, and exactly 50 years later, what he wrote resonates for us again. Barricade is a scary play. The way it depicts the establishment of the Nazi government (democratically) is chilling. The Nazis’ modus operandi was identical to political strategies that we see around us today: co-opt all the pillars of society one by one – legislature, executive, judiciary, media, academia or intelligentsia – and you end up with no opposition. Dutt dramatises this process brilliantly.
What else was happening in the Kolkata theatre of the seventies – alongside Barricade? For example, in Mumbai there is a tendency to look at theatre only through a selective prism of IPTA and Prithvi Theatre, etc. But there was a lot of churning: kamgar rangabhoomi and lok natya and Dalit Panther rangabhoomi which constituted a formidable theatre movement in the city. The question is: Any more hidden gems like Barricades hiding in the wings?
Bengali theatre was very strong – some say the strongest – in the 1970s. The professional companies in north Calcutta still attracted crowds with popular commercial fare. Committed amateur groups like Bohurupee, Nandikar, Theatre Workshop, Chetana, Sundaram performed to full houses of more discriminating viewers. Little theatres did experimental work in Mukta Angan and Theatre Centre. A niche but serious theatre had also grown in Hindi and English. A major Indian English dramatist, Asif Currimbhoy, lived in Calcutta then and wrote plays like Inquilab (on the Naxals, staged in Bengali translation) and Sonar Bangla (on Bangladesh’s oppression and liberation) around the same time as Barricade.
However, if we look only at original Bengali drama, this was the decade in which Badal Sircar synthesised his nationally-influential Third Theatre, which the group theatres used to be condescending about then, as not “proper” theatre. Watching his productions in small rooms was one of my most inspiring and educative experiences as a theatre-loving youth. Dutt’s own masterpiece, Tiner Taloar, the year before Barricade, has still not been translated in English. Then there were, among the respected playwrights, Mohit Chattopadhyaya’s Rajrakta (famous in Hindi as Guinea Pig) and Manoj Mitra’s Chakbhanga Madhu.
The problem in Indian theatre, as you know, is that we read more European and American drama than the best plays from even our neighbouring states, because there’s no movement or programme of intranational translation, leave alone education exposing us to Indian authors. I used to shame my students by demonstrating that they know more about Shakespeare than about Kalidasa and Tagore put together.
In an FT interview in the Kremlin in the middle of the night – on the eve of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan – Russian president Vladimir Putin had said “the liberal idea” had “outlived its purpose”; and western democracy is a spent force. He said the liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population. In this sense, are plays like Barricade an antidote to this idea, or merely a kind of political gesture?
A hardliner, conservative or fundamentalist will always debunk liberalism, for it threatens his dogmas. May we be enlightened as to what are “the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population”, and who decides or dictates them? This sounds very much like a familiar Indian leader’s speeches today. Do the majority of Indians have a right to make the minorities feel insecure in their motherland if, hypothetically, it serves their “interests” (such a delightfully vague word)? Yes, Barricade addresses this evil. But realistically speaking, theatre cannot function as an antidote in our world. Too few people see it. Nevertheless, we must spread the message, and if it converts some people, there may be a ripple effect eventually. We live in that hope, don’t we?
Your favourite passage that you translated?
I hate words like “best” and “favourite”, but the hero’s hilarious soliloquy reporting how the results in successive elections led to the Nazi takeover, with the President’s culpability, ranks very high for me.
What do you prefer? Thesaurus or dictionaries? Or a language mentor who is a phone call away?
Dictionary, even though the best Bengali-English dictionary isn’t perfect by any means. Sorry, no language mentor for me!
Can a play like Barricade be staged, today?
A group will revive Barricade in Bengali shortly. The director consulted my book. I expect in other Indian languages, too.
What is the best play in translation that you’ve ever read?
Hate “best”! But from the West, Richard Wilbur’s of Moliere, maintaining the French rhyming couplets seamlessly comically in English metre. In India, Rustom Bharucha’s of Kanhailal’s Manipuri Pebet, as a model of how to render every aspect of performance (word, movement, sound, music) into printed English text.
How do you translate? Long-hand or on the computer?
Handwriting. Because I can see the various word or phrase options I’ve put above one another on the paper, before making my final choice. Also, I feel the ink flowing through my pen as an extension from my fingertips like my mental blood. It’s a physical thing. The keyboard and screen are disconnected, they don’t give me that liquid feel.
One play you want to translate?
Several. Classified info. The plays are lovely, dark and deep, but I have many duties to keep, and reams to write before I sleep.