BOOK EXCERPT

Was Badal Sircar India’s most influential playwright?

No one in theatre has impacted the work of subsequent writers and directors as profoundly.

This is someone who never sought the limelight, who turned his back on the mainstream theatre stage, and who spent his last years far from the glitter of media attention; and yet, ironically, Badal Sircar is, to my mind, the single most influential figure in the extensive and diverse field of contemporary Indian theatre. This may seem like a tall claim, but it is one I am prepared to uphold.

Can one think of any other individual in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s who had a more pervasive impact on theatre thinkers and workers – directors, playwrights, actors – across the Indian subcontinent? From Manipur to Kerala, Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, from Maharashtra to Pakistan and his native Bengal, there is scarcely a corner of theatre activity that has not been influenced by Badal-da one way or another.

Some have been impacted by his workshop practice, others by his ideas of a free, non-proscenium theatre, yet others by his playscripts. This is not to claim a straightforward acceptance of his theory and practice in all instances – but to recognise that alongside critical appraisal there runs a widespread acknowledgement of this influence.

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Badal-da first gained a reputation in the theatre fraternity as a playwright. His Ebong Indrajit (1963) seemed to capture an existential angst, a quest for meaning, that spoke for an entire generation. Badal-da’s other plays, like Baki Itihas and Pagla Ghora, also received critical appreciation and attention in theatre circles, and were produced by leading directors and theatre groups. He was considered one of the new “modern” playwrights in the country to watch out for, experimental in terms of form, structure, and registers of language, contemporary in subject matter.

However, by the early 1970s he was already moving away from proscenium theatre and the entire economy on which this theatre was premised. He coined the term “Third Theatre” to distinguish this form from both the traditional, popular, folk forms of theatre that he termed First Theatre, and the urban, westernised proscenium model he called Second Theatre.

His Third Theatre was based on the centrality of the actor, and on the human connection both between actors and between them and the audience. He wrote several essays on his philosophy of the Third Theatre, and lectured widely on the subject.

He soon began to prefer the term “Free Theatre” to describe it, explaining that it was free because the public has free access to the performance, because productions can travel freely to the people, using any available venue and thus staking the claim that any space can be turned into a performance space, and because the actor is freed from certain restrictions inherent to proscenium theatre and can approach the audience freely.Badal Sircar travelled across the subcontinent through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, holding workshops at different places, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. The outcome is a wide range of people in India who have been influenced to a greater or lesser extent into adopting the principles of his kind of theatre. His impact on the alternative, activist theatre circuit in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh is also significant. No other Indian theatre personality has had quite the same effect.

Challenging complacency

His was theatre as anti-establishment counterculture, challenging normative middle-class mores and complacency, an attempt at conscientisation and awareness-raising, protest and political comment. It drew on the daily reality of the common man, the entire gamut of oppression, corruption, injustice, power politics, struggle, disillusionment, despairing hope, battered idealism, and confused questioning that all of us experience as we grapple with the everyday.

Badal-da used evocative motifs to communicate his ideas – the young man who gets killed over and over again in Michhil; the walking dead man in Basi Khabar. Badal Sircar strove for the ideal of a truly democratic space for theatre– – a non-commercial space where human beings could meet voluntarily as equals. He said, “When afterwards we spread our cloth for contributions, they don’t have to pay. If they do pay, it is neither a gift nor a price – it is participation, in some way. They are indicating that they liked what they saw, that they want this kind of theatre to go on. That is a human relationship.”

In the long decades between his embracing non-proscenium, non-commercial theatre and his death as an ailing 86-year-old, he never quite gave up his involvement with the theatre. To the end he remained curious, interested, open to learning.

I remember meeting him in 2009. By then his movements were restricted, and he was almost completely confined to his room in his house in north Kolkata. We spoke of several things, but what came through clearly was his deep passion for and commitment to the theatre path he had chosen to walk for the past forty odd years.

The legacy

Badal-da has passed on, but his legacy lives on. The leading personalities of Indian theatre acknowledge their debt to him.

Girish Karnad, playwright, director and actor, has said that Badal-da’s pathbreaking play Ebong Indrajit taught him about fluidity of structure. To veteran actor and director Amol Palekar, Badal-da was a great inspiration for his entire generation.

For Manipuri director Heisnam Kanhailal, respected throughout the country for his distinctive dramaturgy, it was a workshop by Badal-da that set him on the path towards his own unique theatre style. Even someone like Naseeruddin Shah, who comes from an entirely different school of theatre, has said, “My theatre is also moving towards Sircar’s theatre.”

Nor is it just his own contemporaries who found meaning in his plays. Interestingly, succeeding generations have continued to turn to Badal-da’s texts. Michhil is a favourite with college and youth groups, Pagla Ghoda, Sara Rattir and Baki Itihas often appear on stage in different languages, while Beyond the Land of Hattamala is still popular fare, especially as children’s theatre. A cursory search on the internet will yield some Badal Sircar play being performed somewhere in the country.

Excerpted with permission from Badal Sircar: Towards A Theatre of Conscience, Anjum Katyal, Sage.

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