The play Crutch’er Colonel opens with a dozen actors helplessly searching for the missing hero. From the stage rise cries listing several crises from Bangladesh’s past and present rise – the threat to the Sundarbans, the Rana Plaza tragedy, and the perils to free speech. Where has the hero of Bangladesh been through all these trials?

Modern theatre in Bangladesh has been an arena of cultural protest: artists raised critical questions before and during the 1971 Liberation War and they continue to be seen as conscientious troublemakers. Crutch’er Colonel, an adaptation of a popular book by the same name that has been performed 11 times in the past two years, carries on this rich tradition. In a performance at Mahila Samiti Theater in Dhaka on May 12, the play echoed the intellectual aspirations and emotional quests of many. It asked questions about Bangladesh’s celebrated historical icons by elucidating that the dream of liberated Bangladesh went awry when power became concentrated in a few hands.

Due to this questioning nature and scope of the play, there has been apprehension of censorship. After one staging, the director, Mohammad Ali Haider, was threatened that the alleged anti-national component of the play would be reported to government authorities. He was told to remove critical references to Bangabandhu, the popular name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding leader of Bangladesh, and not valorise those who were accused of conspiring to assassinate him.

Credit: Asif Iqbal
Credit: Asif Iqbal

Even now, a threat looms, despite the repeal of an archaic British law against free performances after a protracted battle by cultural activists. State machineries and vigilante groups still frown upon performances that look heretic to them.

But then, a play centred on Colonel Abu Taher, who was tried and executed during General Ziaur Rahman’s regime, was bound to unearth unheard stories. After the recent staging, a person who served jail time under the same regime told the packed auditorium: “It was not the trail that killed Colonel Taher, it was a judicial murder.” Momtaz Uddin, the renowned playwright, too expressed joy after watching the performance: “I will no longer have remorse that we failed to train the next generation of theatre artists who could keep the culture of protest alive.”

The pride is not without reason. The group behind the play, Bot Tola, is renowned for politically relevant theatre. During the two-hour running time, Crutch’er Colonel does not give the audience a moment to switch off. Strong performances by actors restrain the play from slipping into plain Leftist rhetoric despite its empathy for revolutionary spirit. This is indeed challenging, for left-leaning progressive theatre has met a dead-end in terms of art and craft in several parts of South Asia.

Credit: Asif Iqbal
Credit: Asif Iqbal

Haider keeps a firm directorial grip through the play, maintaining an interrogative approach, while interspersing it with moments of melodrama, sarcasm and wit. The mix of historical and contemporary in Humayara Akhter’s costume design works well in a play where timeframes are blurred. With the aid of Khalid Mahmud Shejan’s light work and Pintu Ghosh’s music, Crutch’er Colonel convinces its audience that the show is credible, even if it includes figments of imagination.

The play is significant at a time of growing disillusionment in Bangladesh with its grand history and heroes – be it Bangabandhu, his autocratic successors or democratically-elected representatives. It asks that the idea of the historical hero be reconsidered. Though cries of Jai Bangla, and an anti-Pakistan sentiment, punctuate the play, it is not a simple nationalistic narrative. It asks for more from the audience as it speaks to them through the biography of someone who was sentenced to death on the disputable charge of conspiring to assassinate Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It reminds Bangladeshis that there are unknown stories buried under the structures of simple nationalistic narratives – and only creative scepticism toward the idea of hero can lead to them.

As Ankit Chakravarty, a young student at University of Dhaka, rightly said, “By watching such a play I am part of the unfolding history, with many stories not available in textbooks in Bangladesh.”