Play review

Who is the hero in Bangladesh’s history, asks a play under threat of censorship

‘Crutch’er Colonel’ asks questions about Bangladesh’s celebrated historical icons.

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.”

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.