Badal (Sudhindra) Sircar continues to be an influential figure in Bengali, even Indian, theatre five years after his passing. He was from the educated middle class–his father, Mahendra Lal Sircar taught history at Scottish Church College in Kolkata. The Sircars were Protestant Christians, as were most Bengali Hindu converts. He had a methodical mind and earned his living as a town planner, though the theatre bug had bitten him in childhood. What began as a pleasurable pastime seeped into his consciousness by the time he took a job with the Damodar Valley Corporation in 1953, after graduating in Civil Engineering from the reputed Bengal Engineering College, Shibpur, Howrah, off Calcutta (now Kolkata).

He went on to write four interesting plays that reflected the existential dilemmas of the thinking (primarily male) Bengali–in itself a distinctly minor category. Ebong IndrajitBaki ItihasSara Rattir and Pagla Ghora were written between 1963 and 1967 when he was still interested in the possibilities that the proscenium theatre offered him. These plays still read well in Bengali and prove what a fine writer he was in his mother tongue. This fact is reiterated by his autobiography,  (Old Mustard).

These thoughts are awakened by a reading of Badal SircarToward a Theatre of Conscience (SAGE India) by Anjum Katyal . It helps to collect one’s thoughts on Bengali theatre in the last 50 years of the 20th century. By the time Sircar arrived on the Calcutta theatre scene Shambhu Mitra and Utpal Dutt were already names to reckon with, and Ajitesh Bandopadhyay was about to take the city by storm with his dynamic productions. Like these three, Sircar too was deeply influenced by the left and its political and socio-cultural ideals.

Shambhu Mitra was a disillusioned ex-member of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), the culture wing of the undivided Communist Party of India. He was unable to take the interference of culturally obtuse senior party functionaries driven by a narrow reading of communist ideology. However, on-the-ground lessons learnt while working with IPTA gave a fillip to his celebrated later productions like Rabindranath Tagore’s Rakta KarobiRaja, Chaar AdhyayaMrichhakatikaPutul Khela (Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House),Raja Oidipous (an adaptation of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex) and later, Bertolt Brecht’s Gallileo, produced in Bengali but directed by the famous German director Fritz Bennewitz, in which Mitra, old and near-blind, gave a memorable performance in the eponymous role. He distanced himself from the CPI and its break-away version, the clearly more politically successful, CPI(M) (Communist Party of India-Marxist). In keeping with his acerbic, and perhaps, snobbish temperament, he cold-shouldered the sympathisers of the Congress Party at the Centre.

Utpal Dutt, a talented but adept survivor, of upper-middle class origins, made his mark with the outfit he founded in 1949, the Little Theatre Group, after his mentors Geoffrey Kendall and his wife Laura Kendall left India in 1947 for the first time. Dutt was a member of Shakespearana, the theatre company run by the Kendalls in whose production of Shakespeare’s Richard III he had given an impressive performance in the title role. His career as a bilingual actor—English and Bengali—was short-lived, though he did work with great success in Hindi films later, an exercise that helped to a large degree to carry on with his activities in the Bengali theatre.

Dutt knew how to handle party officials of both the CPI and the CPI(M); he knew how to counter their chicanery with even greater chicanery! Of all his contemporaries in Bengali theatre, he had the most successful career. He always had money for his productions. He will be remembered respectfully by those who saw him direct and act in plays like AngaarKallolTitash Ekti Nadir Naam (adapted from Advaitya Malla Burman’s immortal novel of that name), Manusher AdhikareShurjo ShikarJallianwala BaghTiner Talwar and others.

He wrote of ordinary things in a poetic vein. He dealt with existing realities like the difficulties of earning a living, the individual’s struggle for dignity and the need for love.

Ajitesh Bandopadhyay was another major force in the Bengali proscenium theatre that Badal Sircar would have to contend with. A tall, well built, charismatic personality, he had a glorious speaking voice. As an actor-director he was the equal of Shambhu Mitra and Utpal Dutt, and like them he was a product of IPTA, an organisation he left in 1962, two years after he formed his own group, Nandikar. Until 1974, he produced enormously successful plays like Natyakarer Sandhane Chhati Charitra (Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello), Sher Afghan (Henry IV, also by Pirandello), Jokhon Aeka (Arnold Wesker’s Roots), Monjari Aamer Manjeri (Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov), Tin Poeshar Pala ( Bertolt Brecht’s, The Three Penny Opera) and Bhalo Manush (The good Woman of Szchewan, Brecht again). Although adaptations, these were sufficiently Indianised to make a huge impact on the theatre-going public as well as others working in Bengali theatre at the time. In 1974, Bandopadhyay left Nandikar to form Nandimukh. In this phase he is remembered chiefly for his towering performance in Paap Punya (a stage adaptation of Power of Darkness by Leo Tolstoy).

Sircar knew that with his amateur’s credentials he would be hard put to match the intensity of the productions of Mitra, Dutt and Bandopadhyay. Mitra’s group Bohurupee had, in its magazine of the same name, published the poetic text of Ebong Indrajit.  Mitra directed a fine production of the play. A bit earlier in 1965, Gobindo Ganguly of Souvanik, a lesser known theatre group, had done an interesting though not technically polished version of Ebong Indrajit. Nevertheless, in Badal Sircar, Bengali theatre had found a new and original voice.

He wrote of ordinary things in a poetic vein. He dealt with existing realities like the difficulties of earning a living, the individual’s struggle for dignity and the need for love. The plays, that is, Ebong IndrajitSara RattirBaki Itihas and Pagla Ghora, subtly examined the meaning of life in a hemmed-in society. Sircar’s training as a communist—he had joined the CPI in 1943, been expelled for two years in 1949 for questioning the party’s role in the Railway Workers strike, and left in 1955—stood him in good stead in his professional life as a town planner, and in his artistic life as a playwright, actor, and sometime director, instilling in a willing personality a sense of discipline and purpose. He knew deep down inside, after his return from England in 1957, that theatre was his true calling. His Christian upbringing also contributed significantly in retaining his integrity in everything he did, every moment of his life.

It was necessary for him to retain government)jobs related to his training as a civil engineer until 1975. He served for two-and-a-half years or so as Director, Urban Planning, with the Calcutta Area Development Corporation (CADC). It was to be his last job. He resigned because he could no longer ‘‘justify his salary” as theatre was taking up most of his time. This was also, coincidentally, the beginning of his disenchantment with the proscenium theatre. He felt restricted by just the interpretation of the written text by actors. The scope for body language derived from mime and dance and the use of an open, free space where the actors could communicate and exchange “vibrations” of “understanding” with individual members of the audience, as well as with them as a group.

The rapidly declining economic and political situation in West Bengal, and the draconian methods used by the CPI(M) in power to quell all opposition, including the murders of Naxalites, took a toll on Sircar’s mind. He and his troupe moved away quietly from professional theatre and went into the streets, of course, with an interregnum, doing political theatre on an intimate scale at various small venues available; perhaps to test the waters. Sircar and his Satabdi, and towards the end Pathsena—literally meaning foot-soldier—took the theatre of everyday socio-political issues into many parts of the state.

The possibility of the annihilation of all life on earth through a nuclear war influenced his worldview. The Bomb with all its destructive capabilities became an integral part of his artistic vision,

The early 1960s found Sircar as the only contemporary Bengali playwright concerned with the existentialist problems mainly of the urban middle-class in Bengal. His two-year stay in England, exposure to classical and modern experimental theatre there, and the despairing contemplations of French  writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus on the nature of human existence in their work, including plays, had enriched his artistic perceptions. The path-breaking production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot had been staged; its message about life being absurd and beyond rational understanding went home to audiences exposed to the ravages of World War II that encompassed the slaughter of six million Jews and the dropping of atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan by the Americans.

The possibility of the annihilation of all life on earth through a nuclear war influenced his worldview. The Bomb with all its destructive capabilities became an integral part of his artistic vision. He said, “Nowadays many of my plays, one after the other, have mentioned the atom bomb. Ebong IndrajitBaki ItihasPorey KonodinPralaap. And of course that’s totally true of Hiroshima Chhariye ... The more mentions about this issue the better, is how I feel.’’

Critic and author Sibaji Bandopadhyay, quoted on the same in Katyal’s book (page 221), declares, “[Badal-da’s] Baki Itihas (1965), Porey Konodin (1966), Tringsha Satabdi (1966) are three full-fledged instances of mature nuclear criticism. The memory of Hiroshima Day and the terrifying apocalypse which would “not only be the final and fullest extension of every cruelty and viciousness but also the annihilation of every possibility of justification or condemnation’ haunts many of Badal Sircar’s plays, e.g. Bagh (1965) and Pralaap (1966).”

Sircar’s characters in his plays written for the theatre are trying to cope with a world that always seems to be beyond their grasp. The men, especially, feel short-changed by destiny and societal norms that curb their growth. In this respect Sircar remains the first playwright in Indian theatre to deal with existential problems with a modern sensibility. He seems to be chronologically ahead of both Mohan Rakesh (Adhey Adhure) and Vijay Tendulkar (Sakharam BinderShantata Court Chalu Aahe) and in the sheer breadth of intellectual concerns. Girish Karnad, who appeared on the Kannada theatre scene a few years after these playwrights, shot to fame quickly with two plays—Hayavadana and Tughlaq—both sensitive period pieces. These are also Karnad’s most staged, hence most popular plays.

Spartacus (1972) inspired  by Howard Fast’s eponymous novel on the Roman slave who led a spirited but failed revolt against the state, was the play that enabled Sircar to break away  from the proscenium theatre of Bengal (read Kolkata).

Spartacus from its inception had to do more with the political objectives I sought outside the theatre than with creating merely good theatre—it was a departure,” writes Katyal.

On the same page there is a quote from Sircar on the writing of Spartacus from his manifesto, The Third Theatre:

“For a long time in the history of theatre, particularly in our country, a play depended mainly on two factors: (a) story and (b) characters. The usual approach was to present certain characters with definite identities and a story developed through the interactions between these characters. It was done with the idea that the spectators would recognise or identify themselves with the characters on the stage and get involved with their problems and emotions. Social problems were posed as extensions of the problems of the individual characters in the play. This is all very well but this certainly is not the limit of the theatre. For a long time, I have been trying to break away from this system of story and characters.”

“My hair stood on end. Even today I can remember every scene.” He visibly shivers recalling the physical and emotional impact of a young actor playing a slave grabbing his leg as she fell against him. “This is the theatre I’m searching for, the theatre I want to do! So inexpensive, so strong, such a politically direct theatre-this is my theatre.”ircar’s impact as a playwright and director on other practitioners of his kind of theatre can perhaps, be measured by this quote from Katyal’s book: “Theatre director Probir Guha, whose Alternative Living Theatre continues to do alternative theatre on the outskirts of Kolkata, recalls the impact on him of Spartacus. Growing up as he did in remote villages, politically on the left, brimming with youthful ambition to do meaningful theatre that could express his views and speak to the common man, he had never experienced theatre like it.

Spartacus was staged at the Academy of Fine Arts Anganmancha, a largish room really, seating about 75 people. In this intimate space Sircar and his troupe created a production whose impact on the mind and heart of viewers was epic. The message was overtly political, to highlight the abject economic, and the political condition of an overwhelming majority of have-nots. Noted critic and commentator Sumanta Banerjee observed: “It ends with all the slaves rising together in a rhythmic gesture that symbolises Spartacus, their hero who had become a martyr. They speak in the voice of Spartacus, asserting that he will always be wherever people struggle till they achieve liberty, and that he will come back, reborn among millions of people.”

Fast’s novel about the enslavement of the human body and spirit by the agencies of evil represented by the ruling elite was Sircar’s favourite. Inspired by it he created a play of enduring merit and fashioned out of it a theatre aesthetic that was both intimate and political and of immense appeal to people aware of and responsive to the sufferings of the deprived and the dispossessed. The intimacy offered by Aanganmancha expanded to accommodate a theatre form that offered even greater freedom and came to be known as the Third Theatre as Sircar entered the final phase of his life.

His work was now focused on serving a political and social purpose. Till ill-health caught up and restricted his mobility he toured the (West Bengal) countryside explaining to people through the performances that they lived in a patently unjust world and were ruthlessly exploited by a callous elite. Their situation need not always be so if they considered doing something to change it. This was didacticism of the worst kind, according to his critics from the privileged classes. There were however, others, who felt Sircar was fulfilling a vital function of an artiste, making his audience aware of the human condition and the myriad inequities that are a part of it.

Bhoma was perhaps the most significant play in the final phase of his life.  It is about a poor villager from Rangabelia in the Sunderbans. He is never seen physically in the play but is a vital presence in the minds of all the performers. Bhoma for them is: “...the jungle. Bhoma is the cornfield. Bhoma is the village. Three quarters of India’s population live in villages. Millions and millions of Bhomas. In the cities we live on the blood of Bhomas... if the Bhomas had rice, we would not have anything left to eat. Bhoma’s blood, red blood, blossoms into white jasmines of rice on our plates.”

Bhoma is the story of the degradation of India’s rural populace, reduced to destitution and hunger, desperately seeking to survive. Bhoma is the conscience of the privileged urban Indian. The play relentlessly juxtaposes the struggle for survival in the rural areas with the self-indulgently trivial concerns of a middle-class city dweller irritated or resentful when this other reality intrudes into his or her comfortable daily rhythm.

Sircar has been criticised too for the aesthetic and political positions he took. Sumanta Banerjee, a long time admirer, wrote the following about the plays from his Third Theatre phase: “Even though his plays might not have come up with any original ideas, his passionate commitment to the cause of social justice and his excellent skill in translating it into theatrical terms—helped by his penchant for witty dialogues—have remained undimmed all through the various stages of his experiments. But there seems to be a certain lack of focus in his choice of issues, and dearth of conciseness in handling them. He wants to explain too many problems within the framework of a single play—the economic plight of the poor, the capitalist system which causes this plight, the political options before the exploited poor and the middle-class intellectuals who sympathise with them, the military nature of the world capitalist order, the danger of a nuclear war threatened by this order, etc., etc. While all these dimensions are surely relevant for a political analysis of the situation in India, Badal Sircar somehow fails to bind together these various strands into a pithy theatrical statement.”

It is understandable when a critic pans a playwright for not being focused in the content of his “message”, while writing a particular play. Banerjee’s criticism of Sircar’s plays is valid within its own context. Sircar’s plays, post 1972, managed to reach a large number of poor but responsive rural people who, till then had been ignored by the unfeeling ruling class. His plays not only restored their confidence to a degree but instilled in them a sense of self-worth. Surely that is a major achievement for a revolutionary democrat.