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  • Struggling to StageThe Contentious Issue of Theatre Space in Kolkata
  • Arnab Banerji (bio)

The question of space assumes special significance in the case of the popular Bengali group theatre practiced in Kolkata, India. Theatre companies, referred to as groups in this theatre culture, do not own or control any of the spaces that are used in any aspect of the performance process, depending entirely on rental resources. This results in a unique performative circumstance that makes theatre-making a challenging “business” in this Eastern Indian city. In this essay, I trace a brief trajectory of the Bengali group theatre genre of performance, followed by an examination of the way theatres are spread out in the city of Kolkata, and the spatial idiosyncrasies of these theatre spaces. Using the work of Ric Knowles and Gay McAuley I demonstrate the challenges that space—or the lack thereof—creates for Bengali theatre practitioners.

Amidst the acute shortage of performance spaces and the resultant competition amongst groups to secure a spot to perform are a few groups like Alternative Living Theatre, Swabhav Kolkata, and Theatre Formation Paribartak. These groups have deliberately chosen to steer clear of the space war by looking for alternative spaces for both rehearsal and performance. In doing so, they are not only attempting to point a way out of the jostling for space that threatens to sap a large share of their creative energy, but they are also able to stage their shows more regularly and at a relatively lower cost, thus circumventing two of the biggest challenges facing Bengali theatre groups today. I reference here the work of one such group, Theatre Formation Paribartak (henceforth TFP), to demonstrate how this company has managed to eke out a space of their own in the Kolkata performance landscape.1

Bengali group theatre is the most popular theatre form practiced in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. It traces its roots to the progressive [End Page 88] theatre movement that gained currency amongst the Bengali middle class in the 1930s. The first groups emerged from the ruins of the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA) after this erstwhile cultural front of the Communist Party of India disintegrated, following the party being declared illegal in 1948 by the Indian National Congress– led federal government.2

The newly created groups produced plays that demanded technical and aesthetic rigor. The groups turned to Sanskrit classics as well as to the dramatic works of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore for inspiration and subject matter. This was in sharp contrast to the exclusively political and socially conscious theatre that the predecessor of the group theatre, the IPTA, was producing. The shift from the political to the quest for an aesthetic beauty and complexity led to creative and political differences among group members. The disagreement over the purpose of theatre coupled with the culturally conditioned Bengali tendency of daladali (group-ism) resulted in fissures within the groups during and through the mid-1960s.3

Personality clashes more than political differences seem to be the main reason that most groups disintegrated and continue to disintegrate. The personality clash might be between the director and other members, or among the actors within the group.4 It is quite likely that a popular or famous member of the group might gather around him or her a group of sycophants to “carve out a new area of power,” leading to the breakup of the old group and the formation of a new one.5 The splits usually follow one of two models. The first exists when ordinary members of the group decide to quit the parent organization to form newer groups, examples of which include groups like Rupakar, Theatre Workshop, and Sudrak. The second happens when the director of a group leaves with a band of loyal associates to form a new group. Theatre groups Nandimukh and Anya Theatre were created in this way when revered actor-director Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay left Nandikar with some associates in 1977, and noted director Bibhas Chakraborty did the same upon leaving Theatre Workshop in 1985.6

By the 1970s—over twenty years after the first group, Bohurupee, was formed in 1948—there were more than a dozen theatre...


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