- Hindi Theatre in Kolkata: Shyamanand Jalan and his Times Edited by Pratibha Agarwal and Samik Bandyopadhyay
Shyamanand Jalan (1934–2010) is the most recognizable name in Hindi theatre in Kolkata. He is credited for the renaissance period of Hindi-language theatre in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) as well as India between the 1960s and 1980s. Jalan was the first director to stage plays by the modernist Mohan Rakesh (1925–1972), beginning with Rakesh’s magnum opus Asadh ke Ek din (One Day in Asadh) in 1960. Jalan is credited with introducing the now celebrated Badal Sircar (1925–2011) to the rest of the country with his Hindi-language adaptations of Sircar’s Bengali classics Evam Indrajit (And Indrajit) in 1968 and Pagla Ghoda (Crazy Horse) in 1971. Jalan is also remembered as a powerful actor of stage and screen, including for his performance as the Don in Roland Jaffe’s 1992 film City of Joy.
In the early 2000s Jalan suffered a massive stroke, which paralyzed him, and in 2009 he was diagnosed with cancer. Jalan bore these illnesses courageously and kept working in theatre as well as his legal practice. I fondly recall Shyamanand ji (ji is a gender-neutral honorific equivalent to sir/madam) attending staged readings and performances at his Padatik Buildwell Theatre, in spite of being unwell. Shyamanand ji had opened up the doors of Padatik for young people for experimental work and helped emerging artists with [End Page 336] technical support and mentoring. Jalan always wanted to create a fully professional theatre company, but, although he came close, whenever he assembled a group of dedicated, trained performers for his landmark Hindi productions, he could never sustain such a company. This question about the lack of a fully professional theatre company haunts us as we mourn the death and celebrate the life of this great thespian.
Conceived and produced in 2011, Hindi Theatre in Kolkata: Shyamanand Jalan and His Times is a fitting tribute by two of Jalan’s oldest friends and collaborators, Pratibha Agarwal (noted actress, researcher, and founder of Natya Shodh Sansthan, Kolkata, the largest archive of Indian theatre material) and Samik Bandyopadhyay (noted theatre critic and scholar). The thin volume contains “lightly edited transcripts of two long interviews with Shyamanand Jalan and Pratibha Agarwal …; and excerpts from a diary, maintained by Jalan…, recording his interactions with playwright Mohan Rakesh (1925–72), while the latter was engaged in revising his play Laharon Ke Rajhans [The Swan of the Waves] in Kolkata” (p. vii). The extensive interviews, recorded for the Natya Shodh Sansthan in 1991, offer a rare insight into the rise of not only a single thespian but an entire theatre culture in Calcutta in the second half of the twentieth century. Jalan talks about the earliest days of Hindi commercial theatre in the city when the influence of the Parsi theatre’s melodramatic style was very strongly felt and how stalwarts like Tarun Roy (b. 1928, active 1950s–1970s) broke with it, to develop realist/naturalist and experimental plays.
The conversations give firsthand insights into a theatre phenomenon that is exceptional in the Indian context. Hindi is a minority language in Bengali-speaking Kolkata and is confined largely to the expatriate business community. Under such circumstances Jalan and the Hindi theatre that he built became an equal partner with its mainstream counterpart—Bengali theatre. Jalan was instrumental in bridging this gap between the minority and the majority theatre culture. In a candid conversation with Samik Bandyopadhyay and Pratibha Agarwal, Jalan talks about the problems during the early years of his directorial work. He discusses his association with some of the biggest names in Bengali theatre, such as Sombhu Mitra (1915–1997), who began with the Indian People’s Theatre Association in 1943 and went on to found his own company and direct films; Tapas Sen (1924–2006); and Khaled Choudhuri (b. 1919), who excelled as designer and musical director. Jalan also talks about his loss...