Sohaila Kapur

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Thank you for Ebong Indrajit, Badal da

He freed Indian theatre from the proscenium and mentored many generations


Badal Sircar (1925-2011), the great playwright and dramatist, passed away recently in Kolkata. For a man who was unsung in the latter years of his life, there has been a great outpouring of grief on the net. People have uploaded paens; many have recalled meetings with him and his mentorship and several have posted pictures of his workshops. 

His long life was studded with awards and honours: Padma Shri and the Sangeet Natak Akademi awards and several other citations by universities and private institutions. The Government of India offered him the Padma Bhushan in 2010, which he declined, stating that he was already a Sahitya Akademi Fellow, which, for him, was the biggest recognition for a writer. 

Just prior to his death, the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards presented him with a lifetime achievement award, which was accepted by someone else on his behalf, as he was too ill to make it to the event. 

Badal Sircar was an influential Bengali dramatist and director, known for his anti-establishment plays in the ’70s, during the height of the Naxalite movement, and for taking theatre out of the proscenium and into the public arena. According to Anuradha Kapur, director of the National School of Drama, “He was an extraordinary influence, in that what he did in the ’70s became the theatre language of young people in colleges thinking about politics and life, and this was across India, not just in Bengal.” 

Badal da, as he was affectionately known, did not study theatre formally. He was a civil engineer and town planner by profession, but was, at heart, a writer. He served in rural India, the UK and Nigeria, where he wrote copiously, producing a string of comedies in Bengali. But the recognition of his talent as a playwright came with the politically loaded Ebong Indrajit (1963), which was his foray into the existentialist, absurdist style he became famous for. The play dealt with urban angst and questions of identity, in a world of increasing violence and inhumanity, which was to be a recurrent theme with him over the years. Playwright Girish Karnad says that Ebong Indrajit’s writing style taught him how to create fluidity between scenes, while director-playwright Satyadev Dubey declares that in “every play I’ve written and in every situation created, (Ebong) Indrajit dominates”. 

Baki Itihas (1965), Pralap (1966), Tringsha Shatabdi (1966), Pagla Ghoda (1967) and Shesh Naii (1969) followed in quick succession. 

It was in this decade that Badal da decided to also go into production and started his theatre group Satabdi (Century). In the beginning, he directed his older plays on the proscenium stage, but in 1970, he wrought changes in style and brought in his technique of Anganmancha or Third Theatre, which rejected the proscenium in favour of open spaces, where he could reach audiences, instead of vice versa. He rejected the idea of the fourth wall and decided to include his audience in his performances, as his plays increasingly became a collective exercise to awaken and enhance the social consciousness of the people. Make-up, costumes, lights and sound, the pre-requisites of any proscenium-based production, were done away with. In 1972, he produced Spartacus, based on Howard Fast’s historical novel, in his revolutionary new style, performing in an almost bare room with spectators sitting all around. “He came at a point when Indian theatre was trying to find its own identity and so I think it became very significant at that time,” says theatre director Neelam Mansingh Chaudhury. According to film actor-director Amol Palekar, “Badal da opened up new ways of expression.” Then came Saari Raat, Juloos, Bhoma, Basi Khabar, amongst others. “What a variety of plays!” exclaims Gujarati playwright and Mumbai-based theatre director Utkarsh Mazumdar, a product of the ’70s theatre movement. “They ventured into the unknown territory of the human mind and threw new light on human relationships.” Soon after Spartacus, Badal da began enacting his plays either in rooms or open parks. He also broke the urban-rural divide by performing in village squares. He freed his theatre from financial constraints by not charging gate money and relied completely on voluntary donations. These tactics made him a pioneer of the street-theatre movement in India. 

Says film director Mira Nair, “For me, Kolkata was a formative city while growing up. More than anything, I learned to read Badal Sircar and watch plays written by him for street theatre.” 

According to Arundhati Nag, owner of Rangashankara theatre in Bengaluru, “For our generation, Badal da was like a lighthouse…we took (his) cues and went forward 

doing the kind of theatre which was to become what all of us contemporary theatre practitioners are about right now.” 

“He defined modern Indian theatre, breaking the convention of the proscenium stage and rejuvenating drama with physical energy and accessibility to performance,” says playwright and director Mahesh Dattani. 

Despite frail health, Badal da, at 85, wrote busily. He was writing new plays, a novel and adapting Shakespeare and Graham Greene when he died. The great American dramatist Eugene O’ Neill was his “favourite playwright”. “I believe in adaptation and Indianising foreign literature because I can’t write original plays,” he once said. He directed his last play in 2003. 

Badal da’s plays are performed the world over. According to playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar, “The soil that he has created will ultimately be germinated by people as idealistic as him.” 

NSD alumnus and theatre director Sabina Mehta Jaitley sums up the feelings of the fraternity when she says, “Thank you for being there, Badal da.”


NEW LANGUAGE: With plays like ‘Spartacus’ being performed in open parks, Sircar became a pioneer of the street-theatre movement in India 

A scene from ‘Shesh Naii’

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