Oct 6, 2010 (CalcuttaTube): Theatre mastreo Rudraprasad Sengupta shares his thoughts and views on Nandikar and its journey of 50 years and its metamorphosis, the economics and structure behind the stage, experiences working in different projects and much more. Read the interview exclusive at CalcuttaTube.
First appearance in a play and his early days:
Rudraprasad Sengupta: When I was in 9th – 10th grade, there was a play going on ‘Jedin Jagbe Mukul’ at ‘Monimela’. At that time, I was not quite smart. But I had a lot of curiosity about a girl. So I would go to the rehearsals, even though I had no interest in the play. I just wanted to stand by her. I did the role of a ‘sainik’ that did not have any dialogues. But I got to stand by that girl in the play.
Then when I was in Scottish Church College and in Calcutta University, I was associated with the Communist party. I came across many important people at that time and I thought that a communist should try to be a superman ideologically, not miraculously, so that they can fit them into any situations and be useful. It was a time for me when I participated in everything and thought that it would help in a better education. Among many other extracurricular activities, I played table tennis, published college magazines, and took part in theatre.
In Scottish Church College, there was an ambience for theatre. When we went to Calcutta University, I was however not much satisfied with the quality of plays there. Then with some of my friends, I discovered Pirandello’s ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author.’ We translated it with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately the play was too difficult to get an acting assemble to stage it in the university. So, we staged ‘An Inspector Calls’ by J. B. Priestley titled ‘Thana Theke Aaschhi’. And surprisingly, in the play I did the role of the inspector.
In my early days I encountered with theatre on and off just like sports, magazine publication, etc. It was a way of sharing responsibility and was a conceivable activity in student life.
Then when I graduated from university and started teaching in college, I was feeling somewhat lonely. There was a vacuum somewhere, I was not getting much interest in politics and was looking for something else. This was in the 60s. Then again I came across Ajitesh Bandopadhyay. I knew him since my days in Manindrachandra College, from where I switched over to Scottish Church. He was a year senior to me. In the 60s our relation revived again. He used to visit me at my place all the time. I gave him the unused script of ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author.’ He was mesmerized. That is how it started all again. In the beginning I used to be ‘a helper’ in the group and do multiple things. With time, I got absorbed in the process of theatre in Nandikar.
We did not have any formal training in theatre. We learnt to do theatre from life.
Necessity of formal schooling in theatre:
Rudraprasad Sengupta: No. You just need to know the subject. The learning can be formal or informal. In real life, we all do drama. The world is a stage. We are mere actors. Everything is part of a play- love, bicker, birth, death, envy – any emotions and incidents are all elements of drama. The only difference is that when all this happens in real life, we are not in control of things. Things happen and we keep on reacting, without knowing the results. We learn to live by being in the mainstream of life.
In theatre, we place all these elements analytically, from our commitments, so that when we perform on stage, we know what we are going to do.
In real life, we float. In a play, we don’t; we just appear to be so. The whole thing in theatre is organized, schematized. That is the relation between life and theatre. Whatever happens in theatre is taken from life.
A serious and joyful student of life will excel in theatre.
Nandikar’s journey of 50 years:
Rudraprasad Sengupta: Nandikar is one of the most important theatre groups in our country in terms of variety of activities, quality of its actions and so on. But theatre has certain crisis points. One of them is lack of economic professionalism. The other is the uncertain space of theatre in the cultural calendar of the society. Theatre workers do not get enough designation in society or earn a decent livelihood here. Need very soon becomes greed. This creates a chaos and breaks the integrity among teammates. Members within a group develop vociferous attitude and become competitive of each other. All this happens because theatre is not properly rewarded in society. In Nandikar, some of our crews are gifted with enormous abilities.
Swatilekha Sengupta is Satyajit Ray’s heroine. So her acting potentials are beyond doubts. Sohini Sengupta won the Bismillah Khan Yuva award for the best young actress of India and she won the National Award for her role in the movie ‘Paromitar Ekdin’. Bertolucci offered me the role of King Suddhodhona in his film ‘Little Buddha’ with Keanu Reeves playing my on screen son, The Buddha. We could have rocked other mediums as well if we opted to. But we did not.
In 2008, Price Waterhouse and Coopers conducted a survey according to which the global entertainment industry with a turnover of $1.80 trillion which is much larger than the value of Indian wealth. Among this, two items that got erased were literature and theatre. In the global entertainment map, literature and theatre are deprived of any position, though the publishing industry does have a position.
Recently West Bengal initiated a repertory company. States like Uttar Pradesh, Goa have had repertory companies before West Bengal, the most cultured state with Kolkata being cultural capital of the country. Theatre workers get very meager salary and our society and government think it is simply enough. This reflects the overall attitude towards theatre.
Social recognition of theatre is important. Look at the West. Their govt. recognizes theatre as a profession. Laurence Olivier gets the same acknowledgements for doing theatre as films, if not more.
A theatre personality from Berlin said that the condition there is not that good as it used to be. But theatre still can afford them bare subsistence. Unfortunately we do not get it here.
Theatre actors often get diverted because of the lack of economic scopes in the art. The three things theatre is dependent upon are: idealism, joy, and money. Out of these three important factors, a central part is missing.
As said by Antonio Gramsci, the way to perfection is the trinity of ‘feeling, knowledge, and commitment.” These days I often see people in theatre with a crisis of knowledge. The bucks are missing, though they have lots of commitment and feeling. All these taken together somewhere lack the binding properties in theatre. We are all saints and sinners potentially. As human beings, we possess all positive and negative qualities like sacrifice, greed, lust, self-resistance, ideologies. But poverty, lack of economic structure is so prominent here, that our selfish side becomes more prominent.
For example, a person who has his own theatre group is permitted to go to other groups and act for them. May be, there was not much potential for his group to get enough shows. In this way, he is always in the picture, and his market value rises. But his own group gets neglected and does make any improvements over time because he does give enough time to his own folks. And also the other groups he works for are not benefited either; because the potential actors there always get secondary, tertiary roles to do and outside hero heroines are cast in primary roles.
In a country like ours, where infrastructure of theatre, social patronage, governmental support are not enough, the concept of theatre groups is supposed to play a very important role in the survival process. But it is kind of falling apart these days which is a matter of grave concern. I am historically very aware of things. I try to update myself, understand the tendencies and socio-cultural contours.
I am as bad as any other compeers, but with a difference – I am always aware that I need to be good. If I am not good at heart, I cannot expect others to be with me. These are the driving forces. I am very fortunate to have some of my colleagues like Swatilekha, Debshankar, Sohini and all these people. They are very talented and very human colleagues. This has helped us survive and has added to Nandikar’s strength. Compared to many other groups, we have a whole of lot good actors. We make good actors; we keep on with their training. Our talent bank is very rich and commitment bank is constantly owned. This is our key to survival, rather aliveness.
Experiments doing theatre with street children, slum children, visually challenged, the youth:
Rudraprasad Sengupta: It was a great experience for us. It was very challenging, too. At times we would get stunned, surprised, would not know how to proceed, and then suddenly we would find out some way. These were extremely interesting jobs to do.
To keep Nandikar alive, we have to try on doing different things. We have always worked in many versatile projects. It helped us all financially. But the jobs themselves and the financial side are equally important. I cannot say which one is primary and which one secondary. It is like different organs making up a human being. In an organic whole, every part has its own importance.
We have documented all these in books. Many new models have evolved from these, too. In 21 years, we have worked in about 200 schools. We have worked with many youth groups and have pioneered training in different districts. It is extremely important to train today’s youngsters. We got trained in life, but these people have to be trained in institutes. There are different age groups whom we train all year round – 5 yrs to 9 yrs, 9+ to 15 yrs, 15+ to 18 yrs, 18+ to 25 yrs. I think this somewhere generates some kind of seriousness in theatre. Some of these students later join Nandikar.
Constraints faced in children’s theatre:
Rudraprasad Sengupta: At the beginning, the children truly loved their ‘theatre’ game. But after some time they faced a lot pressure both from home and school and got used to it. I see that a lot of times people think that it is an ideal situation.
Getting good grades is considered to be a holy job, even if it is at the expense of childhood. The kids today are viciously competitive with each other. Love for their friends is being replaced with this competition. And the kids are so much used to this kind of practice that after some time they get groomed to it.
All this is the manifestation of a time dominated by a consumer society. Our civilization is now running in the ‘having’ mode, not in the ‘being’ mode. The society is governed by consumers’ psychology, not users’ locations. Lust, consumption, competition are vital driving forces and often results in things that were not supposed to be.
When kids watch TV, or do other stuff, no one has problems with that. But if they do theatre once a week for an hour, it is considered to be hampering their career. I personally think that is all very conservative, dull talk. But these thoughts rule in the society. The schools think this way, parents get scared too.
And it is a general rule that if kids enjoy doing something, then that particular job has to be stopped. So the vigor of life has to be stopped. Pursuit of number in the name of knowledge, success in the name of achievement is what people run after these days. Society, educational institutes, administration really do not think much about what education is for though, on and off they think about bringing in more cultural activities in school curriculum. They sound good, but no one believes in that. When it comes to practice, no one does that either.
Like we all know health and physique play a very important role in a child’s life. But physical trainers in schools are always objects of ridicule. Kids look down on them ‘PT sirs’, as if these teachers are second graders. Their salaries are also lower. This means that the govt. too thinks that the person looking after our children’s physical training is not as important as the maths teacher landing out probable suggestions. We all read poems at school. But how many of us do you think become students of poetry?
Everything is in a state of confusion and commotion. Viswa Bharati could have been an exception. But unfortunately things are not too bright there either.
At the first look it seems great that performing arts are included in syllabus. But then again I worry if they will be set aside as a mere auxiliary subject.
Many of our Nandikar students go to different schools to teach theatre. But they are often used just as ‘work and pay’ and nothing more. And yet we still do respond to such offers! People do not always realize the importance of dramas and plays.
Theatre is not just a medium where you simply dress up and wear make-up just for the sake of it. A play is a ‘gateway into life’. Theatre gives us a chance to see the relation between a man and a man, a man and society, man and nature, man and events. In concrete terms, it shows us the equations between human beings, the relations between humans and life around. Most importantly, theatre helps us locate our identity.
It helps us in identifying reality; indentify humans in their full potential and implication. It just not gives recognition. It does much more. It gets into deeper levels of comprehension.
Cinema and theatre, two mediums of acting:
Rudraprasad Sengupta: Compared to theatre, cinema is synthetic, in its end product and reception. People see movies on two dimensional screens. The audience knows that these people are not live. When people work for a film, they know it will be ‘cooked’. Cinema is not an organic live exchange or communication between the creator and spectator.
Theatre is live. Cinema can happen without a spectator, music can happen without a listener, painting can happen without a buyer; but theatre can never happen without the other.
‘I and the other’ is the principle of all communications; the philosophy of religion, love and related. Theatre is an epitome of that. In theatre, you always need ‘I and the other’, just as you need in love.
There is another interesting, though painful side. All other art forms, creative ventures have a claim to posterity. Theatre is ephemeral; here and now.
The inner picture and economics of theatre:
Rudraprasad Sengupta: 95 percent performances of most theatre groups run on a losing business, though people hardly realize that from outside. Let me give you an example. There are approx. 700 seats in Academy. I rent the hall for Rs. 6000, advertise for 12000, have to pay make-up, sound, cartage another Rs. 7000. For all these, it cost about Rs. 35 per audience or per seat. So if I sell tickets all the seats, then it breaks even. But all the seats do not fill up most of the day. So a lot of times the theatre groups run on losses. Unfortunately, society and administration do not understand this picture. People think that we are doing a lot of show and hence making money.
When you like a girl, you wait for her for hours to see her for a minute. Theatre is like that. People do not always see the labor and effort we put in the art to survive to get the end product, which is the theatre and it is always losing.
There was once a hall opened named Rangana. Everyone in Nandikar, including Ajitesh, then decided to do four stage shows per week. I was the only one who thought it was a wrong decision. I did not think that we could draw about 3200 people a week to come to see us perform. But still I went with their decision as a good volunteer. Theatre does not sell like hot cakes. And when you are losing days and days after, you either quit or compromise with your quality of work.
A theatre person has to understand his time, society, economics, and the social reach of the medium. Unfortunately a lot of time, theatre people do not understand all these. So naturally the audience does not either. It is sad, but understandable.
Nankdikar’s evolution since 1960 to 2010:
Rudraprasad Sengupta: The society with its values has changed a lot over these years. And certain evils of this changing time have affected us, too. It is become more of a struggle to keep the group intact. Then again, I tell myself that there is no point lamenting about it. No one forced me to be here. I decided to fall in love with theatre. So the pain is mine. Sometime it hurts, sometimes it brings joy.
Rudraprasad Sengupta: We are aware that we are not very good people always. So give us a chance. Try to believe that we try to remain good, we try to be good, and we try to do good theatre. Give us that benefit of the doubt. From you I want, be a more sensitive person. Just don’t go by the media, campaigns, etc who always believe in glamour, color, cacophony, instead of soft, delicate, beautiful organs we call life.
So I would appreciate you if you are a student of life, and please appreciate us and try to believe that we seriously want to be students of life through theatre.
Photo /Videos: Shrabanti Basu