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Cover Story

An Uncompromising Master

Aasha Mehreen Amin

There are few individuals whose exit from the world is as devastating. A pioneer in bringing traditional Bangla theatre to an urban audience as a writer of incredible depth and versatility, the compiler of the country's only Bangla anthology on theatre, an ardent researcher of indigenous performing art forms, an unconventional teacher, a philosopher, nature lover -- the list of titles for this remarkable man is endless. Thus his untimely death at the peak of his literary career is all the more shattering. Yet he has left behind him the richest and most unique legacy of epic drama that will be cherished and celebrated for eternity.

The journey towards his dream to establish a distinct Bangla narrative stream has been a long one and intricately parallels Selim Al Deen's sojourn of life, which has been anything but ordinary. It is a journey of a precocious young boy whose extraordinary intimacy with his roots and his relentless search for knowledge eventually collides in adulthood, to create this literary genius whose multi-dimensional intellectual prowess has been compared to that of Rabindranath.

SWM speaks to some of those closest to him to conjure the image of Selim Al Deen, the man and the uncompromising master of Bangla theatre.

Photo Credit: Barin Ghosh

Al Deen's brush with writing began early, when he was a schoolboy being shuttled from one place to another -- Chittagong, Sylhet, Rangpur and Comilla -- because of his father's postings as a customs officer. He also made frequent visits to his home village in Feni. His acquaintance with rural landscape and culture began while he was growing up and provided the basis of his writings later on. When he went to Sylhet with his father for instance, Selim, then in class one or two, saw the life of the Khasis; it was many years later that he wrote 'Ekti Marma Rupkatha' (A Marma Fairytale) about the Marma, setting the precedent of bringing elements from ethnic groups to the stage.

Born in Sonagaji, Feni on November 18, 1948 (this was his official date of birth, his age had been raised when he was admitted to school) to Mofizuddin Ahmed, a deputy superintendent of customs, and Feroza Khatun, a housewife, Selim had eight other siblings. His father was an honest man which meant that the family as large as it was, had to live with modest means. His father, a religious yet liberal-minded man, encouraged his son to write and his mother who had seen Kazi Nazrul Islam in person, when she was a child, nurtured a secret desire that one day her son would be a great writer.

It was while in class 8 or 9 that Selim, by then quite a bookworm, read Jasimuddin and started to understand Rabindranath, reading Gora, Char Odhay, Ghore Baire and memorising at least 50 of Tagore's poems. His childhood was spent in a secular environment Muslims, Hindus and Boishnabs lived in harmony and provided the mixed culture that influenced Al Deen's secular sensibilities. Al Deen believed that a society that does not have a mixed culture cannot really develop, a theory that egged him on to incorporate different religious and ethnic elements in his works.

In his university days the western masters such as Tolstoy, Dostoyvosky and Shakespeare caught his attention. He read Camus and Sartre and became familiar with Greek and Hindu mythology; he had read all the religious books: the holy Quran, Bible, Tora, Mahabharat Ramayan and so on. This was also when his life-long friendship with Nasiruddin Yuosuff began based on their mutual interest in philosophy, literature and politics. It was a friendship that endured all throughout his life and was enmeshed with his professional career. They, along with like-minded friends found Dhaka Theatre, which proved to be Al Deen's main platform where his work came alive on stage.

While a student of Dhaka University in the late 60s, Al Deen was influenced by a number of people. Poets Ahsan Habib and Rafiq Azad had encouraged him to write plays instead of poetry. He adapted 'Rider to the Sea' into drama form with Sandwip as the backdrop. It was Rafiq Azad, a mentor for young people like Al Deen and Yuosuff, who gave the name of Selim Al Deen to the boy from Feni who had been originally named Md. Moinuddin Ahmed. Munier Chowhdury whom he considered to be the greatest teacher he had ever had, greatly inspired him to write plays. Al Deen was at that time, trying to come to terms with the theory that tragedy, an integral part of the western literary tradition, was absent in Bangla literature. This was completely unacceptable to Al Deen who found it a contradictory notion for a region fraught with a history of rebellion, upheavals, death and despair. How could there be no tragedy? The absence, he realised, was not in the existence of tragedy but the lack of depiction of tragedy in Bangla theatre. It was this gap that he wanted to fill and that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life.

In 1970, when still a university student, Al Deen's TV drama called 'Librium' later changed to 'Ghum Ney' (Sleepless) and Biporit Tamasha for radio, made people sit up and take notice of this young man who was churning out intense dramas at the drop of a hat. Around this time he also wrote Aniket Annyeshan based on the life of Sultan Mahmud bin Tuglaq.

For Al Deen music was a vital part of his theatre
Photo Credit: Nasir Ali Mamun

A series of plays followed; Al Deen wrote Sharpa Bishawak Golpo in 1973 (that eerily echoed the horrific events of 1975), Jwandis O Bibidho Baloon, Explosive O Mul Mukh Dekha, Charkakrar Documentary and they were all written in the western theatre tradition.

The late 70s, however, proved to be a transitional period for Al Deen when he began to become seriously interested in moving away from western influences and trying to discover an original form for Bangla theatre. He wrote a play based on Kalidas's Shakuntala. “He totally changed the myth," says Nasiruddin Yuosuff, director and founder of Dhaka Theatre. “What was so beautiful about it was that he did not highlight a single individual but encompassed a thousand years experience into the play.”

At the same time Yuosuff and Al Deen were involved in the 'Rock the Street' movement that promoted street drama and brought the performances literally, to the people. “We wanted to establish the fact that theatre is not just something that provides entertainment or information, it is part of everyday life.”

In 1974, Al Deen's marriage to Begumzadi Meherunnessa (Parul) provided him with an unexpected opportunity to seek and find the roots of Bangla theatre. A political scuffle led to Al Deen going to Korotia Sa' Dat University College where he met the shy, conservative daughter of the principle and decided that she was the one he wanted as a life partner. While visiting his parents-in-law in Taluknagar, Manikgonj, Al Deen came across the rich cultural traditions which was characteristic to that region. He went to the Azhar Boyati's mela to see bare-chested musicians from Assam singinging about Moulana Bhashani, he heard Pala Gaan, Kabir Gaan, Gazir Gaan and decided he would form a 'gram (village) theatre with his friends to see whether they could start a Bangla contemporary theatre using these rural traditions.

He was also moved by the natural beauty of the countryside -- the rich mustard fields, the birds and colours. Later when he joined Jahangirnagar University as a teacher in the Bangla Department, he met Afsar Ahmed, his student and later colleague, fellow researcher and friend. He would often accompany Ahmed to his village home in Jamsha Kaligong where he met Hakim Ali Gain and other artistes.

Salim Al Deen in character. Photo Credit: Nasir Ali Mamun

The 80s were a demoralising time for Al Deen, Yousuff and their contemporaries as they witnessed the disintegration of the spirit of Muktijuddho as the politicians compromised with army rule. “Selim used to say that unless we began a kind of cultural revolution we would lose our identities as Bangalis or adivasis,” says Yousuff. He said, "It's no use being a weed on the tree of the west, we must find our own artistic expression. So he searched for all these art forms that existed over a thousand years and their evolution was clipped short by the advent of the British where we were forced to adopt a different civilisation and culture.”

Shakuntala led the way to his most innovative and celebrated epic drama Kitton Khola. It proved to be one of his most original works in terms of narrative, style, language and completely defied the conventional grammar of western theatre. The backdrop of Kitton Khola is a village razed to the ground by the Pak Army in 71; a single tree in an open space becomes the central point around which a mela or fair and a mazaar (shrine) originates, creating the venue for people from different walks of life to congregate. "Through Kitton Khola he was trying to bring in the topography of Bangladesh," says Yousuff, "its culture, politics, philosophy, beliefs, history, heritage and meaning of life.” While Kitton Khola was a revolutionary movement away from western traditions, Al Deen was far from being satisfied; to him it was only the start of a journey and he told his friend Nasiruddin Yousuff, that "it was only a drop in the ocean".

In Keramot Mongol he went into greater experimentation. This play is about how man creates his own hell through his sins. There are layers of hell, each one emerges when a previous one is done away with. Earth is a paradise and turns hellish because of man's eternal greed for power and money. The central character is Keramot who travels from one place to another and relates the horror stories created by humankind - the 1948 riots are depicted for instance, where even animals are killed along with people for the sake of revenge.

Yet there is optimism in Keramot Mangal, characteristic of the writer's own philosophy. "Keramot is compared to the legendary Duldul horse (Hazrat Imam Hosaain's horse)," says Professor Afsar Ahmed, a dramatist, researcher and teacher of Jahangirnagar University, "who has been pierced with arrows but goes on racing ahead much like Keramot's own journey while carrying the burden of the contradictions, violence and misery of the modern world." In Keramot says Yousuff, Al Deen also points out the artificial isolation of man from nature and the folly of humans who have little respect for other living beings.

In Hat Hodai (Seven Trades) written entirely in Noakhali dialect, Al Deen was confronted with the challenge of using an indigenous dialect and making it lyrical enough to be suitable for his play. Here a voyager Anar Bhandari travels all over the world and goes through a huge range of experiences. The elements of fairy tales, myths, puranas are all present in this play. There is also the theme of defying death. Anar Bhandari, a universal character ages and starts thinking of death, he buys his own funeral shroud and tries to live inside a grave. But in the end his passion for life overcomes him, he covers his grave with spit and marries again. There is also the character of a Moulana who becomes paralysed after a stroke. Anar Bhandari sees him and he is crying. Bhandari asks him why he should cry when he will be going to paradise, a place he has preached about so long. The moulana then admits that he does not want to leave his worldly attachments - his land and his new young wife, both symbols of fertility. A female character called Chhukuni is also brought in. Abused by her husband, Chhukuni decides to run away only to be caught by traffickers who turn her into a prostitute. In a poignant scene, Chukkuni describes how she has lost herself before exiting the stage. But the main essence of Hat Hodai is about a man's determination to taste life to the fullest and is more a story of joi de vivre.

Begumzadi Meherunnessa (Parul) Selim Al Deen's wife.

According to Afsar Ahmed, Kitton Khola, Keramot Mongol and Hat Hodai can be seen as a trilogy which, although thematically completely different share a common form. It is at this point that Al Deen had taken the art to a spiritual level says Ahmed.

Katha Natya or the oral traditions of narrations typical of rural areas, where performances take place in the small courtyards of village homes, was also brought into Al Deen's plays. In Ekti Marma Rupkatha, which Al Deen staged at Jahangirnagar University with his students, he applied this ancient narrative style, to depict the lives of, the Marma. The audience was asked to sit on the floor instead of conventional seating arrangements.

Al Deen's plays were also strong political messages protesting autocratic regimes. “Horgoj, Joyboti Konnyar Mon, Ekti Marma Rupkatha, Chaka, Prachya and Bono Pangshul, all allude to a series of failures of the civil movement against military rule,” says Yousuff. In Chaka, a day labourer who drives a cart meant for carrying mustard, has to deliver an unidentified dead body to his village. This begins his search for the right village. But no one claims the body and after a futile search, by which time the corpse is badly decomposed, the labourer decides to bury the body near a riverbank. It is a criticism of civil society that refuses to take responsibility for the evils that take place within it and sometimes at a tragic cost. Joyboti Konnyar Mon, says Yousuff, delves into women's psychology. In Horgoj a cyclone-devastated village is trying to bury the dead but the villagers only find body parts and try in vain to make up a whole body to bury; an allusion to our own moral failures.

An ardent nature lover, Al Deen was fascinated by the theme of man's harmony with nature, which he thought had to be preserved to save humanity. His deep respect and empathy for indigenous people materialised in his great epic Bono Pangshul about the ancient tree-worshipping Mandai community that was being annihilated by the Bangali settlers. The three-hour play staged by Dhaka Theatre showed the oppression of majority Bangalis on minority people, a fact that repeats itself in every nation's history. It also reveals the beauty and wisdom of the Mandai (Burman) people who know how to respect even the smallest of living things. The play is considered one of the best tragedies in Bangla literature.

The dehumanisation of civilisation is the overpowering theme in Al Deen's Nimojjon, a 119 episode play that narrates the story of all the genocides committed in the world from as early as the ancient Maya civilisations to the present times. Al Deen laments the disintegration of the universal society where the state becomes an oppressor and unthinkable crimes take place against humanity.

Trying to grasp the depth and range of Al Deen's work is like sorting through the gems in a massive treasure trove. There is so much of his work that still needs to be explored and experimented with. Yet it can be safely said that he established the fact that the history of Bangla theatre is at least a thousand years. With this knowledge he tried to bring the vitality, colour and richness of Bangla theatre from all over the country to the contemporary stage. He left the world before it could truly understand him; it can only appreciate his legacy and keep wondering what the encore would have been like.

Selim, Bachchu and Shimul - a lifelong friendship
Photo Credit: Mosaddek Millat

Accolades of a Literary Genius
Selim Al Deen has received numerous awards for his work including the Ekushey Padak (2007), Bnagla Academy Literature Award (1984), National Film Award, Kathak Literature Award and Award for Best Television Playwright. In 1995 Al Deen completed his PhD from Jahanginagar University on Medieval Bangla Theatre. He compiled Bangla Natyakosh, the only anthology of Bangla drama-related terms and forms of traditional theatre. Al Deen's plays have been included in the curriculula of University of Dhaka, Jahanginagar University and rabindra Bharati University in India. His play Chaka has been translated in English by Syed Jamil Ahmed (Professor of Theatre at DU) and performed in New York and Delhi and later adapted as a film by Morshedul Islam which won many awards in Europes. Al Deen's work has been appreciated in Kolkata theatre circles and many theatre troupes have staged his plays in Kolkata.
Almost all of Al Deen's works have been published. He has in addition, written innumerable television plays, several plays for radio and countless articles, stories and plays in various newspapers and magazines.

A Philosopher, Mentor and Friend

He is described by his loved ones as impulsive, childlike on the one hand and a philosopher and genius on the other, endearingly naïve as well as exceptionally creative. While Dhaka Theatre, of which he was a founder member, gave him the window to give his work a physical form, it also gave him a second family through his close relationship with Nasiruddin Yousuff Bachchu and actress Shimul Yousuf. Work and personal life were inseparable for this trio, which added another dimension to their relationship.

“To me he was a friend, a father, a guru and also like my child” says Shimul Yousuf. “All his child-like fancies he would ask of me and ask me about everything, what he should wear to a programme, what he should eat…He was very fussy about food, would eat only organic things and shunned anything that was synthetic; I would scold him for being so finicky.”

Al Deen in fact, was quite a food connoisseur and had a vast knowledge about different kinds of food. “He just loved going to the bazaar and knew which fish should be eaten in which season, which vegetables should be eaten when” says Shimul. “He knew a lot about medicinal herbs and planted many of those trees in my village home in Dhamrai.”

“Sometimes I would call him on the phone and tell him to come over for some work. He would be a little irritated but would come nevertheless. Then he would ask for some cigarettes, some paper and pen and go straight to the bedroom, sit on the bed, put his feet up on a pillow and sway them back and forth like a child. It is that image of him that keeps coming to my mind.

"In barely ten minutes he would come out with a brilliant piece of writing that we will be analysing for the next ten years!”

Constantly searching for new ideas
Photo Credit: Nasir Ali Mamun.

Al Deen's work was fulfilling but there were personal tragedies that kept him down from time to time. Although happily married, Selim and his wife Meherunnessa were childless. In 1982 the couple had a baby boy whom Al Deen named Mainul Hasan but his son died 15 minutes after he was born. The death of his son deeply wounded Al Deen and throughout his life he was against abortion. Being childless he hankered to be a parent and would make many call him 'Baba'. Another big blow came when Meherunnessa's younger sister's little daughter, whom Al Deen called his daughter, was diagnosed with blood cancer. In December, a few weeks before Al Deen passed away, the child had a relapse and the doctors had given their verdict that she did not have long to live. “On December 12, he came to me and cried a lot” says Shimul. “I do not want to see her death, I will go away to the village, he said.” “I asked him: Are you running away? He replied “Yes I am.”

His professional relationship with Shimu Yousuf and Nasiruddin Yousuff was based on unstinting mutual trust. “While doing the production script for his drama which was huge, I learnt from him how to cut out parts of the play and then co-relate them with other parts. He would jokingly say, “Cut as much as you like, a few buckets of water out will not make much difference to the ocean!" He had a lot of faith in himself too and knew what he was.

“After each production he would come with twinkling eyes and a slight smile and he would say: 'Can't say what you have cut!' He was that trusting”

Al Deen's tryst with nature was extremely deep, spiritual even. “He would see life in everything, even a stone was not just a stone”, says Nasiruddin Yousuff. “He deplored the cutting down of trees and explained that each tree was a complete life cycle, the trees bear fruit, birds eat those fruits and spread the seeds so that other trees can grow.”

His most favourite place was Jahanginagar campus where he lived and worked and where he would take frequent walks along the woods, inspecting and delighting in the beauty of nature. It was only someone as aesthetically-minded who would come up with a festival devoted to a particular species of flower. The Mohua flower with its unusual fragrance and intoxicating properties, intrigued him to no end and he would hold regular Mohua festival on campus which included lectures and discussions on the flower.

“ It was sometimes hard to believe that the Selim who would laugh out loud at the smallest things, who wore the brightest shirts and would do anything for a packet of cigarettes and who would not accept invitations abroad because he was scared of flying, this same Selim could create such masterpieces.”

To his students, many of whom became his colleagues and friends, he was extraordinary, unconventional and awe-inspiring. In 1974 Al Deen joined as a lecturer in the Bangla Department thanks to Dr. Ahmed Sharif and Syed Ali Ahsan. Soon he started arranging theatre festivals on campus creating a sensation among the students. At first he managed to get dramatics as a subsidiary and then an honours course under the Bnagla department. By this time he had found a comrade in one of his students Afsar Ahmed who later became his colleague and close friend. With the help of Afsar, Al Deen managed to convince a sceptical senate to introduce a dramatics department at Jahangirnagar University.

His way of teaching was quite out of the ordinary. Says Dr. Afsar Ahmed: “Once when I was still a student he called me for a customary walk and said: 'let me baptize you,' he made me go up a Shimul tree to pick a flower. It was not easy as there were many thorns. Then he told me that this was my initiation into gaining knowledge and to keep me seeking it outside the textbooks. 'Go near nature' he said.”

Al Deen would often take his students for such nature walks where he would be actually taking the class. He would ask his students to hear the music of nature, the notes of leaves, trees and breeze.

“He did not want a formal, stilted relationship with his students” says Dr Sajedul Rahman Chanchal, a dramatics teacher at JU who was a second batch student of Al Deen's. “While we walked till 8 or 9 at night, he would be constantly talking about literature and culture. He was like an encyclopaedia and would think about every aspect of a play. He made us do pieces from the Mahabharata which was highly appreciated.

“Now I feel really bad that as students we really didn't appreciate his depth and dimension.”

“Sometimes Sir would make us take his class as early as 830 am which was very difficult for us,” says Ehsanur Rahman, a Dhaka Theatre member and who was Al Deen's 4th batch student, “ but once he started talking, we would be mesmerised and would want the class to go on. We could never get bored, even when he took three classes altogether…He would always be experimenting with techniques and was also very demanding. We had to read a lot and research extensively to prepare for his classes. He would always insist that you must practically apply what you have learnt and it must be done perfectly. I have learnt everything I know from him.”

For Begumzadi Meherunnessa, Al Deen's life partner whom he called by her nickname Parul, there is little consolation that he has left such a legacy of love and admiration. Always a big fan of his work, she tried hard to give him the support he needed for his intellectual endeavours. “He was always extremely hardworking and sincere about his work” says Meherunnessa, a teacher of Jahangirnagar School and College. “He was always full of new ideas, theories and would work at all odd hours, sometimes before dawn.”

According to Meherunnessa, Al Deen had little time for social obligations and hardly went to any dinners or weddings. The only TV channels he watched were National Geographic and Discovery. The best time was spent at Meherunnessa's village home where his mother-in-law doted on him and where he would be constantly up to something going fishing with his younger inlaws, going to the village fairs or markets, meeting the local bards and mystics, going on date-juice procuring expeditions or with his companions a boat ride on a full moon night.

His illness and death was a rude shock to his wife and other loved ones. “He use to say, 'I just want another ten years to finish my plays”, says Meherunnessa. He still had a few unfinished plays she says including Rupborno, Moyurjan and Har Haddi. “He was not conventionally religious but had great faith in the Creator. He always asked me to pray that he could finish what he had started.”

Impulsive and childlike Al Deen saw life in everything
Photo Credit: Nasir Ali Mamun

Lately, says Meherunnessa, Al Deen had been preoccupied by death. He had gone to his mother-in law's grave and taken a leaf from a plant growing there and touched it to his forehead, a symbolic gesture of taking her blessing before leaving. He had in many ways said goodbye to his friends but no one was ready to let go of this remarkable, exceptionally gifted man who had touched so many lives with his intellect and endearing personality.


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