Ahh! Yours truly was positively ecstatic as he rapidly flipped through the two hundred-odd pages of Curtain Call: English Language Plays in Dhaka 1950-1970, written by the brother-sister duo of Raza Ali and Niaz Zaman. The content and timeframe of the book are easily identified from the title, and I was caught up in the heady nostalgia of a bygone Dhaka that, I dare say, will not return.But, ohh! Yours truly was positively mortified at not finding the names of St. Joseph’s High School and the Pleeverites socio-cultural organization that existed during that timeframe and carried out activities similar to the ones covered extensively, and with as much care as circumstances have allowed, in the book.We will briefly return to this issue later on. Now to take stock of the rich fare served up by Ali and Zaman.
“In the early 1950’s English plays were staged sporadically in Dhaka, mainly by students of Dhaka University (then spelled Dacca University,” the authors begin.“Among these plays were The Merchant of Venice and Othello. At the time, though, few women were willing to act on the stage. However, women who did not wish to perform on stage participated in the radio plays which were regularly broadcast from Radio Pakistan, Dhaka.” In the context of the period, particularly the 1950s, these women were intrepid souls, coming from a certain social and educational background, and they were pathfinders for the increasing number of women who followed in their footsteps in both English and Bangla dramas.
The authors introduce us to the success of a popular drama group, “The Drama Circle,” which had debuted in 1951-52, and staged Bangla plays, as the symbol that persuaded a noted theater personality of that era, Professor Matin, to form the drama group, the Amateurs, for the purpose of staging English plays. This group was active from 1958 to 1962. The members were relatively small in number because “the genre necessitated proper pronunciation and elocution.” Even after the number of women actors had increased modestly over the years, there were still not enough of them. The major English-language plays required more women performers than were willing to join the Amateurs.
The problem was taken care of by the group inviting expatriate American women (and there were quite a few in Dhaka during the 1950-1970 period) to act in plays that were mostly American. The group’s first venture, though, was quintessentially British, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, no less --- and was directed by Prof. Matin with the assistance of the British Council’s Mr. Barnett. And it was staged “in the open air, under a clump of trees alongside the southern wall” of the British Council building. In those days the British Council was in a green setting, something that could only be enjoyed by those who lived in those times, and not in these, with the venerable building now, unfortunately out of necessity, barricaded by an electronic steel fortress. Incidentally, the role of Portia was played by Jahanara Imam, the author of Ekatorrer Din Guli, while several of the male cast members ended up as high civil servants.
The Amateurs, among other plays, also staged John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men at the Engineers Institute. Ali and Zaman, after having stated that the play was directed by Mr. Ingram of the USIS (now known as American Cultural Center), later identify Mr. Ivan Hall, Director of the USIS, as the director. Hopefully, someone could correct this discrepancy. In Ali and Zaman’s estimation, “Perhaps the most successful play of the Amateurs was Arsenic and Old Lace,” which was staged at the USIS auditorium on Topkhana Road in 1961. Their last play was probably The Pleasure of His Company. By 1962, most of its members had joined the higher Civil Service and gone on training or been posted outside Dhaka, while the parents of other members stopped their sons from acting on grounds of rehearsals taking up an inordinate amount of their time. This should provide a good picture of the society from which the English theater activists of those days came from. They almost invariably came from at least comfortable middle and upper middle class backgrounds, had an English medium schooling base and were generally good enough students to get into the elite profession of those days:the higher civil service. Others went abroad for higher education or ended up in other respectable professions.
The end of the Amateurs did not signal the end of the staging of English-language plays in Dhaka. Holy Cross College had its drama group, The Thespians, and they staged English-language plays fairly regularly, with its students playing both the male and female roles. Niaz Zaman was one of the frontline performers in some of them. Sophocles’ Antigone, and Shakespeare’s Twelvth Night, King Lear, and The Taming of the Shrew were some of its notable productions. Significantly, senior faculty Sister Francelia and Sister Joseph Mary directed many of the plays, with the latter, who could have had an acting career in the US had she not opted for the habit, imparting the nuances of acting, especially the conventions of Elizabethan and Greek dramas. Zaman narrates a light-hearted moment while acting the title role of King Lear, essentially highlighting the stark severity of stage acting, where there is no place to hide from gaffes committed or imposed upon. The authors believe that the Thespians’ production of Electra was one of the “most resounding successes in the late sixties,” in which their younger sister Ghazala Ali played the title role, while another sister, Durdana Ali, was part of the Chorus. Regarding the later story of the flourishing English plays by Holy Cross, the authors inform: “After 1972, with the college switching to Bangla medium, English theatricals at Holy Cross College came to an end.”
With the Amateurs fading away, a short-lived organization named Students Drama Society came into being in 1961. It managed to stage A Memory of Two Mondays at the USIS auditorium, and, then, apparently because of some internal problems and external imperatives, died within a year of its emergence. Significantly, most of its actors left to join the newly-formed group called the Prometheans.And, as notably, “At that time, the USIS actively supported theatrical efforts in English in Dhaka.” As already narrated, many of the actors in A Memory of Two Mondays decided to set up the new group. The name was suggested by Raza Ali. Its first venture was the American play, The Rainmaker.
The productions of the Prometheans might be called the high noon of English-language Theater in Dhaka. The Rainmaker included Raza, Niaz, Durdana and Ghazala’s brother Asghar. The group’s productions comprised, among others, as part of Shakespeare’s quarter centenary celebration in 1964, the Bard’s The Winter’s Tale, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, She Stoops to Conquer (Raza Ali’s last performance as a Promethean), Come on Jeeves, and The Misanthrope. The group was ready to stage Twelvth Night, but the launching of operation Searchlight by the Pakistan army on the night of 25 March 1971 nullified that venture for good. And, then, with the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign, independent country, and the profusion of Bangla plays on offer, the heydays of the English-language theater in Dhaka were numbered.
One of the pleasing aspects of Curtain Call is the number of essays related to the theater, its ambience, the performers, directors, the British Council, the help of the expatriate community in Dhaka, Alauddin Zahin Chinku, a gifted actor who sadly was killed in 1971, and Shakespeare in schools. There are gaps in information in some of them, but they are a valuable addition to the knowledge of a vibrant past in theater activity in Dhaka. However, there are omissions. St. Joseph’s High School staged American and English plays at the Engineers Institute, its batch of 1967 formed the socio-cultural organization called The Pleeverites, with female graduates from Holy Cross and Viqarunnessa High Schools making up the group. Among other activities, it staged English-language plays at The British Council auditorium in the late 1960s, until 1971 brought about its dissolution.Yours truly acted in several of the St. Joseph’s and Pleeverites productions, with Brother William Sheehan (my mentor, and one who, incidentally, later left the priesthood to get married) directing the school plays with much skill and sensitivity. Curtain Call: English Language Plays in Dhaka 1950-1970 is an engrossing book, a wealth of information for those who were born after 1970, and a refreshing nostalgia for those who lived those days and were fortunate to watch at least some of the performances.
Shahid Alam is a thespian, Professor, Media and Communication Department, IUB.