A modern-day theatre tradition second to none
Urban theatre took a remarkable turn after the country was liberated in December 1971 -- ushering in what is known as the neo-theatre movement. During Pakistani rule preceded by British colonial occupation, theatre practice in the country was occasional and sporadic. There were office-club theatres, locality (para) theatres, and university and college union theatres.
The emergence of "Drama Circle" in the mid-fifties added a new dimension to the theatre. The productions by this group were aesthetically rich with austere group discipline and teamwork, but failed to create any movement. Nagorik Natya Sampradaya, which was established in 1968, put up its first show on stage in 1973.
But it was only after Independence that an organised theatre movement was begun by educated and conscious cultural activists and the students of colleges and universities. Consequently, it brought about changes in the themes of the plays and in their presentation and style of acting.
Kabir Anwar's play Jone Jone Jonota, a Parapar Natyagoshthi production, at Engineers Institute auditorium in 1972, was the first show after Liberation War.
Formed on February 2, Aranyak Natya Dal first staged Kabar by Shaheed Muneir Chowdhury on February 28 of the same year. Mamunur Rashid is the key person of the troupe.
The group theatre movement was consolidated through Natyachakra (1972) at Dhaka University. Enthusiastic talents of the university like Nasiruddin Yousuff, Al Mansur, Selim Al Deen, Khairul Alam Shabuj, Abdul Quader, Raisul Islam Asad, Habibul Hasan, and others under the leadership of M Hamid formed the theatre troupe Natyachakra after the successful hall-based theatre competition in December 1972.
The young workers of the group not only acted in plays, but also wrote and produced them, resulting in so many leading actors, dramatists, and directors in Bangladesh. Among the successful plays staged by the group were Samrat O Pratidandigan, Jaundice O Bibidha Baloon and Kingshuk Ye Marute, Explosive O Mul Samsya, Revolution, Biday Monalisa, and others. Natyachakra basically staged plays at TSC auditorium at Dhaka University.
Besides the activities of Natyachakra, Nagorik Natyasampraday Bahubachan and Aranyak Natya Dal started regular theatre activities in Dhaka in the early 1970s. Engineers Institute auditorium and British Council auditorium were the main venues for staging plays.
Subsequently, Nagorik became the pioneer in introducing regular theatre practice in exchange for tickets for the first time in the country. The troupe created history in our theatre arena by discovering Mahila Samity Stage, the most popular theatre venue of the country, for its production of Baki Itihash.
Director of the play Aly Zaker said: "I still remember those moments. That was a launch into an abysmal void. Our youth was our only asset. Though there were technical glitches, our disciplined performance on the stage received a favourable response from the audience. I still remember this vividly, though the play was held way back on February 3, 1973, at the British Council auditorium. The following day, the print media claimed it as a revolution. We also introduced Mahila Samity Stage in stage drama though the staging of Baki Itihash."
Soon Dhaka Theatre and Theatre began regular staging of plays. Selim Al Deen, Al Mansur, Raisul Islam Asad, Abdul Quader and others under the leadership of Nasiruddin Yousuff formed Dhaka Theatre.
Ramendu Majumdar, Abdullah Al Mamun, M Zakaria, Ferdausi Majumdar, Tabibul Islam Babu and others formed Theatre in 1972 and first staged plays in 1974.
Activities of these groups turned into a movement. Each of the pioneer theatre troupes used the social turmoil of the post-Liberation time as the subject of their plays, however, each of these troupes had different views, vision, and approach.
Commenting on the theatre scenario of those days, Ataur Rahman says: "It can be said as devotion. All of the theatre activists worked whole the night and put the show on the following day. The emotion cannot be explained. All of the theatre activists in those days worked together. In those days, we had always discourse with artistes, painters, writers, and people from other communities."
Major playwrights and of the country like Abdullah Al Mamun, Selim Al Deen, Mamunur Rashid, Momotazuddin Ahmed and Syed Shamsul Haque began to write in this period. Each of these playwrights had different interpretations of the period.
Abdullah Al Mamun's social plays deliver the message of lack of the spirit of freedom fight in the contemporary society. Though initially Selim Al Deen's plays were satires of the faulty social milieu, he later dealt with the human emotion. Mamunur Rashid's plays are on class struggle. Syed Shamsul Haque in his plays has featured the urge of ultimate freedom of human beings, and Momotazuddin Ahmed satirised the social turmoil.
Tomrai, Ekhono Kritodash and Meraj Fakirer Maa are popular plays by Abdullah Al Mamun. Selim Al Deen's popular plays are Kittankhola, Keramat Mongal, Hat Hadai, Chaka, Bonopangshul Prachya, and others. Ora Kadam Ali, Iblish, Joy Joyanti, Shonkranti, and Raaraang are Mamunur Rashid's popular plays. Syed Shamsul Haque's polar plays are Nurul Diner Sharajibon, Payer Awaj Pawa Jay and Irsha. Momotazuddin Ahmd's most popular drama is Shat Ghater Kanakori.
Abdullah Al Mamun, Mamunur Rashid, Ataur Rahman, Aly Zaker, Nasiruddin Yousuff, Zia Hyder, and M Hamid were the major directors in those days.
The most prominent theatre actors of the 1970s were Ferdousi Majumdar, Mamunur Rashid, Abdullah Al Mamun, Ataur Rahman, Aly Zaker, Sara Zaker, M. Hamid, Dr. Enamul Haque, Lucky Enam, M Zakaria, Jamaluddin Hossain, Rowshan Ara Hossain, Abul Hayat, Raisul Islam Asad, Keramat Moula, Shubarna Mustafa, Shimul Yousuff, Afroza Banu, Tarana Halim, and Naila Azad Nupur.
Speaking about the hurdles they had to overcome, popular actress Ferdausi Majumdar says: "There were huge obstacles especially for the female actress at the initial stage --both from family and society. My elder brother Shaheed Muneir Chowdhury encouraged me a lot. Later I got support from my family and troupe members. I was the only actress of my troupe at the beginning. As a result the playwright Abdullaha Al Mamun, who wrote basically for Theatre, had to keep in mind that there would be only one prominent female character in his plays. This was also a major limitation for the playwrights."
At the same time, a strong theatre movement started in Chittagong parallel to Dhaka. Zia Hyder, Momotazuddin Ahmed, Sadrul Pasha, Rahnuma Aftab, Khaleda Ferdausi, Aly Anwar, Habib Ahsan, and others were the pioneers.
The theatrical troupe Theatre '73 was set up on February 1973 in Chittagong to stage plays that reflected real life as well as plays that experimented with new forms and expressions. Other pioneer theatre troupes in Chittagong are Tirjak (1974), Ganayan (1975), and Arindam (1975). In those days, theatre was also regularly practiced in Bagura, Barisal, Kushtia, Jessore, Dinajpur, Siarajganj, Rangpur, and a few other districts.
From the beginning of the 1980s, Bangladeshi theatre kicked into high gear, and the time period is regarded as the golden decade in our theatre movement. According to Nasiruddin Yousuff: "The 1970s was the eye opener; we had not that much technical knowledge. But at the end of the 1970s we had huge development."
All of the popular theatre troupes of those days brought out their best productions in the early 1980s, especially Aranyak Natya Dal and Dhaka Theatre.
Aranyak and its playwright-director-actor Mamunur Rashid got the essence of the view through the production Ora Kadam Ali.
Dhaka Theatre in these days wanted to work towards establishing a parallel theatre form to the west -- National Theatre Form -- based on the indigenous performing art forms. Selim Al Deen, Nasiruddin Yousuff and Syed Jamil Ahmed were the key persons behind this experiment.
They took folk elements on the urban stage. Playwright Selim Al Deen says: "Till Shakuntala I don't consider my plays as unique. People can get a true taste of my writing from the play Kittankhola (1981), which is totally based on indigenous performing art forms and totally different from the influence of western drama concept.”
In the 1980s, Dhaka Theatre and Aranyak Natyadal presented theatrical performances in the rural areas of Bangladesh and at the same time have collected indigenous performing art forms in theatre through the activities of Gram Theatre and Mukta Natok respectively.
Syed Jamil Ahmed says: "When I was a student of National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi, I saw that the Indians successfully brought their folk elements on the proscenium stage, which inspired me a lot. Returning to Bangladesh, I suggested Dhaka Theatre to apply it. We travelled different rural areas and collected various indigenous performing art forms and began to apply those on the proscenium stage.”
Moreover, Nagorik Natyasampradaya and Theatre started experiments on Rabindranath Tagore, Shakespeare, and Bertolt Brecht.
Commenting on the time Mamunur Rashid says: "Most of the best productions in our theatre history were staged throughout the 1980s. And theatre became so popular that hundreds of troupes formed in different corners of the country."
The time had come to form organisations for a theatre movement. As a result Bangladesh Group Theatre Federation (BGTF) was formed on November 29, 1980. Ramendu Majumdar says: "As the editor of the magazine named Theatre, I invited theatre troupes to form BGTF. I was the founder chairman while Nasiruddin Yousuff was the founder secretary general of BGTF."
Another major aspect of this decade is the comeback of the educated theatre students from National School of Drama, India. These scholars -- especially Syed Jamil Ahmed, Kamaluddin Nilu, and Tarique Anam Khan -- gave more polished and aesthetic form of our theatre.
Syed Jamil Ahmed has made a remarkable contribution in direction and design of our theatre, especially in applying indigenous performing art forms. Kamaluddin Nilu has also contributed his talent in case of direction and design, and Tariq Anam Khan has adapted and directed many foreign plays.
"They instructed a lot of workshops with different troupes and directed plays for several numbers of troupes, which enriched our theatre a lot especially the direction and design. From then onwards we got diversified productions," says Ramendu Majumdar.
Political crisis was another major aspect of the 1980s that was reflected in the theatre of the time. The playwrights, especially Abdullah Al Mamun, Syed Shamsul Haque, Mamunur Rashid, and SM Solaiman wrote so many social plays based on the contemporary impact of military rule.
SM Solaiman can be said to have pioneered a new theatre form, about which Syed Jamil Ahmed says: "Solaiman's plays can be regarded as 'rough theatre' which penetrates people's emotions. Use of music is another important aspect of Solaiman's plays." Solaiman's hit plays Inspector General, Inggit, and Golapjan.
In addition, theatre troupes staged a lot of street plays, which directly critised the then military rule. Street plays have always played a role in any political movement in Bangladesh.
Introduction of theatre as an academic subject at the public universities has created trained theatre activists. Besides, theatre troupes have introduced theatre schools to train up the theatre activists. As a result, theatre became more diversified.
A good number of Rabindranath Tagore's plays have been staged in Bangladesh including Acholayatan, Bishorjan,, Muktadhra, Raktokarobi, Raja, and Khudhito Pashan.
Staging of translated and adapted foreign plays have added diversity to our theatre. Theatrical troupes have done a lot of experiments in this genre, which has added to the diversity of the presentation. Moleire, Brecht, Ibsen, or Shakespeare, whoever the playwright is, theatre troupes have presented their master works in Bangladeshi context.
More than a dozen Shakespearean plays have been translated and adapted, including Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Merchant of Venice, and Romeo and Juliet have been staged.
Eight of Moliere's comedies have been staged. Of these, the adapted version of Would Be a Gentleman, That Scoundrel Scapin, and The Miser became big hits.
As many as fourteen of Bertolt Brecht's adapted plays, including Herr Puntilla and His Man Matti, Mother Courage and her Children, Threepenny Opera, Galileo, Good Woman of Setzuan, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany, and The Resistible Rise and Fall of Arturo Ui, and eight Henrik Ibsen plays, including A Dolls House, Enemy of the People, Brand, Master Builder, Peer Gynt, and Wild Duck have also been staged.
Bangladeshi theatre activists have also staged translated plays of Samuel Backett, Anton Chekhov, Eugine Ionesco, and Heiner Muller.
Moreover, our theatre troupes have presented adapted plays from Mangalakabyas, Mymensigha Geetika, Purba Banga Geetika, or from simple folk tales. Theatre activists have also adapted popular novels and short stories of Bangla literature. Through a simple story of our folklore or a crisis from the epic Mahabharata or Shahanama, theatre troupes have successfully dealt with contemporary issues like human rights, war and peace, gender inequality, and globalisation.
Nowadays, directors do not remain in any one particular theatre form. Directors and stage designers are doing various experiments, blending our indigenous performing art forms with post modern western theatre techniques.
Introduction of two modern halls at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy -- Experimental Theatre hall and National Theatre stage -- and the Theatre Institute of Chittagong have provided scope to do new experiments.
As a result, viewers can now watch both low-budget plays like Shonkranti or Ahorkandal and high-budget theatre like Brand or The Mission. However, theatre activists long for more experiments. Syed Jamil Ahmed says: "We are yet to apply performing art forms of ethnic minorities on the stage."
Theatre leaders have successfully introduced our rich theatre to the foreign experts though the activities of ITI (International Theatre Institute). Founder President of ITI Bangladesh Centre Ramendu Majumdar says: "Bangladesh is now the member of the fourteen member executive body of ITI Central Committee."
The good impression of the outside world with respect to our theatre was reflected when ITI delegates visited Dhaka in 2003. They highly appreciated our theatre practice, which is not professional (with the exception of the Centre for Asian Theatre, nobody involved in theatre can earn much income from theatre), but the plays are staged with total professional zeal.
During her visit in December 2003, Ms. Jennifer Walpole, the then executive director of ITI Central Committee, delivering her opinion on our theatre: "Bangladeshi theatre deals with interesting subjects and delivers very good messages on the current issues of the world like fundamentalism, discrimination, gender issue, inherent psychology of human beings, bad impact of globalisation, and others. It is a humane theatre."
It is true that introduction of satellite television channels and package drama has had a negative impact on the theatre movement in Bangladesh. In addition, expert theatre actors have become busy with television plays. To quote Mamunur Rashid: "Lack of audience and quality productions in the early 1990s has hurt the theatre."
In addition, "Division and factions amongst the theatre activists are another major problem these days," says Ataur Rahman.
But the theatre personalities of the country are very hopeful about the potential of our theatre. Abdullah Al Mamun says: "Two decades -- the 1970s to the 1990s -- were the foundation period of our theatre. Now the younger generations are doing wonderful experiments in direction, acting and designs, however, there is a lack of dramatist in this generation except Masum Reza and Mannan Heera. Theatrical presentations of the younger generation really impress me. In near future a day will come when there will be different viewers for theatre and TV. And like the developed nations a certain class will only to theatre avoiding other entertainment sources."
The people of Bangladesh are hopeful that the young directors like Azad Abul Kalam, Saidur Rahman Lipon, Ashish Khondokar, Troupa Majumdar, Faiz Zahir, Aminur Rahman Mukul, playwrights like Masum Reza, Mannan Heera, designers like Nasirul Haque Khokon, and M Shaiful Islam, and he many quality actors will lead the coming generation and will take our theatre to an even better place on the world stage.
Ershad Kamol is a repoter of The Daily Star.