by Uttaran Das Gupta
Rathin Mukherjee went to jail as a young man. It was in the Seventies. Young people in Calcutta in those days liked to say things like: “Your Name, My Name, Our Name is Vietnam!” and “Let’s Make the Seventies the Decade of Freedom!” The Emergency was almost over, but Rathin was unlucky: the police caught him distributing handbills with anti-government propaganda near the Greek church at Kalighat. In the lock-up, they gave him the third degree. Hanging him from the ceiling by his heels, they belted him for hours till his chest and his back turned a violent purple. Rathin did not know anything about the Naxalites or the hideout of trade unionists and student leaders. A constable still decided to take a nail-cutter and pluck out the nail on his right thumb. When Rathin did not tell them anything even then, the police lost all interest in him. They had a lot of work – many more young men and women to extract nails, teeth, confessions from, to burn with cigarettes, to take to the outskirts of the city and shoot them in the back.
“Encounter – that was the official term for these murders,” Rathin told Utsav. “The bodies of men and women killed by the police would be found on the thoroughfares of Calcutta, in gutters, of floating belly-up in Dhakuria Lake.”
He drained the dregs of the oversweet tea in his earthen cup and tossed it into a cane basket nearby that served as the dustbin. Rathin and Utsav were at a tea stall outside a government school in Bhowanipur. Rathin’s group practised their play in a classroom at the school.
Utsav had joined the group only a few days back. This was the first time he ran into Rathin alone, and he found that the director liked to chat. Utsav had heard a lot of stories about Naxalites being tortured and killed by the police in the ’60s and ’70s; you could not help it if you grew up in Calcutta. But this was the first time he had met one.
“I spent the rest of the Emergency in Alipore Jail,” Rathin continued.
His thumb shrivelled up and he could not use it anymore. Now, so many years later, he was quite proud of his deformity. He carried it around like a war wound, and it also purchased him some respect from people around him.
Utsav saw an example of it at the end of the first evening’s rehearsals. Rathin had just stepped out of the classroom where they were rehearsing and was trying to tie his shoelaces. Mahesh, another actor, intervened.
“Let me do that for you, sir,” he said, getting down on his knees on the dirty floor.
Rathin did not object. “It’s difficult with this,” he said holding up his deformed thumb to Utsav.
The group was called Natyasena – the theatre army. But the army was rather depleted these days. There was Rathin and Mahesh, and another actor called Anik. The director’s wife Manorama was also a part of the group, possibly more out of her devotion to him than to theatre. And now, Utsav had joined them.
They met three times a week at the government school. The school was near railway tracks, so whenever a train went by, the actors were forced to stop mid-scene. They used these not infrequent disruptions to snack on telebhaja and the oversweet tea from the stall on the pavement outside. A boy, about ten or twelve, delivered the tea in dirty glasses.
There were other challenges to rehearsing in a school. The group was usually given a classroom for their activities. It would always be cluttered with desks and chairs, and its floor would be so dirty that even actors playing dead soldiers baulked at the prospect of having of lie down on it. They could push the furniture against the walls and clean up the floor with a broom. But even then, the space they managed to extract was too small compared to the stage at the Academy of Fine Arts or Madhusudan Mancha. The actors were required to stretch their imagination to recreate plays they had composed – blocked was the technical term – in these rooms on the wooden boards of the city’s theatres.
When Utsav joined them on a windy evening in January, Natyasena was preparing to stage Pinter’s The Birthday Party – not the original but a Bengali adaptation from the 1980s. The translator had taken several liberties, giving the characters Bengali names, changing the setting to a seaside town in Orissa, and making Stanley (now called Shankar) to a sitar player instead of a pianist.
The first show had already happened, to mixed reviews. Then the actor playing Shankar had dropped out. He had been offered a role in a TV serial. Enter Utsav, on the recommendation of Ananda Lal, a famous theatre critic and his professor at the university.
He knew the play well, having read it in a Modern Theatre course, but he also knew that learning the lines in Bengali and familiarizing himself with the blocking would be a challenge. The next show was only a month away.
“I hope you are not one of those who join a theatre group because they want to eventually work in TV,” Rathin asked him.
“No sir,” Utsav replied, his heart ballooning with eagerness.
“Good.” The director nodded his head in approval. “Doing TV is like selling out. There is no art there. Theatre is where you can be an artiste, right?”
Everyone in the group called Rathin “sir.” He had a reputation – talented but erratic, principled but mercurial.
Rathin was a protégé of Ashok Mukherjee, a famous playwright and actor, and pioneer of the leftist Group Theatre movement in Calcutta. After Mukherjee’s death in the early 1990s, Rathin became the leader of Natyasena. But not before a short and intense struggle with the other members of the group. This was not uncommon for theatre groups in Calcutta. Perhaps it can be traced to the inherent contradictions in the movement itself.
Group Theatre started in 1944, with the production of the legendary Bengali play Nabanna. Written by Bijon Bhattacharya and Sombhu Mitra, the play was a reaction to colonial violence and the Bengal famine of 1943. It was produced by the Indian People’s Theatre Association, the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India. Its success created an opportunity for a new kind of theatre, self-consciously distinct from the commercial stage. In the years after Independence, several new groups came up. Drawing inspiration from leftist ideology they tried to create technically sound but not professional theatre. Most of the actors and technicians did not accept payment, sustaining themselves through other jobs. This freed the groups from economic concerns and allowed them to experiment with different themes. They turned to the rich tradition of folk performances on one hand and international theatre on the other – Brecht, Sartre, Mayakovsky, Arthur Miller, even Pirandello. The standard fare of commercial theatre was mythology, or historical, or melodramas. There was another distinction between two, a geographical one. While the commercial groups usually performed in the playhouses in the north of the city, the new, leftist ones were concentrated in the southern parts.
These groups also tried to do away with the culture of the star performer that flourished on the commercial stage. The commercial playhouses usually drew a crowd because of famous actor like Sisir Bhaduri, Ahindra Choudhury or Pahari Sanyal. The new groups were set up as socialist-democratic outfits, where no individual would tower over the organisation. But they would soon take on distinct Stalinist characteristics, revolving around a single actor or director who controlled all the affairs of the group – artistic, economic, ideological. So, the groups would be known for their leaders – Nandikar was Ajitesh’s group, then Rudraprasad’s; Chetana was Arun Mukhopadhyay’s; Rangakarmee was Usha Ganguly’s. This often led to discontent among the members, and conspiracies and coups. At times, the groups would splinter, and the schismatics would set up their own group, and the entire process of power capture and personality worship began again.
Natyasena, too, suffered a similar fate after Ashok Mukherjee’s death. Rathin stepped into the power vacuum and crushed a rebellion by his erstwhile comrades and friends. He ejected them from the group and seized control of all sources of funding. His success was attributed in no small measure to his closeness to the Party.
“After coming out of jail, I threw myself into Party work,” Rathin told Utsav one evening.
The show was only a week away and Utsav had arrived earlier than the other actors to rehearse with Rathin. But the director seemed in no mood to work. Instead, he had ordered tea and lit a cigarette.
Such wasteful indulgences exasperated Utsav. But there was little he could do about it. The only saving grace was Rathin’s skill as a raconteur.
While he was still in jail, Rathin had completed his degree in economics. So, he got a job at the Food Corporation through the good offices of the Party. He was required to keep track of how some consignments of wheat and rice acquired by the government from farmers were moved to warehouses or markets. It was not too demanding and it did not pay a lot, but it was enough for him to rent a two-bedroom flat near Ruby Hospital. His family had severed all contact when he was arrested. The best part for Rathin, however, was that he could get away by not even doing even the little that was expected of him. He was a member of the employees’ union, and his boss did not want to get into trouble with the Party.
Working for the propaganda wing of the Party in those days meant taking the local train from Sealdah station and setting off for the pastel-green hinterland to spread awareness about government policy. In those heady days, the Party had launched Operation Barga. It was an ambitious project of farm reform ensure that bargadars – tenant farmers – could not be evicted by the big landlords. There was resistance from the landlords, and a sustained disinformation campaign by the opposition parties. Rathin and his comrades distributed handbills among villagers and tried to organise the tenant farmers.
Another strategy used by the Party was putting up agit-prop plays in the villages. Rathin started working with a group of players. At first, he got only bit parts or was asked to carry around the sets and props. He did not mind. More than the plays, he was enjoying his newfound interest so much because of Sulochana. She was a geography teacher at Hare School and a member of the Party’s cultural wing. It was, in fact, Sulochana who introduced Rathin to Ashok Mukherjee and made him a member of Natyasena.
Soon after joining the group, Rathin and Sulochana got married. The venue of their wedding was the local Party office. Afterwards, their friends escorted the newly married couple to Rathin flat, singing the International.
One evening at the rehearsal, an argument broke out between Rathin and Mahesh. The director was trying to defend the Party. A few of its cadres had prevented a Bengali adaptation of Animal Farm on the outskirts of the city and beaten up the performers. When the police arrived, they had arrested the producer of the play instead of the cadres. The police reported to the state government, which was run by the Party. They let the producers go in a few hours, but now the news channels were running primetime debates on whether the Party was crushing free speech in the state.
“Animal Farm has no aesthetic merit,” Rathin declared rather dismissively. “It is mere propaganda.”
“So what?” Mahesh demanded. “The government has no right to stop the performance of a propaganda play, does it?”
“The government did not stop any performance,” the director replied. “The cadres were protesting peacefully when the actors started abusing them. It is everyone’s democratic right to protest.”
Mahesh was in no mood for such prevarication. “That’s all rubbish. When have you heard of Party cadres protesting peacefully?”
It was well known that the Party cadres terrorised the countryside on their motorcycles. Gangs of cadres, carrying the red flag, would attack its opponents, killing them, burning their homes. Some of their more heinous crimes, such as massacres in Sainbari, Marichjhapi, Nanoor, had passed into political folklore in the state. They had even attacked and burned alive a few monks and nuns of a religious orders in the heart of south Calcutta.
But all that was before. Now, there were bloody TV camera everywhere. After Nandigram and Singur, the cacophony of news channels critiquing the Party and its government had only got lounder. This had emboldened the civic society, with students, writers, university professors, taking out processions against real or imagined grievances. Sensing the change in the winds, some former supporters of the Party, and even some members, had started critiquing it.
“This is state-sponsored terror!” said Mahesh. His voice was little too loud.
“Don’t tell me about terror!” Rathin shouted back. “Don’t you know what happened to my right thumb?”
He held up his deformed finger for everyone to see. This gesture seemed to have the desired effect on Mahesh, who retreated into a sullen silence.
“What would you know of state terror?” Rathin continued, making full use of his diaphragm voice. “Do you know what happened during the production of Utpal Dutt’s Kallol? Lumpen employed by the previous government its production and beat up the actors. Do you know that many of your opposition leaders, now crying their hearts out for democracy on TV debates, were hoodlums in the employ of the previous government?”
Mahesh’s face told everyone that he had never even heard of Utpal Dutt, leave alone Kallol. Rathin was quick to sense it.
“Have you heard of Safdar Hasmi?” he demanded. “Political criminal not only stopped the performance of his play Halla Bol, but they cracked open his skull with an iron rod.”
Utsav felt sorry looking at Mahesh. The man had been completely vanquished.
“You know Mahesh, you should read up a little more before getting into these arguments,” said Rathin. His voice was full of sneer. “But what else did I expect from someone like you?”
Manoj left early that evening. He did not offer to help Rathin with his shoelaces. This was no great inconvenience for the director. His wife Manorama was always there to help him out.
A strange friendship developed between Mahesh and Utsav after that evening. They would often meet half-an-hour or so before rehearsals at the tea shop. Mahesh told Utsav that worked as an assistant at a petrol pump.
“People like you can do theatre as a hobby, Utsav,” he added. “People who have been to university and read a lot of books. But for us, it is an opportunity. If you do theatre for a few years, it is so much easier to get into TV.”
“So, is that what you want to do Mahesh-da?”
Mahesh laughed in a self-conscious way. “They will not make me the hero of a TV serial, will they?” he said. “Maybe a servant, or a driver, or a guard. The money is good – better than the petrol pump job. And, more respectable.”
Mahesh was not very tall, about five feet, six inches. His face was dark and, though he was no older than thirty-five or thirty-six, it bore the signs of a lifetime of labour. When he smiled, you could see his uneven teeth, stained with tobacco.
One evening Mahesh made a strange suggestion. He invited Utsav to have a drink with him. Though Utsav was surprised, he accepted the invitation. It was mostly out of curiosity, he wanted to see where Mahesh would go for a drink.
They went to Tripty’s, which was not too far from the house of the freedom fighter who thought it would be cool to team up with the Nazis to throw out the British from India. The bar was old-fashioned and did not have air conditioning. Its clients were merchants, traders, bureaucrats, and schoolteachers who wanted to get drunk. The drinks were cheap, so was the food.
Utsav ordered a beer and Mahesh wanted a large Old Monk rum with coke. They also asked for a plate of fish finger.
“I have been with Natyasena for 10 years,” Mahesh told Utsav. “At first, Rathin-da did not give me any roles. I would go fetch the sets in the morning, haul lights, buy snacks for the actors.”
Utsav had not sought any such confidences, but he found it interesting.
“My Bengali pronunciation was not so good,” Mahesh added. “I used to emphasise on the s a lot. Anyone who heard me could tell that I wasn’t too educated.”
He was already on his second drink. “But now, can you tell?” he demanded.
“Not at all,” said Utsav.
“Exactly! I could play a university professor, and you would not be able to tell the difference.” He laughed loudly. “But can Rathin-da or you play the role of a worker at a petrol pump, without looking completely like an idiot?”
Utsav did not know what he should say, but he did not need to figure out. Mahesh was already ordering another round.
“You see Utsav, it is not enough to read a lot of books and go to the university to be a good actor,” said Mahesh. “One also needs some real experiences in life. One needs to work with one’s hands.”
He held up his calloused hands for Utsav. Then he proceeded to get drunk. Later, Utsav dropped him home, somewhere in Behala, in a taxi.
Manorama was, of course, his second wife. Rathin’s marriage to Sulochana did not survive the fall of the Berlin Wall.
She left him for another man. You could not really blame her. It was a confusing time. Rathin had lost his job at the Food Corporation. Or left it – the details were not clear. The story he liked telling people was that one of his colleagues had offered him a bribe.
“He gave me a wad of currency notes, rolled into a bundle, held together by a rubber band,” Rathin said during another of his raconteur sessions. “I threw it down and grabbed the fucker by his collar.”
An official inquiry was initiated against him for assault a colleague. “I just said fuck it!” declared Rathin. “I am going to do theatre full time now!”
He started spending much of his time at home, reading and smoking. In the evenings, he would go for rehearsals. Sulochana still had her job as a schoolteacher, but the salary was not enough to make ends meet. She took on a few extra private tuitions in the evening. She would stay out late, and often returned home very tired.
Rathin did not even register when the marriage had run its course. He was so busy with theatre, his sessions with his friends at Coffee House. So, he was quite surprised to return home one evening from rehearsals to find the flat empty.
Sulochana had taken all her stuff and disappeared. She had left him a letter telling him that she was not coming back. The date on the letter was November 9, 1989.
Utsav’s first show with Natyasena went badly. It was early March, and they were performing at the Academy of Fine Arts. The director was the cause of the fuck-up.
For weeks before the show, Rathin had a bad cough. He kept telling everyone that he was drinking lukewarm water, gurgling with salted water at night. He even told them of a sure-shot home remedy. “Eat a green chilli,” said Rathin, “it’s sure to open your throat. Lata Mangeshkar does it before singing.” But even on the day of the show, there was no improvement. Worse: he began to forget his lines and started hamming. The other actors tried to make up for him, but by the Second Act, the entire group was low on energy and enthusiasm.
They somehow managed to take the play past the last dialogue and appeared for the curtain call. There was scattered clapping around the hall, most of the audience had left. The lights went off and the actors returned to the green room.
Manorama had ordered tea and samosas for everyone, but it had gone completely cold. Utsav was not hungry. He washed his face and went home.
Utsav did not hear from anyone in the group for a few weeks. Then, one day, he found Rathin’s number flashing on his cellphone.
“Can you come to Sujata Sadan this Friday?” Rathin asked him.
Sujata Sadan was a postage stamp of a theatre at Kalighat.
“Do we have a new show, sir?” he asked.
There was a slight hesitation at the other end. “No, not The Birthday Party,” Rathin said. “It’s for another play.”
When Utsav arrived at Sujata Sadan, he found preparations were on for a show. A team of carpenters were building the sets on the stage, the lights and sounds were being checked, the greenroom were full of actors. But despite all the preparation, the ticket counters were closed and there was no audience.
“What is going on?” Utsav asked Rathin.
“These are preparations for a new play,” the director replied. He laughed suddenly and added: “I have written it. We will stage it next month.”
“So what are we doing now?”
“Not much, just getting a few still photographs.”
Utsav did not understand what was going on. Why would anyone take pictures of a show they were planning to stage later? He did not get the opportunity to find out.
Instead, he sat in the auditorium and watched what was going on. The people who had already put on costumes and make-up were being asked to come on stage and put on poses as if they were acting. A still photographer was being directed by Rathin.
After about half-an-hour of watching these charades, Utsav decided that he needed some air. So, he stepped out of the auditorium. It was drizzling outside. Mahesh was smoking under the yawning of the empty box office.
“How have you been?” he said, patting Utsav on the back.
“Mahesh, what is going on inside?”
“Oh, you don’t know?” Mahesh seemed surprised. When he realised that Utsav was genuinely surprised, he explained:
“Natyasena gets funding from the state government – a few hundred thousand each year. This money, of course, must be used to staging plays. The group is supposed to do three or four original productions each year. If they do not, their funding will be reduced.”
Mahesh threw away the cigarette. Utsav was still staring at him.
“You still don’t get it, do you?” said the actor. “Groups like Natyasena do not put up three or four plays each year. Even one production is difficult. When the time comes for reapplying for funding, they hire a theatre at half the price, print tickets and posters and take a few pictures. This is submitted to culture ministry as proof of the productions.”
It was starting to become clearer for Utsav, but he still could not believe it.
“Who are the actors inside?” he said.
“Actors?” Mahesh laughed. “They are not actors. Most of them are friends and relatives of Manorama. They have come for the tea and samosas.”
Utsav felt his ears growing warm and a strange churning in his stomach. He found his throat a little scratchy as he asked: “So what happens to the money?”
“What do you think?” Mashesh winked.
He continued: “We are not the only group that does this. This is how it is now.”
Utsav did not know what came over him, but he suddenly started walking – away from the theatre towards the throughfare near Jatin Das Park. Mahesh called him, but he did not turn around. The drizzle had become stronger, but Utsav did not care. He kept walking and did not want to stop.
Eventually, he was forced to seek shelter because his glasses were covered with water, and he could not see where he was going. He ran into the compound of the Greek Church at Kalighat. There were a lot of other people as well – clerks returning home from work, sex workers from across the street – who were trying to stay out of the rain. Utsav’s ears were still warm and his breath short as he took off his glasses and wiped them.
Then he suddenly remembered – this was the exact spot where the police had arrested Rathin. It was 1976. Rathin was young and a revolutionary.
The rain was a thick white wall of water. It obliterated the city.
Utsav could not have imagined it when he was on stage, with make-up and blinded by the lights, but over the years, theatre became less and less integral to his life. The reason for this was economic. Soon after he finished his course at the university, he took up a job at a newspaper. It was a good job, though it did not pay too well. Taking the job was a necessity, not a choice. He did not particularly like the idea of becoming a journalist – he would have preferred to be an academic or a theatre worker. But he was not smart enough for the former and not committed enough for the latter.
The job required him to spend his evenings in the newsroom, and he could not go for rehearsals anymore. He also stopped watching plays. At times, when he passed Madhusudan Mancha or the Academy of Fine Arts in a taxi or bus, he would be afflicted by an in explicable yearning. But it would pass soon enough.
Utsav would be reminded of Rathin a couple of years later. In fact, the director would step out of the TV in his parents’ living room.
It was a Saturday evening. Utsav was off from work that day, but he had not gone out because it had been raining all day. He was lying on the sofa in the living room, scrolling on his phone. His parents were watching a Bengali TV serial on the life and times of a 19th century mystic.
Suddenly Utsav heard a voice emanating from the TV, a voice he could never forget. He dropped his phone on his chest and stared dumbfounded. It was Rathin, acting in a leading role in the TV serial.
For a moment, Utsav was transported back to the small and dirty classroom of the government school in Bhowanipur and Rathin’s words echoed in his memory: “Doing TV is like selling out. There is no art there.”
Utsav started laughing uncontrollably, almost falling off the sofa, much to the concern of his parents. “What happened?” his mother wanted to know.
“Nothing, nothing,” he replied, still laughing. There was no way he could explain all this to her.
About the Author
Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He has published a book of poems, Visceral Metropolis (2017), and a novel, Ritual (2020). He teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat.
Photo believed to be in the public domain (via).