A Letter from Badal Sircar

On February 10, 2011 by admin

To:  Richard Schechner

November 23, 1981

Dear Richard,

You wanted me to write for the “Intercultural Performance” issue of The Drama Review. You wanted me to write about my experience with my theatre group Satabdi; about the difficulties I had and the successes I have had; about my state of mind, my experiences as a playwright and a director.

What can I write? I am no writer of essays. I am a theatre man. I wrote some plays because I am a man of the theatre, not because I am a writer. I have to write in English, but English is not my language. My experiences with Satabdi, in theatre, in the cultural jungle of Calcutta, my city; my experiences with other people, with society, with life itself in all its absurdity, sordidness and beauty-all these are no better than a chaotic mass of confusion, and a long history of trying to find a meaningful course, a rational path, through this chaotic agglomeration. I am looking back to locate and understand the path already traversed; I am looking ahead to project it to the future so that the next few steps can be taken.

So where do I begin? At the beginning? At where I am now? At somewhere in the mid-course? Better somewhere in the mid-course; then I shall not have to bother about chronology, continuity, or coherence.

Calcutta. The city I was born in and raised in. An artificial city created in the colonial interests of a foreign nation. A monster city that grew by sucking the blood of a vast rural hinterland which perhaps is the true India. A city of alien culture based on English education, repressing, distorting, buying, promoting for sale the real culture of the country. A city I hate intensely. A city I love intensely.

Calcutta, July 6, 1979. An old building in the congested College Square area occupied by the Theosophical Society of India for more than ninety years. The lecture hall on the second story, 58 feet long and 24 feet wide, with its old dusty cupboards full of books on Theosophy and faded oil paintings of potentates of Theosophy—given to Satabdi on hire every Friday after much persuasion. First performance of Basi Khabar. Culmination of a year-long process. The first experience of Satabdi of creating a play collectively.

Year-long-but what is a year? None of the Satabdi members are paid anything. They work in banks, schools, offices, factories; they assemble in evenings exhausted by loveless work and sardine-packed public transport; they have to disperse early for long journeys, many by scandalously irregulars suburban trains. On Sundays we can work for five hours, provided we are not invited to perform somewhere-a village, a “bustee” (slum), a suburban town, a college lawn, an office canteen. Shows on Friday evenings; Thursday evenings spent on the rehearsal of the play to be performed the next day. How much time can we get for working on a new project? Eight hours in a week is an optimistic average. Still, a year means that we all grow with the play for one full year, and the play gets into our bloodstream.

One year back. July, 1978. First performance of Gondi—an adaptation I made of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. We felt good. We enjoyed preparing it—only fifteen performers taking care of forty roles; hut, stream, door, trees, bridge made of human bodies. We all felt that the play is Indian and contemporary and can be understood equally by the educated of the city and the illiterate of the village, and our later experience proved this belief to be correct.

It was the third year of our regular weekly performances at the Theosophical Society hall. Before that we have had two years of such weekly shows in another room (1972-1974), and a spell of nearly two years of only open air shows. Performances in public parks were stopped by the police during the “Emergency”(1975) and our search for an indoor space ultimately brought us to this hall in early 1976. Admission was free; a donation of one Rupee (eleven cents, a cup of coffee in a shabby cafe costs more in Calcutta) was expected and was willingly paid by most, but that was not the condition for entrance. Leaflets containing the program for the next five or six Fridays were distributed to the spectators, otherwise we depended entirely on word-of-mouth publicity. (I am using the past tense because we now perform in another hall-the system has remained the same.) The relation between acting and sitting areas varied according to the demand of the play. For Gondi we could provide about 125 seats, all seats were booked much in advance, and we felt good. That was the beginning of the year-long process of creating Basi Khabar.

After Gondi we had no play at hand. We were having workshops, relating sometimes to the cruel absurdities we live in. Enormous wealth and immeasurable poverty. A devastating flood ruining hundreds of thousands in the villages and a huge crowd of fans gathering to see the film stars raising donations in Calcutta for flood-relief. Construction of the underground railway in Calcutta and 90 percent of the underground water remaining untapped, rendering most of the arable land mono-crop. Satellites in space and 70 percent of the population under the poverty line. Democracy and police brutality The stupidity of man, the cruelty of man, the achievements of man, the callousness of man-not just in this country, but in the whole world.

But what about the courage of man? Somebody asked. What about Spartacus, on whose struggles we made a play in 1972? What about all those who dream of and die for the emergence of a new and better society? We decided that we would try to make a play collectively on these issues built around the theme of a revolt. Revolt—the ultimate burst of collective courage. We chose the Santhal revolt of 1855-56 that shook the British imperial hold on Eastern India for nine long months. The aboriginals. Always subjected to the worst kind of exploitation and injustice. Pushed beyond limits, they have often burst out in spontaneous revolts. But the accounts of such revolts do not find any place in the history textbooks. We had to depend on the work of some rare researchers and some obscure accounts.

The Santhal tribe is one of the oldest and largest communities of India, settled in the Bihar-Bengal border. I shall not try to describe here the inhuman extortion, oppression, and torture they were subjected to by the British colonists and their Indian stooges usurers, traders, native princes and landlords( the “maharajah” so lovably portrayed in Air India advertisements). One can imagine all that when one finds that fifty thousand hungry, half-naked Santhals took up their primitive arms-spear, axe, bow and arrow were killed, not counting the women, children and old folks in the villages razed to the ground after nine months of heroic struggle.

In the process of workshops, research and discussions, several decisions emerged. We decided not to make just a theatrical presentation of the Santhal revolt. Through our research we became more and more confirmed in the belief we already had-that conditions have not changed fundamentally even today. To us the subject was contemporary. We collected material from newspapers, magazines, survey reports-accounts of poverty, exploitation, injustice and atrocities perpetrated against the poorer communities and the repressive measures taken against those who protested or wanted to bring about a change. These accounts were juxtaposed against the accounts of the conditions that pushed the Santhals to revolt. We also decided that we would not make a play with characters and dialogue, for that would be false, unconvincing and inadequate.

We decided to show it from the point of view of a contemporary young man just like any of us. The man is born, is educated, is constantly bombarded by lots of information from text books, newspapers, radio, literature-false, half-true, irrelevant-and sometimes he comes across a report of mass killing or gang rape in an aboriginal village by paid hoodlums of the local (high caste) landlord. Or maybe a survey report giving figures and facts regarding “bonded labor”—a man or his whole family becoming virtual slaves for indebtedness (100 to 500 percent compound interest-fabricated figures to boot-to cheat the ignorant debtor) for making him forget all that, thereby allowing him to concentrate on his career, his personal life, his family affairs? Or will he change a little, will he make a decision, make a choice, however minor, to do something about it?

All that happened to us, is happening to us. Each of us was that young man, trying our best to deny the existence of the “killed man” in our midst, and yet not wholly succeeding. The “killed man” in our play wandered silently from time to time amongst the chorus of performers, sometimes breaking through, holding his bandaged right palm in front of the eyes of a performer to make him read something about the Santhals of the last century, another time using his left palm for something happening today. That was Basi Khabar (stale news)—a theatre created by the whole group in pain and love. It is not a theatre one can perform by “enacting.” It can only be performed by “state of being.” The performer acts out his own feelings, his own concerns and questions and contradictions and guilt. Through the play, our protagonist changed a little, we changed a little, and we hoped that our spectators, some of them, would change a little. The sum total of all these little, almost imperceptible changes, all these little positive choices we take, can one day bring about the change we are all waiting for.

Yes, our theatre has become a theatre of change. A long voyage- Spartacus, Michhil, Bhoma, Bhanga Manush, many other plays. We came out of the proscenium stage in 1972, five years after the inception of Satabdi, twenty years after the beginning of my involvement in theatre. The immediate reason was that of communication-we wanted to break down the barriers and come closer to the spectators, to take full advantage of direct communication that theatre as a live-show offers. We wanted to share with our audience the experience of joint human action. But in taking that course we also found our theatre outside the clutches of money. We could establish a free theatre, performing in public parks, slums, factories, villages, wherever the people are, depending on voluntary donations from the people for the little expenses we needed. We stopped using sets, spotlights, costly costumes, make-up-not as a matter of principle, but because we realized that they are not essentials, even if sometimes necessary. We concentrated on the essentials-the human body and the human mind. Our theatre became a flexible, portable and inexpensive-almost free-theatre.

The indigenous folk theatre of India, strong, live, immensely loved by the working people of the country, propagates themes that are at best irrelevant to the life of the toiling masses, and at worst back-dated and downright reactionary. The proscenium theatre that the city-bred intelligencia imported from the West constitutes the second theatre of our country, as it runs parallel to the folk theatre-the first theatre-practically without meeting. This theatre can be and has been used by a section of educated and socially conscious people for propagating socially relevant subjects and progressive values, but it gets money-bound and city-bound, more and more so as costs go on rising, unable to reach the real people. Historically there appears to be a need for a third theatre in our country-a flexible, portable, free theatre as a theatre of change, and that is what we are trying to build. This theatre is not an experimentation in form; we have no concern for taking theatre as an such exploration new forms often emerge.

Obviously, such a theatre takes the character of a movement, and cannot be taken as a profession. Those interested only in theatre cannot do this kind of theatre, nor can those depending on theatre to make a living. Only those who feel the urge to change, and want to use theatre to contribute to the forces of change, can be in this theatre. There are not many who come, and those who come can devote only their leisure hours. Our work therefore is frustratingly slow, but there is no other way. The only way is to have many such groups to join the movement at different places. This is beginning to happen, not so much in Calcutta proper, but in suburbs and provincial towns. Formation of new groups, change in old groups, establishment of free open air theatre spaces, organization of free open air drama festivals in different areas-all this is happening not only in this State, but in other parts of India as well, sometimes independently, sometimes as a follow-up of workshops I (and now others too) conduct from time to time at different places. Two joint productions have already been mounted successfully-three or four groups have joined together to prepare a play requiring a relatively large cast, though young, though still young, is steadily growing.

The ultimate answer however is not for a city group to prepare plays for and about the working people. The working people-the factory workers, the peasants, the landless laborers—will have to make and perform their own plays. We have deprived them not only of food, clothing, shelter, and education, but also of self-confidence. Here we can also help by demystification, by assuring them that theatre is not the monopoly of the educated. One of my greatest experiences of self-fulfilment occurred when a group of illiterate and semi-literate peasants and landless agricultural workers of a remote village

Bordering the jungles of Sundarbans (south of Bengal) began making and performing plays about their own life and problems, following Satabdi performances in that village and the workshops I did with them. I have recently experienced promising results in workshops with landless laborers in a Gujarat village in western India.

This process, of course, can become widespread only when the socio-economic movement for the emancipation of the working class has also spread widely. When that happens, the third theatre (in the context I have used) will no longer have a separate function, but will merge with a transformed first theatre. Richard, this is all I can write now. It is inadequate, incomplete, and confused, and may communicate very little to the Western reader who knows so little of the real India. You have seen a lot-in city and in village, you have known our group in action, you will probably understand what I am trying to say. So this is a letter to you.



Badal Sircar is a dramatist and theatre-director. He is the founder-director of the Theatre Group, Satabdi.

Source: The Drama Review: Vol. 26, No. 2, Intercultural Performance (Summer, 1982).


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