Few Moments with Salil Chowdhury
Kalpana Biswas

Following conversation with Salil Chowdhury took place in his Himgiri Apartment in Bombay, in the evening on October 26, 1978.

He was wearing a shirt and a ‘Lungi' (Sarong). He seemed to be in a good mood. He reminisced about his association with the IPTA (Indian Peoples Theatre Association), and his memories of that experience were gradually coming to life. The fact that he was not able to associate himself with the IPTA to the end saddened him, and it was apparent in his tone. We captured our conversation on tape. This transcript is based on that interview.

K.B: Dramas that dealt with political protest in any pre-Independence, colonized nation – were most often supported and disseminated by the elite or the middle class of that nation, and the characters of those plays almost always were deliberately nationalistic. Besides, the appeal of those plays resided in their ability to arouse strong emotional response among the audience, rather than targeting the audiences' intellect.There were deliberate attempts to agitate the minds of the audiences. What is your opinion on this?

S.C: Yes, there were attempts to agitate. Think of the plays of even earlier times, such as ‘Neel Darpan' (‘The Blue Mirror' – a 19 th century play by Bengali playwright Dinabandhu Mitra, expressing strong sentiments against the exploitations and tortures of local cultivators by the British indigo planters – tr.). It was a tremendously agitating drama. This kind of work continued till early 1940s. But later the Bengal famine of 1943, in which 5 million people died, shook us all up including the intellectuals, writers and artists of the city. And this particular event started a movement that was not exactly nationalistic in character. People from all strata of the society got involved in the movement -- Peasant, laborers, and people of the middle class, students and intellectuals alike. And Bijan-da (Bijan Bhattacharya, Bengali playwright and actor, one of the leaders of the IPTA movement – tr.) wrote a play called, ‘Nabanna' (‘The New Harvest' – tr.) during that time. The tone of this play was far from nationalistic. In this play, he exposed the corruption and exploitation by the black-marketers, the hoarders, and the landowners of Bengal. The Peasant played main roles in this drama, they were the heroes and actors. Now this play, ‘Nabanna', a new kind of a play, set the foundation of a fresh new cultural movement. And since then we composed many songs for IPTA. We took our plays to the villages and we performed in train stations. The villagers and the peasants took part in our plays, they also wrote and performed in their own plays and composed songs. So, it would be wrong to identify this new movement that had begun at that time as nationalistic. This movement tried to bring a revolutionary change in the awareness of the common people, and it tried to involve common people through such activities as the ‘People's Theatre'. It spread like wild fire all parts of our country. There isn't another example of a cultural movement of such magnitude in India's history, I think. Compared to it, the Bengal Renaissance movement of the 19 th century involved only the middle-class intellectuals.

K.B: From among the Peasant and cultivators of Bengal, who do you remember who joined the IPTA movement as artists?

S.C: I don't remember the names of many of them, but I do remember the famous ‘Tarja' singer, Gurudas. Gurudas was the son of a farmer. Later he became an industrial worker. Then there was Dasharath Lal, a laborer, working for the Tram (the trolley) company in Calcutta. Dasharath wrote some good songs during that period. There were many others like them. For instance, there was Moghai Ojha, son of a farmer of Assam. He played ‘Dhol' (Indian drum) in our troupe. Then there was Anna Bhao Sathe from Maharashtra, son of a farmer. He wrote a number of ‘Tamasha' and ‘Laboni' at that time. [Note: need to find out info on Tamasha and Laboni]. Omar Sheik and Gawankar joined him. They all came from farming and working classes. Omar Sheik and Gawankar were slightly better off, but Anna Bhao himself was a slum-dwelling laborer and son of a laborer. And he wrote some of the finest poems, Labonis and Tamashas. You will notice that many such artists came out of the farming communities of different parts of India and joined the IPTA movement. These phenomena continued well after the Independence. But gradually we found that the movement lost its momentum. The groups started breaking up. Some still lament the fact that IPTA did not last. Personally I think that the movement did not die, instead it gave birth to multiple similar dramatic and musical groups, which followed the ideals IPTA was based on – art for the people and by the people. Those new cultural organizations sprang up all over India. After this happened, there was no need to have another organization called IPTA. This was one reason. Secondly, gradually visible cracks in the leftist political movements in India and abroad brought tremendous hopelessness among our intellectuals. We saw that China and Russia were bickering; Yugoslavia separated itself from the politics of Eastern Europe, and the politics in Vietnam took a different shape. We also saw that the Communist parties in France and Italy were going their own ways and proposing quite different things. These events created enormous confusion and frustration among our intellectuals and spawned several communist parties of various flavors, such as, CPI (Communist Party of India), CPI (M – Marxist), Naxalite (Leninist-Maoist), parties among other, and had great impact on our progressive cultural movements. Now, this confusion and hopelessness among the leftist intellectuals and artists helped abstraction in art rise again and champion art for art's sake. Gradually vulgarity became quite commonplace on the public stage, such as, cabaret dances were introduced in the public theatre, even in Jatras (folk theatres). This kind of onslaught on progressive cultural movement began because the united left cultural movement broke up. These days we are observing a new spark. Many artists of today are consciously thinking about ways to start a united leftist cultural movement. I have discussed this possibility with many of them. But I believe that we cannot bring back the old IPTA any longer. We cannot think of singing songs or staging dramas of that scale that we attained during those days. The biggest reason why we cannot do what we did thirty to thirty five years ago is that the climate of mass media of communication has changed radically during all these years. During those years not more than ten to twelve movies used to be made in a year, so we could stage our plays to rival the cinema of that time. In those days movies were the vehicles of clean story telling. Stories mostly from the works of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, and from Indian Classics were made into movies. Except a few, most of those stories were never a threat to our cultural revolutionary movement, so our radical plays could easily compete with the movies during those years. But the number of movies has gone up from ten a year to six hundred a year in last thirty years! And most of these movies are made in Hindi.

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