Sisir Kumar Bhaduri (1889-1959) brought modernism to Bengali theatre, drawing primarily on the aesthetics of 'the then contemporary' British theatre while focusing throughly on realism in stage characterization. Scholarly erudtion coupled with an awe –inspiring personality and pulsating baritone, Sisir Bhaduri was not only an actor and theatre director, but also excelled as an eminent playwright. Sisir Bhaduri was a keen student of English and ancient Greek literature and later in his life, he became a very popular professor of English at Metropolitan College (presently Vidyasagar College), Calcutta. His merit and calibre in theatre could be foreseen from his keen amateurish interest in Bengali theatre in his early career. In 1959 he was awarded the Padma Bhusan, India's third –highest civilian honour, by the Government of India.
This ultimate collection on Natyacharya Sisir Kumar Bhaduri includes snippers of history from 19th century Bengali theatre and also commentaries of the noted personalities of the contemporary Bengal stage. The volume, Natyacharya Sisir Kumar Bhaduri –Pioneer of Modern Indian Theatre, not only speaks of his great stature as a playwright, but also presents the cultural context behind the birth of the illustratrious Sisir Bhaduri –a master in dramaturgy, a profific playwright, an outstanding actor and a creative genius who brought about modernism, -a new element in Bengali theatre, focusing primarily on realism in stage characterization.
The book will definitely reshape the repertoire of public knowledge about the Indian theatre, particularly about the pillar and pioneer of the Bengal stage –Sisir Kumar Bhaduri –the first director –proper in modern Indian theatre. This first –ever collection in English, devoted to his career and acheivements, will therefore, mark a significant breakthrough in Indian literary framework.
Amal Mitra (1910 -1993), the eminent literary personality, was well acquainted with the reowned writers and actors of the Bengali stage for half a century, and possessed an amazing knwoledge of the 19th century Bengali theatre. Which we find documented in his pioneering work in Bengali, Kolkatae Videshi Rangalay. He was close freinds with Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, on whom he wrote a series of articles, which got published in the early fifties in Dainik Basumati. He also drafted a few scholarly articles on Rabindranath Tagore, which later prompted the Tagore Research Institute to publish an expanded version of the same, commermorating his contribution in the Bengali literary scenario. Till date, his books on Bengali theatre are highly appreciated and are included as reference books in the syllabus of Master's degree in Bengali by both Calcutta University and Rabindra Bharti University.
I have treasured for long in my personal library Amal Mitra's Kokatay Bideshi Rangalay, and clippings of several articles by him in the daily Hindusthan Standard, and also Sisir Kumar Bhaduri's piece published in Hinduisthan Standard, now included in the present collection, edited by Mr Lab Kumar Bose.
It is a pity that there is no biography in English, documenting the life and work of Sisir Kumar Bhaduri (1889 -1959), who, way back in the 1920s, brought moderism to Indian theatre, breaking away from the strongly entrenched 'heroic' histrionics of the decadent British actor –managerial traditions inherited by the Bengali professional theatre that developed in the theatre 'district' in north Kolkata in the 1860s, drawing on the theatre aesthetics that came with the colonial knowledge package. As a conscientious teacher of English literature, Bhaduri followed and responded to the Shaw –Granville Barker –Poel-Gordon Craig upheaval in British theatre at the run of the country, and focused on psychological realism in stage characterization and mise –en –scene on historical principles when he came to theatre after a short spell of graduate teaching at a Kolkata college. As he explored the psychological prehistory of the characters, and provided them with realistic 'locations' on stage, and developed a pace of performance that allowed his spectators time and leisure to probe, read and brood beyond their stage presence, Bengali theatre had its first taste of realism.
In an interview (published in the periodical Parichay), Sombhu Mitra told me in 1965, 'In his Early Phase, in every production, Sisir Kumar as prayogkarta paid attentions to every aspect of the productions.
He is perhaps the first full –down director in our theatre who had a vision of total theatre. We could not have started our work if he had not been there. he created total theatre in Bengal, and that alone enables us to raise theatre to level of deeper sensitivity. We couldn't have made the move without him.. His acting was not a matter of a string of memorable pieces of performance. Watching him act, i had felt for the first time that here was a man with whom every word he spoke and every gesture he made was loaded with meaning. He got the meaning into his acting.
With all the passionate commitment that a band of young intellectuals led by Hemendrakumar Roy, Manilal Gangopadhyay, Sunitikumar Chatterjee, Rakhaldas Banerjee and Abanindranath Tagore brought to their valorization of Sisir Kumar's acheivements and originality –particularly in the pages of Nautchghar, a theatre periodical they brought out –they could not create the perceptive audeience that Bhaduri needed to carry his breakthrough forward. The theatre culture that could recognize the new values inherent in Bhaduri's creativity came into being in Bengal only in the 1960s thorugh a long and slow process of orientation that began with the IPTA in the 1940s, and matured in the exposure to and appreciation of the works of Bijan Bhattacharya , Sombhu Mitra, Utpal Dutt in and Ajitesh Bandyopadhayay.
Bhaduri's US tour was a financial disaster that left him a wreck on his return. It affected his theatre, his creative freedom alike, and he was literally thrown out of his theatre and his private flat in the same building by the landlord in 1956 as a deafaulter on the rent. The last three years of his life he had to no theatre, no theatre, company to call his own. But the mind and the imaginations remained as alert as ever, as we found for ourselves when we gathered around his twice a week in 1958 to listen to him and read the plays that he had once directed and perforemed, with productional/perfomative details that he shared with us so generously. But the pain of the Us debacle endured, On 2 October 1958, as we celebrated his last birthday with him, at one point, he said with seething bitterness,'No foreigner will ever be a friend of mine!'
Even as I cherish my memories of those few rare evenings with the Master and the last few performances he put up with members of hos old company, by then folded up, on special occasions and for a short retrospective in December 1958 (I watched him in Reetimato Natak), his last stage appearance, less than a month before his death on 30 May 1959), I consider my self privileged, and share the sentiments that Sombhu Mitra added to my transcript of his interview with me, in his own handwriting: 'For us who have gained from our viewing of those theatrical masterpeices by Sisir Kumar, our reference for theatre will perhaps be different. That is what keeps as indebted to him.'
I would still hope that someone someday will write a biography of Sisir Kumar Bhaduri in English, Something to match the thoroughly reserched and documented biography is not there, Amal Mitra's short essays will be of great value to readers, scholars and theatre practioners looking for an entry point to the history of modern Indian theatre, and the history of the emergence of the prayogkarta (incidently, it was a coinage by Tagore that he used to describe Sisir Kumar), the modern director, no longer a nirdeshak (lit. manager –controller) –but a creative maker / master.
The eminent and gifted actor of the modern Bengali stage, Sisir Kumar Bhaduri (1989-1959), brought new era in Bengali theatre.
A keen student of English and ancient Greek literature, Sisir Kumar Bhaduri earned a Master's degree in English from Presidency College under the University of Calcutta and then became a very popular professor of English at Metropolian College (presently Vidyasagar College), Calcutta. He also took a keen amateur interest in Bengali theatre and regularly participated in various plays. He produced and directed Dwijendra Lal Roy's Chadragupta in 1914, enacted by undergraduate and postgraduate students of the university (a leafest of the production is included in the Annexure.)
Quite against the norm of the times, he quit his academic career and joined professional theatre in 1921, participating in over eighty productions afterwards. He made his mark not merely as an actor of unmatched genius, but also as a pioneering director. He made radical changes in scenography, costumes, lighting, music and choreography. His work was acknowledged and praised even in the western world. In 1930, he and his troupe were invited to the United States to perform on the New York stage, where he was given a Mayor's Reception. On his return to India, he was given the privilege of a Command Performance by the Viceroy of India.
Amal Mitra, the well –known literary personality, was acquainted with reowned writers, artists and famous personalities of the Bengali stage over a long period and thus had an in –depth knowledge of twentieth –centuary Bengali literatutre and life. His series of articles on the English theatre in Calcutta, published in the prestigious Bengali magazine Dainik Basumati, received much appreciation from Sisir Kumar Bhaduri and they later became close friends.
Amal Mitra's research work on Calcutta's English stage was published as a book in 1967 –kolkatay Bideshi Rangalay. It was highly acclaimed by critics, academicians and historians and is prescribed as a reference book for the Master of Arts course in Bengali at both the Calcutta and Rabindra Bharti Universities. His excellent article on Rabinderanath Tagore and Sisir Kumar prompted the Tagore Research Institute to publish his book titled Kabiguru Rabindranath and Natraj Sisir Kumar in 1977.
I myself had the rare privilege of watching many of Sisir Kumar's plays and such as sita, Takht –e –Taus, Alagmir, Ritimaro Natak, Michael Madhusudan, Bijaya, Parichay, Chandragupta, Rama and Palli Samaj during my college days. His performances were resoundingly impressive and fascinating. I was also blessed with the rare opportunity of being party to his 61st birthday celebration on 2 Octber 1950, organised by noted historian Dr Kalidas Nag along with Dadathakur (Sarat Chandra Pandit) and Amal Mitra. Sisir Kumar had dissucssed at length various aspects of the Bengali theatre. He expressed his view that 'nation is known by its sage' and wanted the Government to build a seprate academy for educating children on drama and theatre.
Amal Mitra wrote various articles on Sisir Kumar, published in journals and newspapers. They give details about his life, his interactions, and his meetings with famous personalities like Girish Chandra Ghosh, Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, They cover many aspects of his role as a director and art designer with a detailed eye for scenic backdrops and costumes ensuring a grand experience for audiences. Sisir Kumar had taken Bengali theatre to world –class levels. The article 'Sisir Kumar Bhaduri in the Eyes of Foreigners' highlight how his plays had touched the hearts of English, Europeon, Russians and American spectators and had received great acclaim from all. In his writings, Amal Mitra received suggestions and guidence from Dr Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, Dr Kalidas Nag, Hemendra Kumar Ghose, Hemendra Kumar Ray, Parimal Goswami and Ashoke Bhaduri (Sisir Kumar's son).
This book is a compilation of the original English essays by Amal Mitra on Sisir Kumar, along with other interesting material. I had been in possession of them because Amal Mitra was my uncle. A famous article by Sisir Kumar himself after declining the honour of Padma Bhusan bestowed by the Government of India, and seeking the establishment of a National Theatre in Calcutta, has been incorporated. A number of unpublished photographs of Sisir Kumar have also been included. I hope that this book will reinvigorate interest in the great contribution of Sisir Kumar to modern Bengali theatre, and will help students, researchers and teachers as well as those interested in the evolution of Bengali theatre.
I am thankful to Professor Ananda Lal, the noted theatre scholar, for taking the intiative to facilitate publication of this book and agreeing to write the introduction. I am grateful to Sri Nirmal Bhattacharjee of Niyogi Books for agreeing to publish the book. I also express my thanks to all those who helped in its compilation.
Public knowledge about Indian theatre history is sadly deficient, caused by a systemic failure to sensitze and educate people about our arts in genral, as well as the prevalent misconception that theatre in our country matured and became modern only after Independence. Consequently, if the lay reader knows anything at all about the pioneers and pillars of the indian stage, these are likely to be post-1947 personalities such as Sombhu Mitra, Habib Tanvir, Ebrahim Alkaziet al. the fact that nineteenth and early twentieth –century giants like Bharatendu Harishchandra, Girish Chandra Ghosh or B.P. Kirloskar shaped modern theatre in their respective, languages, and how they did so, remains neglected, especially in international, national or non-regional mediums like English. The contributions of Sisir Kumar Bhaduri falls under this eclipse, his work' as the first director proper in modern Indian theatre'1 largely unknown. No book exists in English devoted to his career and acheivements.2 This one, therefore, marks a significant breakthrough.
I shall very briefly define here the main reasons for bestowing that prestigious laurel on Sisir Kumar Bhaduri. Firts, as a student and then collage teacher of English in Calcutta during the second decade of the century, he kept abreast of the latest trends on the British stage, importing them into Bengali theatre and thereby continuing its developments from the 1920s onward. This statement required some explanation. One could argue that awareness of foreign theatre was nothing special at that time, given that most of Indian theatre drew heavily from its visual grandeur and latest technology. But we must differentiate between that populist and commercial phenomenon, and Bhaduri's more academic and 'serious' exploraitons. The theory and practice of modernistic realism had been established by Ibsen and Stanislavksy in Europeon 'little theatres' or art theatres by 1900; but it had not been accepted by the Indian stage at all, which preferred the older melodramatic style that clicked at the box office. Professional Indian producers had no use for restrained and non –musical social realism, nor did they think that in –depth study and research had any place in public entertainment.
Bhaduri changed that approach. Consiously attempting to reform the commercial Bengali stage, he incorporated the new techniques in his productions. He began to ignore the standard Victorian lush mise –en –scene framed by wings at the sides, and encouraged artists like Charu Roy to design box sets and zonal lighting. He directed his actors in psychological naturalism, away from the conventional extravagance and rhetorical flourish. These innovations drew a different section of Calcutta's population into playhouses: the intellectuals and those of refined taste, who had abjured the 'cheap' theatrics of Bhaduri's precursors but appreciated his changes and campaigned for him in their own writings. The most illustratious example proving this transformation lies in the conversion of Rabindranath Tagore. He gave Bhaduri exclusive permission to stage his revolutionary masterpiece Raktakaravi (Red Oleander), even before it was published, and the production was eagerly anticipated by the press in 1924 -25 but, unfortunately, it never materialized.3
Nonetheless, Tagore's close theatrical relationsship with Bhaduri contiued, and Amal Mitra devotes a full chapter to it. Allow me to quote in short from my own book on Tagore:
'Tagore generally avoided contact with the Bengali professional stage because it really ahd nothing to offer him; its dependence on commercial success precluded any attempts at experimentation and Tagore justifiably had no wish to compromise his dramatic principles..... [However, he] held Bhaduri's talents as director and actor in special regard, and at the letter's request he revised one of his earlier farces, renaming it Sesh Raksha, for performance by Natyamandir. Bhaduri's production on 7 September 1927 was a spectacualar event, notable historically for the first use of audience participation on the Bengali stage: Bhaduri broke the proscenium barrier between stage and auditiorium, and in the final scene inivited the spectators to join the wedding festivities in the play. The house responded with great enthusiasm, singing along with the marriage songs and intermingling with the cast on the stage in celebration of the happy ending, Inspired by this smash success Bhaduri tried his hand at a complex Tagore play, Tapati, staging it on 25 December 1929'.4
Besides this understanding of cutting –edge original drama, Bhaduri shared with his great predecessor, Girish, a quality that set them apart from most of the rest of their tribe. Furthermore, given conditions of Bengali directors. Beause of their open mind to theatre from all over the world, Ghosh and Bhaduri, particularly the latter, used to regularly artist, it is imperative to know the international state of the art from first –hand experience rather than simply literatutre or hearsy. I do not find this desire as evdient as it should be in contemporary Bengali directors and theatre workers, as a result of which the movement has grown progressively insular and even dated, alientating younger viewers too. Bhaduri demonstrated a much more liberal attitude, which was indeed needed, and that amounted to what we call cosmopolitationism now a days.
An interesting intercultural encounter, though ultiamtely not very positive, occured in Bhaduri's career that deserves attention here before the reader goes on to Amal Mitra's account of it in this book. A British actor, Eric Elliott, had come to Calcutta and seen Bhaduri's production of Sita.5 he was impressed enough to want Bhaduri's company to perform in the West. With the active help of Satu Sen, a Bengali student who had become assistant director –manager of the famous American Laboratory Theatre in New York and later joined the National School of Drama in New Delhi as its first Director, Elliott manged to organize funds for Natyamandir's trip to New York in 1930. Bhaduri led Seven Performances of Sita at the Vanderblit Theatre on Broadway in January 1931. The unfamilier play and style received mixed reviews, the praise no doubt influenced by the exotics of the content. Mitra reprinted the opinions of one critic comparing Bhaduri very favourably with the legenedary Chinese actor Mei Lanfang. Who had performed in New York the previous year. I except below a representive paragraph that Mitra excluded from another review that he extracted.
The acting differed sometimes from the Western Style, and so did the overhead lighting and the music –yet it was all effective. If theatre –goers desire to see a drama that will take them far away from Broadway, here is their opportunity.'6
Historically, Bhaduri's venture was important as possibly the earliest instance of an Indian production touring the U.S.A. Before that, only one Parsi company from Bombay, the Victoria Theatrical Company, is known to have played in London, at the colonial exhibition in 1885. Mitra tells us that Bhaduri evern received an invitation to go to the USSR following good reports from Russians who viewed his acting in Calcutta, but he was unable to take up the offer.
In the year of Bhaduri's death , 1959, the Government of India announced the award of the Nation's third –highest civilian decoration, the Padma Bhusan, to Him. Most Indians would be proud to accept such an honour, but Bhaduri Declined it. This action shows his courage to stand up for what he believed. He refused the award because the country had not given its people a national theatre, which Bhaduri had espoused strongly. His argument during the 1950s for such an institution has become the stuff of legend in theatrical circles. But few Indians have access to the text today. The editor of the present book has most helpfully provided in an appendix Bhaduri's response in the form of an article to question about the national theatre, which will help scholars and researchers.
A final word about the impeccable credentials of the author: Amal Mitra's scholarship on theatre is recognized in Bengali, but his popular writings In English based on the Material he collected are less well known.7 Thanks to the editor, Lab Kumar Bose, Mitra's articles on Bhaduri, printed in Calcutta's now defunct English daily The Hinduism Standard, have been preserved and made available at last. Otherwise they would have suffered the fate of so much valuble, uncatalogued, periodical literature in India –lost like the proverbial needles in a haystack in our musty, disorganized libraries and achives or, worse, so brittle that they distintegrate irretrievably.
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