IT IS often argued – invariably by theatre activist and theatre enthusiasts — that the theatre movement in Bangladesh is the finest fruit of Muktijuddho. It is an entity that embodies, nurtures and harbours within itself the legacy and the values of 71. Soon after it commenced its journey, it gifted the stage of Bengal with one after another pearls of productions which garnered audience and critical accolade and appreciation. Throughout its entire journey, theatre has also at times gained notoriety in the eyes of the existing establishment. The 80s often claimed as the golden era of theatre that saw immensely popular productions such as Ingeet, Ei Deshe Ei Beshe, Inspector General, Jayjayanti, Kiratankhala, Dewan Gajir Kissa, etc shows which boasted record of almost always having house full of audience. In the then existing claustrophobic political atmosphere of the nation, theatre at times emerged as the sole voice of resistance. Theatre as an art form and theatre activists were closely linked with mass political and anti-establishment movements of the nation. There was a true sense of artistic flourishing and accomplishment. In short, theatre was a movement that seemed to fulfil the demands of time and society.
Standing in 2017, the scene has changed. Though there are numerous excellent productions on stage, though new innovative artistic expressions are being experimented with, somehow the tide has ebbed. It is difficult to come by the same level of optimism and dedication on part of the artists today. Somewhere somehow we have hit a level of stagnancy or are at best inching towards it. Theatre is suffering, the artists, the productions, audience, all are suffering. This is very much evident in the lack of the symbiotic relationship that should ideally develop between the performers and audience during performances. Somewhere something has gone missing and this is a dangerous omen that needs to be addressed right now. I write this piece as a performer and playwright, not to elucidate on a reality already known to all but to pose a question that resides deep within us all.
Theatre today faces multitudes of challenges, all intrinsically linked with one another. The challenges are manifold in both numbers and their layers and dimensions but the resultant factor is the same, a fall in the quality of if not productions, at least performances. Various causal factors can be identified which can be held responsible for the prevailing situation. Ask any theatre activist and s/he will rant on about myriad issues. The list seems endless indeed. One might speak of a lack of adequate number of auditoriums for example. Theatre in Dhaka is confined to a specific geographical locale. Although the number of theatre groups has increased over the decades, the number of suitable auditoriums sadly hasn’t. The resultant factor is that a theatre group often needs to wait for a month or two to get available show dates. This has direct repercussions for the productions and artists — both on and offstage — in question. Then there is the question of rising costs of production per night, loss at box office, etc. The fact that apart from scattered exceptions, theatre is largely limited to the capital also poses an obstacle to the overall development of theatre at national level. If one looks at the theatre groups themselves, one encounters complaints of lack of time, dedication and commitment on part of artist in comparison to times bygone. Compared to before, bringing a new production to stage and running it has become much tougher for many theatre groups. What seems to be ailing us? Life in contemporary times has become much more critical; the necessity for searching and working for livelihood has incapacitated theatre activists from rendering the same level of commitment and time that existed in theatre before. This turns our eyes to the elephant in the room. Theatre in Bangladesh though demands full time commitment does not provide the artists with a livelihood. Speaking from purely an economic stance at least, we are not professional theatre artists. Needless to say, this lack of professionalism in theatre is affecting the very quality of theatre. What we essentially practise is evening theatre when all performers come together after completion of their day jobs to par take in a little bit of culture. The daily pressure of urban lives has squeezed this evening theatre as well. Add to this the hectic traffic of Dhaka which is a regular excuse (quite legitimately so) of performers for arriving late for rehearsals, the picture gets direr indeed. It is not possible to stage good quality productions night after night with so many shackles and constrains put on the process of production. But our theatre is still doing this seemingly impossible deed. The picture would have been very different if theatre was professional and our performers could avail full time, dedication and commitment to the medium. It is gradually becoming evident that the group theatre format is ceasing to be functional and the situation will only worsen in days to come. The answer seems to lie in theatre transitioning from group theatre format into professional theatre companies. But there seems to be no sign of that happening anytime in the near future. The only plausible solution is one that is cited by theatre activists frequently, the government will need to come forward and step up the support for the very sustenance of theatre. While this is very much true, there is one question that does come to mind. Why isn’t there more resilience on part of theatre itself in face of such stark adversity? Why isn’t there much attempts to think about new formats and ways to sustain with theatre in the face of such external obstacles? Is it then possible that the challenges that do exist are not external in nature, but internal as well?
Gavin Richards, a British actor, director said about Dario Fo that what Fo essentially had was a mass opposition movement against the establishment in which he placed and developed his theatre, it is something all theatre artists dream of. What Fo did back in the tumultuous times of 60s and 70s was that he took his theatre to the public, his theatre troupe performed in factories, stadiums and other public venues. In his own words, there was a demand that they were responding to. In the post liberation era, theatre in Bangladesh did in fact commence its journey as a movement. Following 1975, the subsequent storms that had darkened our skies did give birth to a thirst among the public to express their voices. Theatre as an artistic medium did rise to the occasion became a window of expressing angst and vehemence.
Our political crisis did not end with the 80s and 90s. Though different in nature and form they do exist. But somehow the same level of vehemence is not embodied in us anymore. So, is there somewhere an inability on our parts to embody the voice of the public. We need to look within now. We, as theatre artists and activists, need to ask ourselves what are we doing and why we are doing what we are doing. Of whom does our art speak? Of whom do we speak and whose story is it that we narrate? It is time to look within.
Anika Mahin is a performer, playwright and theatre activist.