Kolkata: It was 7 PM, with the rain pouring hard often, people in this street around an overbridge in Dumdum area of Kolkata were gradually proceeding to shut shops as on a typical pandemic-era evening. But something was holding them back on Tuesday, August 25. A motley crowd had gathered under the overbridge; a step ahead one could see a play going on. Just three actors and a solo standing mike. They are talking about the fears of every neighbourhood – “is my neighbour infected by the virus?” This short play by Angikar, a local chapter of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), is named Pratibeshi (neighbour).
The play breaks into the wall of fear a man has built around himself about the pandemic. He has completely cut himself off from everyone and refuses to even help his neighbour in an emergency. Through a character that plays the voice of reason, the play argues against the myths around COVID-19 and stresses on the importance of physical distancing instead of social distancing. It also talks about the different ways in which governments have failed to stand up to the challenge because of a weak public medical infrastructure.
“I could relate to every bit,” said Shibaji Nandy, 53, who attended the performance. “I personally know families, who have now recovered but have gone through an agonising time. When one such family tested positive even their relatives did not help them by sending over basic supplies to their doorstep. We really need this message to help each other out,” he said.
The purpose of this performance, however, is bigger. Angikar decided to take to the streets as theatre has not been provided an alternative as the auditoriums have remained shut since the lockdown started in the last week of March.
“We, along with other groups, have demanded for the opening of theatre auditoriums at reduced rent and following all health protocols, also for resuming stage performances in which case the risks are even lower. We have also been campaigning for insurance and financial assistance for theatre workers like infrastructure staff and light artists, who have been pushed to penury during this crisis. Isn’t it the responsibility of the government to provide some basic social security during an emergency?” asked Dilip Kar, writer and director of the play and a member of the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA).
The play has been performed twice till now; once in the open performance space near Academy of Fine Arts, the cultural hub of the city with auditoriums playing independent cinema and multiple stages for theatre nearby and then near a busy street in Dumdum. Kar said that if they manage to raise funds it will be used to help theatre workers.
“I don’t understand why we are not being granted permission to perform. It is a play, not some violent gathering, just a play. We want more theatre groups to use open spaces as well. People need to tell stories of the pandemic and reach out. Other stories of love and beauty can wait for a bit,” he said.
A street play during this pandemic period has its own challenges. Actors need to maintain distance, masks need to be worn. And a worried audience will not stay around for too long. These factors pose a challenge as far as achieving artistic quality is concerned. But Kar aims to achieve as much artistic quality in these conditions. “This is a political play with a message and that is our primary purpose right now. It is a story that we need to tell urgently,” he added.
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The actors agree. But this is a new format for them too. Even for those who have performed on the streets earlier. “This is not the first time I am performing on the street but this was a very different experience,” said Falguni Chatterjee, 61, who played the character of the man who is taken over by fear.
“I had to wear a mask all the time and all actors had to maintain a distance. This meant that we had to speak at a very high pitch continuously. This made it difficult to communicate subtler emotions or finer layers of dialogue delivery,” said Chatterjee.
Though the challenges were different, this was a throwback for him to the 80s when inspired by Badal Sircar’s movement to take theatre away from the proscenium, Chatterjee had performed on the streets as well.
Theatre scholar, writer and director of acclaimed group Sanglap Kolkata, Kuntal Mukhopadhyay lauded the initiative and argued that to perform among the people is taking theatre in India to where it belongs, traditionally.
“Tracing back the history of Indian theatre, it has been street theatre or people’s theatre. This can even be seen in the era of emperor Ashoka and later during the period of Chaitanya. So, during this period of crisis if theatre can come back to common spaces, there can be nothing better. I myself have finished writing a play Corona-kal on migrant workers and if a play like that can be taken to streets, it will be wonderful,” he said.
Mukhopadhyay added that for any theatre to be a success, the workers who set the stage is crucial and every person associated with theatre needs to step up to help each other now.
Kar agrees. He added that people need to become politically vocal too. “If we do not become politically assertive, we are headed for really tough time. With this in mind, I am looking forward to more plays to perform outdoors,” he said.
He also said that there are other plays being written for that too. The next play Kar is conceptualising is on job losses during the pandemic.
The author is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata.