JAGTE RAHO

Bengal's theatre legend Shombhu Mitra set new benchmarks of genius. But why is there not one meaningful archive on his life and work?
Partha Mukherjee and  Priyanka Mukherjee Kolkata

"I am acutely aware that some disease has bared its fangs on me. I would advise not to prolong my suffering by putting me under long-drawn treatment. After I die don't put my body in state in any public place like Rabindra Sadan, and apply fire to my mouth after death. The last thing that I want is a spectacle of my last rites, for I have never believed in them. To be precise, I am a simple mortal, have always been a mind and soul, keeping many things aside. Let my body, in minimum clothes, be reduced to ashes in peace and silence. So many people have showered their affections on me, which encouraged me to do whatever little I could do amid numerous odds. There is no limit to my gratefulness towards them. Let me have this opportunity to acknowledge their love and support."

That was Shombhu Mitra's last 'will' before he passed away at the age of 82 on May 18, 1997. One wonders what amazing strength of character made this steadfast stoicism grow inside him. The man, who would always dissociate himself from cheap adulations and criticism, belonged to a world of his own. For him, theatre was like a sadhana - a process to explore the subtlest nuances of life. He breathed and lived Bengali theatre.

At the height of his brilliance, he chose to avoid fame, recognition and the lure of lucre. Even when his own friends criticised him, he ignored them with a certain grace; he remained unperturbed. He chose to cast his look away with grace. Shombhu Mitra, his close associates would say, took a "holy dip" into Bengali theatre, as if to cleanse it of the filth of jealousy, dishonesty and disharmony.

His life's quest was a disciplined, intelligent and vibrant theatre. Mitra's direction in successful productions of Rabindranath Tagore's Rakta Karabi, Raja and Char Adhayay, Tulsi Lahiri's Chenda Tar, Henrik Ibsen's Putul Khela (Doll's House) and Dash Chakra (An Enemy of the People), Sophocles' Raja Oedipus (King Oedipus), was evidence of this brilliant kaleidoscope of a complex, vast and varied genre. If the new form of acting and play-production, which was both classical in nature and oriental in character, began its journey with theatre legend Sisir Bhadury, then it was finally groomed under Mitra. For instance, as a director, he was the first to reveal on stage the theatrical splendour, poetic richness and emotional depth of Tagore's plays - clearly absent until then.

His portrayal of 'Atin' in Char Adhyay, 'Tapan' in Putul Khela, 'Dr Guha' in Dasa Chakra, King Oedipus in Raja Oedipu, 'Galileo' in Galileo, or 'Chanakya' in Mudra Rakshas, were at once full of depth and nuanced, without lacking the dramatic element. He translated Putul Khela and Dash Chakra by Ibsen into colloquial Bengali, and Greek classics into literary Bengali, to capture the serious, dense, tragic atmosphere of the original. Those who have seen him act in Rakta Karabi and Raja can understand the tense nuances that held the audience on the edge of their seats. This is what made Shombhu Mitra a legend of stage acting, not only an actor consummate, but an actor of actors as well. 

This article is not a hagiography on him. This is based on authenticity and truth. Those characters he had put life into came alive and broke the boundaries of text and manuscripts; they, ultimately, found wings, leading to a certain sense of catharsis. And Mitra made it happen with his noblest aspirations, because he was honest to himself and his theatre. 

Mitra, until he breathed his last, waged a relentless battle against the fake paradigms and images that would besiege him from within. It was indeed difficult to grasp the master's inner vastness, his theatre knowledge, his deep political and social sensitivity, even when he faltered. Debtosh Ghosh, one of his close associates, aptly said, "Shombhu Da's life, full of agony and ecstasy, would perhaps be akin to the map of any continent dotted with several spots marked with different shade of colours."

"What made him so big, larger than life?" We remember an incident, narrated in an article by Sanoli Mitra, his only daughter. "He was a type who would always mock at himself. His appearance, mannerism, his faults, if any, could never escape his deprecation. Even his aquiline nose would be ridiculed by himself - he would call himself Neko Buro (an old man with a long nose). Showing his fingers, he would say, 'Look at my fingers, they are so stubby and gnarled, that's why people don't find me important as a creative person, whereas your mother's are so slender. She is an artist.' Since my childhood I heard those pranks of Baba... Once he took me to the Oxford Book House on Park Street, Kolkata. While entering the shop he happened to catch sight of a notice: Dogs Are Not Allowed. Then and there he cracked a joke, 'Should I get in?' I was in peals of laughter..."

Shombhu Mitra was born on August 22, 1915 in Kolkata. His first lesson in theatre began in 1939 at the Rangamahal Theatre in the city. At 28, a leftist by political conviction, he 'discovered' the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1943. The IPTA was a progressive assembly of varied opinions, however, with strong linkages with the Communist Party of India (CPI). Mitra had envisioned a unique genre of theatre which would break the old, conformist conventions of theatrical presentations; so he grabbed the chance when asked to join IPTA.

In Nabanna, written by Bijan Bhattacharya, another all time great of Bengali theatre, Mitra proved his mettle. The play - a severe indictment of British imperialism for the man-made Bengal famine of 1943, dehumanisation of starving people and political awakening of the oppressed against the backdrop of the Quit India movement - was a milestone of Bengali theatre. It was first staged in Kolkata in 1944 under the banner of IPTA. 

Mitra remained actively involved with IPTA along with contemporary theatre greats like Habib Tanvir and Dina Pathak. When communist leader PC Joshi wanted him to take over the newly formed IPTA, Mitra declined the offer. However, later, due to reservations on the sectarian political line of the undivided CPI, he left IPTA. In 1948, Mitra began another new journey and established his own theatre group: Bohurupee, acclaimed universally as the pioneer of the vernacular neo-theatre movement in Bengal.

In 1961, Raj Kapoor gave him a carte blanche to make a film under the banner of RK films; but his heart was in theatre, despite the critical success of the classic Jaagte Raho which he directed, with Amit Mitra. Besides, he was not chasing money or fame, as the cliché goes. Resolute, Mitra returned to the uncertain, financially insecure world, often invisible, marginal world of theatre. Even the offer to become the director of the National School of Drama (NSD) as successor to Satu Sen, the pioneer of the concept of revolving-stage in India, was turned down by him.

Despite such stoic sacrifice and contribution to vernacular theatre, what awaited him finally? Gross negligence, perverse criticism and crass, disgraceful propaganda. Witness the fact that even a decade after his death, we have not made an archive to treasure any audio-visual of his great productions. Alas, barring two documentaries on him - one produced by the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre, Kolkata, directed by Raja Sen, and the other produced by Bharatiya Bhasha Sansthan, Mysore, with Ladli Mukhopadhyaya as director - one or two discs of drama or a few audio-cassettes of his recitations, we have nothing to remember the man. Is it not our responsibility to maintain an archive of these masterpieces, which would enrich, academically, aesthetically and socially, the apprentices of any theatre workshop?

Mitra received many national and international awards, including a DLitt from Rabindra Bharati University, the Magsaysay Award, and the Padma Bhushan. He was a fellow of the Sangeet Natak Academy. For his work in the movies (he made the acclaimed Dharti ke Laal -1946 and Jaagte Raho - 1956), he won the Grand-Prix Award at the Karlo Vary International Film Festival in 1957.

And yet, those days, Mitra had to curtail the budget of stage rehearsals owing to lack of funds. Did any business house come forward to support him financially? We don't know. But we know for sure that he would not have tolerated any interference of commercial organisations; he would never compromise with the 'marketable products' giving mileage to so-called sponsors. 'Natayacharya' Sisir Bhadury, at the fag end of his career, told Monoranjan Bhattacharya, an associate: "I am a vanquished worker of Bengali theatre. Please ask Shombhu not to follow me. He is the only man who will not buckle under any sort of provocation."

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2010