Third Theatre’s Spartacus

Badal Sarkar's anti-establishment experimental theatre created a new genre of social enlightenment
Alpna Manchanda Delhi

Where does one start to write about a personality who has been a major influence on the Indian theatre scene for more than 40 years? Does one describe him, or his achievements? Or does one simply pay tribute to the man who, at the end of the day, stayed true to his art at the cost of security and comfort in his old age?

In his youth, Badal Sarkar balanced a dual career as a town planner and a playwright. He later gave up the more financially lucrative option to devote more time to his passion - which was playwriting and releasing his craft from the clutches of convention. 

He constantly challenged and experimented with new forms of the medium. He took theatre out of darkened rooms to the streets, parks and the rural interiors, from the 'proscenium' to the 'courtyard' - the Aangan Manch (courtyard stage) was a new style of physical theatre that he evolved. Freed from the constraints of elaborate sets, artificial lighting, costumes and make-up, his players became one with the viewers. His audiences were encouraged to participate. This added a new realism while retaining the thematic sophistication of socially committed theatre.

After a stint with the Scottish Church College, Calcutta, where his father was a history professor, he did civil engineering at Bengal Engineering College, Shibpur. In 1992, he completed his Masters in comparative literature from Jadavpur University in Calcutta.

Sarkar started out as an actor, then turned to direction and, finally, wrote his own plays. He was fascinated by plays from an early age, and spent his childhood and college days reading Bengali plays. He never showed much interest in other forms of literature. He taught himself English in order to read his grandmother's collection of western literature. He enjoyed the humour of Bernard Shaw and was later drawn to Moliere, Sheridan and Eugene O' Neill.

Till 1956, when he wrote his first adaptation of a short play, Solution X, his interaction with the theatre world had been limited to catching the occasional play with his friends. The next year, he left his wife and two children at his family home on Beadon Street in Calcutta and set off for London. He promised to send them a monthly amount of Rs 150 and was afraid that he might not be able to meet this target. Fortunately, life in London was easier than he had anticipated, and he got admission in London University's faculty of  town planning. 

In his two years in London, his spare time was devoted to watching movies at a film club and absorbing the rich theatre scene of the city. Richard Schechner of the Performance Group, an experimental theatre troupe, decisively influenced him, and so did theatre personalities Anthony Serchio, Joan Littlewood and Polish innovator Jerzy Grotowski. Critics argue that this varied influence helped his creative work acquire new dimensions, making it distinctly different from the works of great Bengali playwrights like Sombhu Mitra and Utpal Dutt. Also, watching live performances of famous names like Vivien Leigh and Charles Laughton possibly awakened the dormant dramatist in him. This is where he wrote his first original play,  the comic Boropishima

Working within the proscenium form, Boropishima was followed by a string of farce, nonsense, existentialist comedies. He started his own theatre company, Satabdi, in 1976, and his pathbreaking play Ebong Indrajit made a profound impression on his audiences. It made Badal Sarkar a household name in India.  

Talking about his work, he said: "My plays are never naturalistic. Invariably too, they deal with a human situation or problem. I realised long ago that I wasn't cut out to be a novelist. Writers can analyse individual human beings from a point of detachment. I haven't looked at life that way." 

His plays reflected injustices in society and entrenched inequalities. His anti-establishment experimental theatre created a new genre of social enlightenment and collective responsibility towards radical actions, especially when the Naxalite movement was deeply influencing a scarred Bengal's consciousness. His plays - for instance, Spartacus - were often a call for rebellion.

By 1971, he was seeking newer avenues to express himself. He felt that theatre was locked in an unfair race with film. He started to explore theatre beyond the conventional raised stage in a darkened room, with the audience facing the stage. He started the weekend Angan Manch productions in a '30 feet by 28 feet' room within the Academy of Fine Arts in Calcutta. He described it thus: "Using normal room lights, devoid of props and costumes, performing not just in front of our viewers, but all round them." 

He said he did not want to preach to an audience holed up in the dark. His plays Michhil, Bhoma, Basi Khobor, and Spartacus were performed in open spaces, public squares, street corners, and in Bengal's villages, with the audience sitting all around. He called it his Third Theatre or theatre of the poor. 

In a way, he was releasing his craft from the "clutches of money" - his troupe, Satabdi, like all the others it inspired, does not charge for tickets. Instead, a donation box is kept at each performance for voluntary contributions.

By 1977, at 52, Badal Sarkar had decided to break all ties with his town planner avatar, and to devote himself full time to theatre. Not because -he had earned enough to see him in comfort for the rest of his life - but because, in his own words, "My needs had narrowed."  

In March 1985, Badal Sarkar and 70 of his Third Theatre compatriots took the plunge into full time 'village theatre'. Parikarma (The Walk) has travelled for seven years. Often, they act for free.  But that is not all that sets Third Theatre apart - visually and conceptually. According to Sarkar, "(it is) the intimacy of sharing an experience with the audience. Free play of imagination. Manifestations through symbolic costumes. Freedom to perform within the arena format. And the element of body language."

In his lifetime, he wrote more than 50 plays. His earlier comedies gave way to strong political and social commentaries like Ebong Indrajit. It was a landmark play that first made Badal Sarkar famous.  Subsequent plays like  Baaki Itihaash (Remaining History-1965), Pralap (Delirium-1966), Tringsha Shatabdi (Thirtieth Century-1966), Pagla Ghoda (Mad Horse-1967), Shesh Naai (There's No End-1969), put him in the same league as Mohan Rakesh (Hindi), Vijay Tendulkar (Marathi), Girish Karnad (Kannada), BV Karanth (Kannada, Hindi) and Satyadev Dubey (Hindi, Marathi), among other greats in Indian theatre.

He was awarded the Padmashri in 1972, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1968 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship - Ratna Sadasya, the highest honour in the performing arts - in 1997. In true Badal Sarkar style, he declined the Padma Bhushan in 2010 saying that he had already been awarded the country's highest recognition for a writer - the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship.

He truly believed in an independent, free theatre movement which was neither didactic nor propagandistic, and attained the finest nuances of creative imagination and rooted realism. Till the end of his life, he vehemently opposed succumbing to commercial interests or State patronage. Sarkar's life-work was truly a call for a new human being in a new world without suffering and injustice. 

Although the name on his school register was Sudhindra Sarkar, he was nicknamed Badal by an uncle who had been angered by the incessant rain on the day he was born. Much like the dense clouds that he was named after, there can be no doubt that Badal Sarkar's influence will continue to rain on the Indian theatre scene long after he has gone.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2011