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Wide Ranging Canvas

Ananda Lal

By Minoti Chatterjee
Indialog Publications, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 268, Rs. 295.00


Unbelievable as it may sound, this is the first book in English on Bengali theatre during the nationalistic phase of Indian history. It goes to prove what I have harangued readers with (though for the first time in this journal) over many years: that the neglect of theatre studies in our country has resulted in abysses of ignorance about the subject, and that instead of jumping on the overloaded bandwagons of postcolonialism, postmodernism, theory and fiction (that pet genre of literary criticism today) our scholars can do us a service by researching the rich theatrical traditions that remain virtually unknown and invisible. I consider it significant that the writer of this volume is a professor of political science, because theatre requires an interdisciplinary approach and does not necessarily demand a degree in literature, for the academic hegemony of literary studies in India has practically blinded its students to the appreciation of theatre. Supporting my position, Professor Chatterjee points to the “immense treasury … in the form of autobiographies, biographies, diaries and published writings” by theatre people – primary material that lies untapped, let alone untranslated.   This book has a wideranging thematic canvas besides the obvious issues indicated by its title. It investigates the capitalistic forces at work in the industry of Bengali professional theatre. It presents the problems of the early actresses who came from disreputable quarters, as well as the diverse but generally respectable backgrounds of the male stars, and their politics. It raises the long history of litigation in the companies, illustrated by referring at length to the complex (and juicy) on-off affair between Amarendra Nath Dutta and his leading lady-mistress Tara Sundari, their mutual lawsuits eventually patched up amicably. It gives considerable space to communal amity in the plays of the period, from Girish Ghosh to D. L. Roy and Kshirod Prasad Vidyavinod. Although Muslim fundamentalists saw Roy as anti-Islamic, Chatterjee quotes him to underline his pragmatism: “Until many of our social practices are abolished and we learn to be civilized, we cannot think of being politically one.”   Generically, too, Chatterjee does not delimit theatre to define just the commercial stage in Calcutta. She discusses the folk Jatra, even implying that the variant known as Swadeshi Jatra actually secularized the form to its present de-devotionalized position. The greatest contribution in this area came from Mukunda Das, whom she highlights with several extracts from his hugely inspirational songs that roused ...

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