A sequence in Komal Gandhar (1961) is where the camera dollies towards the dead end of a railway track. The tracks end at the banks of the Padma. On the other side of the Padma is Eastern Bengal or East Pakistan. As they stare into the vast expanse of the Padma with itinerant vessels plying along the waters, Anusya shares with Bhrigu that her ‘desh’ is on the other side and that the sight of the other Bengal has saddened her. A few frames later, Bhrigu confesses that his home was on the opposite bank. Returning home from Kolkata, he would get off the train and cross the river on a boat—his mother waiting for him on the other bank. But now that is a foreign land. He laments that the railway track which had at one time acted as a sign of ‘addition’ or ‘connection’, now symbolizes a ‘subtraction’ or ‘disconnect’. This tone of lament, an acute sense of loss through Partition and displacement, is carried through almost all of Ritwik Ghatak’s works–-not only his films, his plays as well. Amrita Nilanjana’s translation of the five plays by Ritwik Ghatak offers the readers a glimpse into Ghatak’s dramatic imagination. Though the volume itself does not make any attempt to contextualize the plays—we can gather from other sources that these plays—Jwala (‘Agony’ 1950), Dalil (‘Charter’,1952), Sanko (‘Communication’, 1955), Jwalanto (‘Ablaze’, n.d.) and Shei Meye (‘That Woman’, n.d.)—were mostly written between 1950 and 1960. That was also Ghatak’s first decade in cinema. A significant decade in Ghatak’s career, one that was to determine the legacy that he was to leave behind as an artist who was supremely talented, excessively sensitive, little understood and appreciated in his times, one who defied and defined the grammar of film-making.
Growing up in Mymensingh, Ghatak was variously trained–-mostly self-trained—in music. He had a few brushes with theatre before he was associated with Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in Kolkata. He had shifted to Calcutta along with his family before the horrific influx of starving people to the streets of Calcutta in the aftermath of the famine of 1943. It was at this time that the IPTA produced Nabanna (‘The New Harvest’) in order to mobilize popular support towards famine relief. A watershed production, Nabanna redefined the Bengali stage—its aesthetic criteria, its relation with the audience and its relation to politics. Ghatak performed in the second edition of Nabanna in 1947-48 when it was produced by what was to become the Bohurupee theatre collective. IPTA and Nabanna played a significant role in shaping the aesthetic and political priorities of that generation of artists. The moment of Independence brought with it a condition of ideological confusion for the Communist Party of India (CPI) which became a factor in a ban being imposed on it. Being a cultural organization ideologically affiliated to the CPI, the IPTA suffered. Many of the stalwarts who had flourished under the IPTA banner moved out to practice their art and ideals in the emerging opportunities in a newly independent nation. Ghatak continued within the IPTA.
Of the plays in the current volume—though Dalil (‘Charter’,1952) appears first, chronologically it is preceded by Jwala (‘Agony’,1950). It is difficult to date the last two plays in the collection–-Jwalanta (‘Ablaze’) and Shei Meye. The human catastrophe of the Partition of Bengal is writ large over both Dalil and Sanko (1955). The Partition was the second time within a decade that Calcutta experienced the incidence of mass migration and the destitution thereafter. Dalil mirrors Nabanna substantially in dramatizing that destitution. The play begins with a glimpse of rural life in undivided Bengal along the banks of the Padma–-a scene very similar to the one from Komal Gandhar described earlier. However, this time the vantage of the view is from the eastern bank of the Padma where the life of a Hindu agrarian family is soon to be disrupted. Slowly the news of the imminent Partition trickles in through word of mouth and over the radio. The initial reaction is one of an unreal hope that the line demarcating the two countries would keep the village and its Hindu inhabitants in India. But that mood soon turns into despair. Desperate efforts to grapple with the predicament of Partition are coupled with the future that awaits them in Calcutta. In the play Khetu parallels the character of Pradhan in his disbelief and almost obstinate refusal to recognize the need to sever himself and his family from the land they have been attached to for generations. The dramatization of Khetu’s outburst can be seen in the opening scene of Komal Gandhar which includes the enactment of a few scenes from Dalil. In the next act the setting changes to the Sealdah railway station where the refugees have taken shelter. It is here that the displaced characters realize that the trust that they had reposed in the government of ‘Hindu’ India was misplaced. In Calcutta they encounter bureaucratic chaos and near racial hatred. When they rally together to demand food and shelter, they are met with tear gas and police brutality. The trajectory of forced displacement from ancestral land, migration to Calcutta, destitution and the apathy received from the Calcutta bhadralok and establishment is shared between Nabanna and Dalil. At the climax of destitution the death of Makhan in Nabanna is shadowed by the death of the child Haru in Dalil.
Dalil was rehearsed at the IPTA space at 206 Lower Circular Road and one of its earliest performances was at Hazra Park in Calcutta. The cast included Tripti Mitra, Kali Banerjee, Mumtaz, Utpal Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak, Sova Sen and Sita Mukerjee. Performed by the Central Squad of the IPTA, Dalil was awarded at the all India conference of the IPTA in Bombay in 1953. The connections between Nabanna and Dalil exist beyond the plot to the new-realistic presentation—which in Ghatak’s imagination takes almost a cinematic shape. The light design was by the legendary Tapas Sen. The glimpse of the performance in Komal Gandhar offers an insight on the innovative use of back lighting using limited resources that supplement the action on the stage.
Even as Dalil was successful, thereafter Ghatak’s relationship with the CPI leadership soured. A playwright who was awarded in 1953 was not invited to the IPTA conference in 1955. The IPTA refused to entertain the draft programme he helped put together as part of the drafting committee. He also submitted a thesis to the CPI leadership on the functioning of the ‘cultural front’—a thesis that was recovered only in the 1990s. By October 1955, Ghatak was eased out of the CPI— and consequently from the IPTA. 1955 was also the year when Sanko was produced. Lacking structural support of the IPTA, Sanko was produced as a ‘group theatre’. It may be noted here that Ghatak’s first full-length feature film Nagarik was funded through a cooperative effort. While the ‘group theatre’ format walked along the path of a non-commercial theatre of commitment initiated by Nabanna, films being more dependent on material resources were in greater need for financial support. Though Ghatak managed to fund a large part of the film through contributory funding—it could not be released. Ghatak’s contemporaries and co-workers have recounted how his cinematic imagination would constantly be held hostage to the vagaries of his producers; how he would wait impatiently at railway stations for the arrival of film stock—unsure whether the next day’s shooting would run as per schedule. In fact, many of Ghatak’s cinema projects would be abandoned due to lack of financial resources. Without veering towards the counterfactual one may argue that the lack of institutional support—either from the government or from an organization like the IPTA—pushed Ghatak to a battle with odds, which took a toll on his capacity to explore his creative impulses. On the other hand, while Ghatak attempted to stay on and function within the IPTA movement longer than many of his illustrious contemporaries, the organization failed to make the most of his commitment to art, people and a secular imagination.
Sanko—the longest play in the collection—is perhaps the one that is most relevant in these times of mob lynching. Through very skillful plotting, Ghatak unravels the workings of the liberal mind that give in to xenophobic provocations. In fact, the play manages to rattle the almost commonsensical communalism that is part of the Bengali bhadralok culture. The play begins with Sagar’s singing of a devotional song being broken by screams of what comes across as if someone is being attacked brutally. Soon characters inform on stage that ‘two Pathans’ have been hiding in the locality in what is seen as related to communal attacks on Hindus in Dhaka. Graphic description of the killing of one of the ‘Pathans’ is narrated. Soon, the other surviving ‘Pathan’ enters Sagar’s room in search of shelter and protection. He is Mohsin. Mohsin tells Sagar that he and his friends had arrived from Singhasan in East Pakistan to attend the All-India Music Conference in Calcutta when they were caught in the communal conflagration. In a careful interplay between music and communal violence, Ghatak presents the vicious effect of religious nationalism in the throttling forces of creation and cohesion. While Sagar gives shelter to Mohsin and the two share an impromptu music recital, a moment of provocation unleashes the latent communal hatred in him as he allows Mohsin to be dragged out by the neighbourhood vigilantes. The rest of the play dramatizes the story of Sagar’s attempted atonement by returning to Singhasan.
The remaining three plays explore the inadequacies of the postcolonial state. Jwala depicts a delirious meeting of characters who have just gruesomely committed suicide due to the frustrating situations that they faced in their lives—being driven to these acts not through personal but social circumstances. Jwalanto touches upon a theme that Ghatak also visited in Subarnarekha—that of women being driven to prostitution by social forces. Shei Meye takes us to the world of the mental asylum and perhaps a little understood phase of Ghatak’s life.
Though the translator makes little attempt to visit the context within which these plays were written and performed, the foreword by Samik Bandyopadyay locates the plays in the tradition of the IPTA movement. He finds in Dalil obvious reverberations of both Nabanna and Chinnamul (a film directed by Nemai Ghosh in 1951, in which Ritwik Ghatak acted). Bandyopadyay opines that Ghatak’s theatrical imagination suffered due to long periods of engagement with films, which caused him to stay away from the ‘actors’ ensemble.
Amrita Nilanjana’s translation of the very readable plays is an important addition in understanding Ghatak’s creative journey and the interplay between the stage and films. The translations, however, leave a lot to be desired. At various instances Nilanjana’s attempts at literal translation make for a very terse reading—for instance, translating ‘sarbhaja’ as ‘thickened milk layers’! The inclusion of a glossary would have added value of this volume. The copy-editing is poor—a fact that the reader needs to discount to allow Ghatak’s dramatic to craft play out.
Arjun Ghosh is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi.