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A project to document Bengali theatre in city

Begun on May 16 this year, ‘Bengali theatre in Delhi — A Journey in Time’ aims to features, styles, and content unique to Delhi.

delhi Updated: Jun 15, 2019 06:55 IST
Adrija Roychowdhury
Adrija Roychowdhury
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Balmik Pratibha,Shapno Ekhon,Narayani Gupta
Stills from Jatra performances organised by the CR Park Bangiya Samaj.(Shapno Ekhon)

When Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore visited Delhi in 1932, the ladies of ‘Sen bari’ (the family of the famous Dr Hem Chandra Sen) presented a play, ‘Balmik Pratibha’ for him, in what is believed to be the first instance of a Bengali play being staged in Delhi.

Since then, Bengali theatre in Delhi has grown into a genre of its own. The Chittaranjan Park-based socio-cultural platform Shapno Ekhon (loosely translated as ‘dreaming now’), in collaboration with historians Narayani Gupta and Swapna Liddle, has started a project to document and archive the close to one-hundred-year-old history of Bengali theatre in Delhi.

Begun on May 16 this year, ‘Bengali theatre in Delhi — A Journey in Time’ aims to features, styles, and content unique to Delhi.

At present, there are around 30 groups engaged in practising Bengali theatre in the city.

“Starting from performances during religious festivals on makeshift stages, to more professional theatre practitioners of the modern days, Bengali theatre has played a crucial role in building the identity of the Bengali in Delhi,” project guide Shomik Ray said.

“The beginnings of Bengali theatre can be traced to the annual Durga Puja celebrations,” said Siddhartha Dasgupta, a veteran theatre personality whose family traces their origin in Delhi to 1938.

“Saraswati Puja was another occasion when these plays were performed. But they were restricted to being performed in schools, rather than clubs and pandals,” said Ashish Ghosh, a theatre veteran who moved to Delhi in 1958.

For the longest time, however, Bengali theatre in Delhi had been dismissed as merely an imitation of whatever was being done in Kolkata. “One of the primary reasons for this was the lack of original Bengali plays written in Delhi. Plays presented in Kolkata would be lifted and replicated here in Delhi,” says Ray. However, he adds, that over time a movement started out among the Bengali theatre fraternity in Delhi to claim a genre of Bengali theatre that would be their own.

“The project is documenting many aspects of Delhi’s intangible history, of which theatre and particularly the linguistic diversity represented by Bengali theatre is an important part,” historian Swapna Liddle said.

“For a long time, we considered ourselves to be a diaspora or ‘probashi’. When you are part of a diaspora, you tend to have an eye on your motherland,” Ghosh said. “However, over time we started devising plays that were not lifted from Kolkata. In fact, in Delhi we were fortunate to observe plays from all over India and the world, which had a role to play in the way we conceptualised our performances,” he adds. ‘Ishhworer khoje’ (Waiting for God) directed by Harihar Bhattacharya, ‘Lenin er daak’ (The Call of Lenin) by the group Dhumketu, and Manusher Odhikar (The Rights of Humankind) directed by Shakti Mukherjee are a few among the many plays created by playwrights of Delhi in original style and form.

The project, which hopes to take advantage of this scattered movement and helm it into something tangible and substantive, is expected to be completed in three years and will be compiled in the form of multiple publications, an archive of oral history accounts, an anthology of plays in multiple volumes written by playwrights of Delhi, and a database of audio-visual material of plays by practitioners in Delhi.

While a part of ‘Neighbourhood Diaries’ series that has been documenting the history of CR park, the initiative looks to go beyond the south Delhi locality and involve Bengalis across Delhi.

First Published: Jun 15, 2019 06:55 IST