Born on August 22, 1915, in Kolkata, Shambhu Mitra was undoubtedly a great actor, director, discoverer of a new theatre idiom, a front–ranking cultural activist in the people’s theatre movement. As a director, he was the first to reveal on stage the theatrical splendour, poetic richness and emotional depth of Rabindranath Tagore’s plays which were hitherto not considered stage worthy. To remember this theatre genius, Lalit Kala Akademi and Natrang Pratishthan jointly organised the screening of a documentary film on Mitra’s work at Kaustubh auditorium in New Delhi’s Rabindra Bhawan this past week.
Produced by Bharatiya Bhasha Sansthan, Mysore, under the direction of Ladli Mukhopadhyaya, the film projects scenes from some of Mitra’s significant productions, supplementing the information with comments by theatre luminaries.
Association with IPTA
Mitra’s fame spread in the world of Indian theatre with Bijon Bhattacharya’s “Nabanna” which he directed along with the playwright. A severe indictment of British imperialism for the manmade Bengal famine of 1943 and dehumanisation of a starved people and the political awakening of the oppressed against the backdrop of the Quit India movement, the play was first presented in Kolkata in 1944 under the banner of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Its presentation in different places resulted in a mass awakening against British imperialism, strengthening people’s resolve to liberate themselves from the foreign yoke. He remained actively involved with IPTA along with Habib Tanvir and Dina Pathak. But due to serious reservations about the sectarian political line of the Communist Party of India, he left IPTA and formed his own group Bohurupee in 1948. It opened with the presentation of “Nabanna” as an indication of the new group’s political and social commitment to the people’s cause, producing masterpieces one after the other, revolutionising the concept of conventional theatre and infusing practitioners with a thirst for creativity. This ushered in a new theatre movement in Bengal.
Theatre practitioners including Alyque Padamsee, Tanvir, Pathak, Rekha Jain, Amol Palekar, Khaled Chaudhury, Bohurupee’s set designer Kumar Roy, Saonli Mitra — daughter of Mitra, and Ripti Mitra, an eminent actress , were interviewed by the documentary maker.
According to some commentators, the key to the success of his acting style was the creative use of Stanislavsky’s acting technique, involving discipline and intellectual growth of the performer. His daughter says Mitra put great emphasis on the movements actor’s eye movements, which he felt could create miracles on the stage.
Another commentator highlights his sense of the right word and its cadence to create drama and deepen the meaning while adapting a play or while editing it. He translated “Putal Khela” (Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”) and “Dash Chakra” (“An Enemy of the People”) by Ibsen into colloquial Bengali, and he translated Greek classics into literary Bengali to capture the serious tragic atmosphere of the original.
The documentary did not refer to two widely known works by Mitra — dramatisation of the liberation war of Bangladesh, in which 3000 people participated on January 26, 1972 as part of Independence Day celebrations, and his massive light and sound programme presented in Kolkata. Shankar Suhel, a National School of Drama pass-out and a theatre and film artiste, assisted Mitra in these two prestigious shows. He was among the audience at the screening. The evening would have been more rewarding if the organisers had requested him to share his experiences of working with Mitra.
One of the aspects of Mitra’s credo was his love for artistic freedom. For the sake of this freedom he left IPTA, he refused the offer to act in films and also declined the offer to become director of the National School of Drama.
He passed away at the age of 82 on May 18, 1997, leaving behind a great legacy of theatrical art. But who is here to carry forward this legacy? There was hardly any stage director to watch the documentary film on a great humanist engaged in incessant artistic quest all his life.
Keywords: Shambhu Mitra