Theatre and the City

Theatre and the City

Shuktara Lal led a group of people on a walk through Calcutta's theatre history in the sweltering heat of May. This was part of an initiative of speciality walks presented by Calcutta Walks. The author reflects on the experience and the larger questions of the relationships between the arts and cities. All photographs in this article are by Srijita Singh.

As an initiative, Calcutta Walks has struck many of us living in the city as being a refreshingly original conduit through which both outsiders and residents can gain insights into Calcutta's history and understand the multiplicities of its present better. Quite literally, Calcutta Walks designs and conducts 'walks' for individuals and small groups. These walks could explore the general history of an area or could guide you through specific socio-cultural facets that make the city what it is. In May, the enterprise organized a series of free walks to commemorate the ideas of the American urban activist, Jane Jacobs, who advocated for making cities more walkable – devising ways of putting into practice the commonsensical notion that the best way to know one's city is to walk it. It would stand to follow, then, that when Iftekhar Ahsan, the founder-director of Calcutta Walks approached me to conduct a theatre history walk, I would jump on board. While I did agree to do the walk, I did so with reservations.

For starters, Calcutta is one of the most (if not the most) walker-unfriendly city I have ever walked in. Pavements are by and large non-existent because even if they are present, one must vie for space with stalls of various shapes and sizes and roadside vendors (who sometimes spread their wares out on the concrete itself). In other places, they resemble a miniature battle zone, having metamorphosed into an amalgamation of concrete, uprooted bricks and craters. Vehicle drivers display little sympathy towards the plight faced by pedestrians so everyday we 'walkers' must exercise monumental choices between risking possible fractures or sprains and risking a hit and run instead. Or both, come to think of it (bikers and bicyclists take to the sidewalks often).

The walk guided participants through historical theatre sites in north Calcutta (informed by Professor Ananda Lal's theatre research and guidelines), which was the epicentre of early Bengali theatre. Our stops represented major landmarks in Bengali theatre and a significant chapter in English theatre as well. The sites participants were taken to included Jorasanko Thakurbari (Rabindranath Tagore's family residence), National Theatre (the first commercial Bengali theatre) and the Oriental Seminary. Stylistically, we moved from private performance spaces, commercial theatres that operated from residences, travelling theatres to the first theatre auditoriums built for a purely public audience.

As the conductor of this walk, I could never have accounted for the sheer visceral impact it would have on all my senses. Layer upon layer of history, architecture and performance morphed seamlessly in front of our eyes and the more I walked, the more I felt a sense of ownership towards the city, towards what remains of its history – an ownership I will try to explain here.

The feeling of 'owning' a city, of belonging to it or the sense of pride that rises when one realizes one is a part of its whole must, if a city is to grow and be a community of people, be a shared ownership. It was this collective ownership that was embodied in every aspect of the walk. It manifested itself in seemingly trivial acts such as the group of walkers never once complaining about the energy-sapping heat, but instead often lingering on pavements, photographing architecture or just lapping up the all-encompassing sights and sounds. It manifested itself in the way we would sit outside the houses that formed our stops and talk about theatre and performance histories, observing the often bizarre juxtaposition of 'modern' and old Calcutta architectural styles. It was no different when men pulling rickshaws and steering trams, of their own accord halted to make way for the curious group we must have appeared to them – an almost equal mix of women and men, wearing bright, assorted attire intended to be conducive for walking, armed with both impressive gadgets and water bottles, and, more importantly, a group that was in no apparent hurry to reach somewhere. I cannot remember the last time vehicles on the road voluntarily slowed down to give me space to walk down streets that are also mine.

On a far deeper level it came through when the present-day owners of some of the houses and institutes we visited opened their doors to us, unhesitatingly and with so much graciousness. Mahendra Mullick, the owner of the house where the National Theatre was situated, took time out from his work to talk to us and spoke about the special centenary performance of the path-breaking, political play, Nil Darpan, in the premises of his house. At the Pathuriaghata Thakurbari (the home of Jatindra Mohan and Surindra Mohan Tagore), Pramantha M. Tagore, the youngest member of the family, patiently showed us where performances would happen in his house and when he shared anecdotes from his family's history, the personal touch was invaluable. A teacher at the Oriental Seminary (where its students had constructed a theatre in 1853 to stage English language plays for the first time in the city) hunted out a copy of the school magazine that had been brought out on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the institute because he remembered there was an essay on its theatre associations. There was no reason for any of these people to have given us any attention, let alone the warmth and consideration we received. There were no financial incentives, nothing they could gain from. On the contrary, we were asking if a number of people could enter the premises of their houses and look at and talk about the intangible legacy that had been left to them because of theatre – intangible, not just because of the ephemeral nature of performance but also because many of these performance areas didn't even exist anymore. Yet, they were generous and welcoming.

And so the walk exemplified exactly what Calcutta can be in spite of everything that's going wrong with it. If we can build on that sense of ownership, the pride that emanates from being a part of it, that sense of community and congruity with the people living around us, even if we start small and focus only on our own neighbourhoods, a city identity can be recreated. Maybe we could even have a safer city as a result. The combination of organizing tours that will coax residents to walk different areas of the city with related theatre and performance ventures could work wonders.

I write this at a time when for a girl or a woman, West Bengal is one of the worst places to have to live in. Indeed, given my own daily experiences of harassment on the streets of Calcutta both before and after the theatre walk took place, it seems surreal that such a rewarding interaction with the city was possible. But it did happen and one of the ways forward in our efforts to make the city a more humane place could be to examine what such an initiative demonstrated.

One of the things it underscored, almost imperceptibly, was the incredible hold theatre can have over people – people who may have never met each other before. None of the people who took part in the walk worked in theatre; but each came out of a general interest in plays. It has been two months since the walk was organized but many of the participants have remained in touch with each other, expressing interest in watching current or forthcoming performances and exchanging their thoughts on theatre in the city at present. One person has started a group on Facebook to list performances being staged around the city so that people can easily obtain information on the same, all in one place. I thought this was a wonderful idea, given that the city lacks such a resource and newspapers give minimal space to arts listings. The magnetic pull of theatre is such that I am confident many of the participants in the walk will watch a higher number of plays than they would have earlier.

Another thing the walk made apparent was how impossible it is to separate the history of Calcutta from its history of theatre and the performing arts. The link theatre had with the pulse of the city and the independence movement finally instigated the British government to legalise theatre censorship in India. Even architecturally, private homes accommodated performance spaces. In a few cases, there were designated halls, which had excellent acoustics. Additionally, the courtyard (dalan) would host private or public performances that facilitated regular interaction with the greater community. Thus theatre formed one of the means of accessing the outside city on a spontaneous and emotional level.

It is this engagement between the arts and the city, which needs to be revisited and moulded to fit into the paradigm of Calcutta as it stands today. Indeed, all through the theatre walk, the collective pride in this artistic history was palpable. In this light, it is quite ironic that heritage conservation in the city leaves much to be desired. There are few cities in the world where striking a balance between sustaining history and meeting the demands of modern urban living has not proven to be problematic. However, in Calcutta, while some efforts have been made in this direction more is required. If a private residence is a landmark on the map of theatre history and, on a larger scale, the cultural history of the state, it should be named a heritage property. Increasing the number of heritage buildings and working out more ways in which the city can be involved in their preservation is imperative. It is unfair to place the onus of maintaining an old house with historic significance entirely on the family living there. The socio-economic realities now are very different from when the house was built.

The importance of arts initiatives that engage with the city cannot be highlighted enough if we wish to re-build the connect shared by the people with it, and to re-establish that sense of ownership and responsibility towards it. In the case of private houses that had theatres, if the owner is agreeable, he could host small performances in his premises for which theatre groups would pay for the space as they would for a public venue. Equally, performances that address the city, that have evolved out of and/or speak to its communities should be staged in unexpected spaces, allowing for unexpected city-resident interfaces. More specialized walks that explore the relationship Calcutta has had with other art forms can be devised. The theatre walk itself can be expanded to include other areas and draw attention to contemporary dramatic trends. Such walks force us to step outside our comfort zones and we forge a new connection with unfamiliar parts of our city.

But at the very base of a city, in its foundation, is the promise of safety and it is only when one feels secure within it that one can move towards exercising ownership of it. As we struggle to secure this base, using performance as activism, the arts as advocacy, in different groups, in different places, is bound to leave an imprint on the city, adding to the vast history of imprints the arts have already marked it with. An uncanny parallel can be found in the ambivalence underlying the perception of women and theatre in the 19th century and the perception of women now. The Star Theatre was supposed to have been named after Binodini Dasi, the celebrated Bengali actress. However, when built, Girish Ghosh was dissuaded by others because of her 'unacceptable' background and it was named Star instead. 130 years later, in spite of her stature in Bengali theatre history, a government hall is yet to be named after her (Rangakarmee's studio theatre is the only performance space that bears her name in the city). Perhaps if arts projects, geared towards re-imagining and re-vitalising the Calcuttan sense of community, mushroom all over its contours, oppressive socio-cultural patterns of thought and behaviour can be re-examined. And some errors of the past redressed.

Shuktara Lal works in the area of drama therapy. She also directs plays and writes.     

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