Theatre is a mirror through which art reflects life and like everything else, theatre in Kolkata, too, has undergone stages of metamorphosis from time to time. Every time we feel that it has turned moribund, it rises from the ashes like the veritable phoenix. Group theatre which had sustained the theatre in Kolkata for last few decades suddenly seemed bereft of ideas but youth theatre groups are breaking new grounds. ‘Kolkata on Wheels’ traces the odyssey of theatre in Kolkata, particularly the emerging trends.
The origins of theatre could be traced back to the city state of Athens in ancient Greece where the festival of ‘Dionysia’ was celebrated in honour of their god, Dionysus. An array of performances were staged including dramatic tragedy and comedy. Since then, theatre has spread to all parts of the world and successfully flourished in all the cultures across the universe.
Bengal has always been a prominent centre for cultivation of all forms of art, especially performing ones. It was in 1795, that for the very first time Bengali intelligentsia in Kolkata witnessed Bengali theatre through the eyes of a Russian dramatist, Gerasim Steppanovich Lebedev, working in association with another Bengali connoisseur of theatre, Goloknath Das. Together, they staged the Bengali translation of the two English comedies ‘Disguise’ and ‘Love is the best doctor’. In 1942, the inception of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) introduced a new axiom to the genre. IPTA introduced a new form of theatre which was more people centric and surpassed the otherwise classical dance drama style. But by 2000, this genre of performing art had almost been doomed until the new contemporary theatre groups came to its revival. Theatre in Bengal gave us many stalwarts like Dwijendra Lal Roy, Bijon Bhattacharya, Sombhu Mitra, Utpal Dutta and Badol Sarkar but now it was time for the new generation to carry the torch. The new age theatre troupes successfully revamped this genre with their new styles and techniques. Today theatre has undergone a drastic change. Theatre nowadays is not just restricted or dependent on the little old ticket counters for sale but has been adopting aggressive marketing strategy. With the advent of social networks, marketing has become way more flexible than ever before, vastly contributing towards the resurrection of this genre. Today, the theatre groups are focussing on a planned and innovative marketing strategy to draw the crowd back.
One of the troupes which has created a stir, staging successful shows is ‘Mad About Drama’ or popularly known as MAD. About the inception of MAD, one of the founders, Soham Majumder said: “Mad About Drama was born out of a common passion shared by three friends who were just into college and were trying to figure out what to do with their lives back in 2011. A late night conversation led to the conception of a theatre company because back then, as radical as we were, we wanted to bring a drastic change in the world of the art form we so dearly loved.” The other two founders are Soumendra Bhattacharya and Soumya Mukherjee. MAD has been performing all around India and receiving accolades from all corners. They have been invited to perform at several prestigious theatres, one of them being the famed Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai. The factor that makes MAD stand out from the rest is their belief in staging plays based on new and fresh content as much as they can, rather than on mere adaptations. According to Soham, in this technology driven world if one needs to stand out, one must learn to make good use of it. Since social media has become such an important factor, one needs to make the most out of it. Since marketing is a vital element and MAD realizes that, they tend to pay a lot of attention towards the packaging of the show. He said “Even we, at MAD, realize its importance and pay extra heed to the kind of posters we design or the look of the tickets we sell. We’ve made interesting trailers for a majority of our shows which are not typical, in the sense that they’ll have moments from the play or sorts”.
For ground activities MAD has been putting up quirky tent-cards at popular food joints and organising interesting events such as Karaoke Night or a ‘photowalk’ through the streets of Calcutta to reach out to the mass. Some of the notable plays staged by MAD are CHUTIYA, which is a modern day adaptation of Brecht’s ‘Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui’ and the other one that has gathered a vast amount of appreciation is Codename: SRK. They had also organised a theatre-cum-carnival event last December called Bring Your Own December (BYOD). When asked about the stark differences between yesterday and today’s theatre, he replied: “There was a huge void in the theatre industry, at least in Kolkata, between 2000 and 2010. People had developed disinterest in theatre. Even 30-40 years ago, theatre was a driving force of the cultural hub in Calcutta. People used to queue up all night to buy tickets for a show by Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay, Utpal Dutt and other eminent personalities. But now, with the presence of parallel circuits of theatre in Calcutta which comprises not just “youth theatre groups” but also professional groups, theatre is surfacing once again”. He went on to add that the new age theatre groups doesn’t adhere to the ‘group theatre’ format anymore and were coming up with newer formats in all languages. Historically, Calcutta had this demarcation of an English ‘elitist’ theatre circuit and a Bengali mainstream circuit but now that barrier is breaking in terms of language. Whatever the future may hold, the art of theatre would never die out in Bengal.