“Movies will make you famous; Television will make you rich; But theatre will make you good,” American actor and theatre director Terrence Mann once said about the merit of theatre. Emerging as early as in the ancient Egyptian era, theatre served as a handy tool for both social transformation and entertainment throughout the history. Defining theatre as a desideratum for society, Aristotle argued that “tragedy is purification while the purpose of comedy is social criticism.” However, the practice of theatre in the South-Asian context was rather religious and circled around religious mythologies for decades.
Although, theatre is a prevalent phenomenon in the history Bangladesh, it is still quite far from being a culture. The establishment of Dhaka University played a pivotal role in the history and practices of theatre in Bangladesh. Adopting it as an academic discipline, a subsidiary course on Theatre was instituted directly under the supervision of the Dean of Arts in 1989 in the university. A similar course on Music was instituted in 1992, also under the Dean of Arts. These two separate units were brought together in August 1994 and named Department of Theatre and Music, which was further divided into two different disciplines and the department has since been renamed to Theatre and Performance Studies.
The department now offers a four-year BA (Honours) course along with an MA and an MPhil program. To provide the students with hands-on experience, the department has a dedicated auditorium named 'Natmondal', for staging plays regularly, which is a requirement of the courses. The department also arranges an annual drama festival at the Teacher Student Centre (TSC) auditorium. With the World Theatre Day in mind, celebrated on March 27, Weekend Tribune sat down with Dr Ahmedul Kabir, the current chair of the department to talk about the history, scopes and challenges of theatre in Bangladesh, among a range of related topics.
History of theatre in Bangladesh
While outlining the modern history of theatre in Bangladesh, Dr Kabir said the tradition existed for a long time, from where it evolved to its contemporary state. The early practices of theatre took different forms in narrating the story, for instance: the narrative, the song-and-dance, the processional, and the supra-personae. “A significant turn in the discourse of South-Asian theatre took place during the British colonial period. They have introduced us with what we call today “the proscenium theatre’ but it was mostly centered in Kolkata. Nevertheless, the traditional format of theatre was being practiced in the remotest areas of Bangladesh,” Dr Ahmedul Kabir said.
In 1956, a group of Dhaka University Alumni founded ‘Drama Circle,’ a platform to practice drama. Drama Circle contributed a lot to the theatre history of Bangladesh
He continued, “After the partition of India, the state of theatrical practice stayed more or less the same in the newly emerged Pakistan, but it was occasional and limited to a certain class of the society. Subjects of the plays were predominantly based on religious history and mythologies to suit the middle and upper classes of society who attended the theater solely for entertainment.”
A group of Dhaka University students introduced qualitative changes in the practices and subjects of theatre and paved the way for modern theatre in Bangladesh. As Dr Kabir put it, “With the establishment of Dhaka University, a new dimension was added to the theatrical practice in the East Pakistan. From 1947 onwards, students at Dhaka University began to revived the performing arts. With the students and teachers joining hands, new subjects started to emerge in the plays. Spearheaded by Munir Chowdhury and Ashkar Ibn Shaikh, a new era of Bangladeshi theatre began. The story focus took a paradigm shift from the religious heroism to social issues. This is when the European theatre tradition penetrated into ours.”
“In 1956, a group of Dhaka University Alumni founded ‘Drama Circle,’ a platform to practice drama. Drama Circle contributed a lot to the theatre history of Bangladesh. This is the group that perceived theatre beyond its entertainment aspects and successfully transpired the idea that it is also a vehicle for learning and cultural growth. They introduced the local audience with the modern form of theatre. During the liberation war, a bunch of young enthusiasts involved with Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro including Aly Zaker, Nasiruddin Yousuff Bachchu and Mamunur Rashid travelled to Kolkata to run the station. In the meantime, they got acquainted with the blooming theatre industry thereof. Later, they went on to incorporate the elements of the Kolkata centric theatre in Bangladesh,” He added.
The roadblocks toward a thriving theatre industry
According to Bangladesh Group Theatre Federation, around 300 theater groups are active in Bangladesh right now, entertaining and informing their audiences with works that include adaptations and interpretations of works by well-known international playwrights, both past and present, and contemporary and original works by Bangladeshi playwrights.
It has been 47 years of since Bangladesh became independent, but unfortunately, theatre continues to lack the prominence it deserves. There is no theatre industry as such in the country. Certainly, the number of group theatre organizations has increased, so has the number of productions and platforms. Nevertheless, most of the theatre actors living in Bangladesh still have to make ends meet from a second and “real” job.
“Despite being a quintessential part of our social life, theatre has always been deprived of a proper government patronization in Bangladesh, both during the pre and post liberation era. The Pakistani government neglected it as it perceived theatre as somewhat anti-islamic, and consequently it was limited only to the educated class. The legacy of this neglect persisted in the free Bangladesh, the result of which is that I still have to explain what theatre is to University professors, and justify why we need an academic department for it to vice-chancellors,” said Ahmedul Kabir.
He further added, “Local theatre actors still have to pound the pavement in order to find an income to support themselves and their families. In many countries government grades and pays actors to professionalize their career, whereas here actors get measly amount, if at all. It is still taken up as a pastime.”
Theatre for redemptive social change
Throughout the history, people’s craving for social change went in hand in hand with theatre. Even today, this particular form of performing art is being widely drawn as a strong weapon to fight socio-political issues in many countries. For instance, after facing the June 5 terrorist attack in Aktobe, when terrorists attacked gun stores and a military base, Kazakhstan government decided to fight extremism with art and started to stage the play ‘Who's knocking at my door?’ all around the country. The play, chronicling the story of a family that fell under the influence of foreign missionaries and eventually fell prey to militancy, was written by one of the country’s senators and was staged across the country. Addressing the rise of violent extremist ideologies in Bangladesh, Dr Kabir identified theatre as the gateway to a reinforced cultural mindset that defies extremism.
Local theatre actors still have to pound the pavement in order to find an income to support themselves and their families
“If school and college going students get acquainted with the philosophy and practices of theatre, they would not be susceptible to extremist ideologies. It can also prevent them from using drugs as an alternative to entertainment since theatre serves as a catharsis and a tool for redemptive social transformation at the same time,” he elaborated.
In the mid 90s, Rupantar, an NGO based in Khulna in SouthWestern Bangladesh, reintroduced ‘Pot Gan’, an indigenous form of theatre performance. In Pot Gan (also known as Potuya Gan), narratives are visually illustrated with scroll paintings. Rupantar, (the organization’s name literally means ‘transformation’) used the campaign to address the challenge of climate change in Bangladesh through recreating, restoring and adopting the ‘indigenous theatrics’ of Pot Gan.
Dr Kabir believes that this is just one facet of the spectrum and a purposeful implementation of theatre and theatrical practice among the youngsters of the country can potentially bring about shift toward a better Bangladesh, which just doesn’t simply excel in the material world, but rather shines in its cultural realm too.