AK Azad Shetu was one of the five narrators for the three-hour long archaeological play ‘Mahasthan,’ which was staged in Mahasthangar. In a conversation with the Dhaka Tribune Showtime’s Al Faruque Ratul, Shetu talks about his career as a theatre artiste, and his experience of working in ‘Mahasthan’
How long have you been working in theatre? When did you start?
I started acting in 1994. In 1998, I joined Centre for Asian Theatre (CAT), a professional theatre group. I am still with them. I have done a total of 25 productions. Some were special projects for children and street theatre. A total of 18 productions were for stage.
Do you only act or do you do other things in theatre?
My first priority is getting an acting role. However, I also do set design, and choreography from time to time.
What is the main incentive for theatre actors in Bangladesh? Do they get paid for their work?
There is no payment system. Almost all theatre actors act out of the passion they have for theatre. All the work is voluntary in most cases.
CAT was different, as it was registered as an NGO. Most of our productions were funded internationally. All the CAT performers were paid salary for their office duty. In our case office duty meant practicing for our next production. Our biggest project at CAT was from Norway.
What kind of challenges do theatre actors face in this country?
Well, the challenges are the same as any other industry. People feel that they are not getting the proper respect that they deserve. Sometime, there are accusations of one person’s opportunity being stolen by someone else. The real challenge is time management. As most theatre actors have other jobs for their livelihood, getting everyone together for rehearsal is definitely a challenge.
How did you get involved with the “Mahasthan” project? How was the overall experience?
Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy director general, Liaquat Ali Lucky, who is also the director for “Mahasthan,” wanted me to work in this production. I am very happy that I agreed, as the experience was mind-blowing. I performed as one of the five narrators for this three hour long play. There were a total of 350 performers, and if I were to count all the people involved with the production, the number will exceed 500. 250 performers were just from Bogra and Gobindaganj.
All of us have been practising for one year to realize the play. We began in November of last year. Since it is a historical play all of us had to do extensive “table-work,” which means studying history. I learned a lot of history while working on this play. Even the person, who wrote the play, Selim Mozahar, had to consult extensively with archaeologists for years before writing this play.
I will describe my own experience as very enlightening. I did not know so much about history. I did not know till which location in India Alexander was able to capture with conquests, and when he had to leave. I did not know that Bogra alone has like 10 to 12 archaeological sites.
In the play, we decided to focus on specific moments in this 2,500-year long history of the place, and explored different emperors from new perspectives. When we dealt with myths, such as how Buddha might have visited Mahasthangar, we mentioned it as contemporary story of that time. We also got to know, that the academic and literary scene at this location in different points of history was very rich. Buddhist communities were in prominence during those times, and people from different parts of the world came to this region for knowledge. That is why I say, the work on this play have been very enlightening.
How was the experience of working with performers from different cities?
The experience was so good, that throughout the rehearsal I kept thinking: “This is why people do theatre. To work with new people!” The actors from Bogra and Gobindaganj are very professional. They have been working tirelessly in their respective locality since November last year, just as we have. We have all been going over the scripts, editing it where required and generally being on the same page. We also spent some time finalizing the improvisational bits. Instructors from Bogra and Gobindaganj came to Dhaka sometimes to work with us. All the performers practiced together for just five days, including the performance. The synchronization was mind-blowing. This play will forever remain an epitome of great teamwork. The energy was that good.
Have there been other plays like “Mahasthan”?
Yes. This is actually a fourth production in a series. These plays are called archaeological plays, a new form of theatre that was initiated by Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy with the help of Ministry of Cultural Affairs. I myself also think of them as environmental plays, as so many environmental aspects are involved in the performance. The first production was “Shompor Kothon,” set in Paharpur. I was a choreographer for that play. The second one was set in Narshingdi’s Wari-Bateshwar ruins and titled with the same name as the archaeological site. There was a production in Sonargaon, which was in the traditional Jatra format and it was titled, “Isa Kha.” I expect all the archaeological sites will be highlighted through such theatre. And I think it is a very good initiative to teach history in an entertaining way. These kinds of initiatives bring back interest in theatre. When mass audience shows interest in an industry, then more improvements can happen. I myself suggested that a production should happen every weekend at “Mahasthan.” The actors could come every weekend and may be given an honorarium as incentive. What I can say for now is that Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy is definitely thinking of new ways of improving theatre in Bangladesh.