It was a gathering of strangers. But all of them had one common thought, to come together in a place that had for so long been forced to keep its shutters down, forcing the art and music- that reverberated through its walls- to come to a halt. September 21 was supposed to change that.
Amidst the new normal, Kolkata geared up to welcome theatre performances in its open-air grounds after a hiatus of over 5 months.
Despite a thundershower forecast in the evening, artists geared up to put their best foot forward at the open-air theatres at Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre(EZCC). Rangmancha, the ground inside EZCC had been painted in various colours, indicating the ‘social distance’ the audience members were supposed to maintain from each other. A volunteer allowed people inside only after checking their temperature with a thermal gun. Everyone wore masks.
Speaking to News18, EZCC Director Gouri Basu said, “Our seating capacity is 400 guests but we have only allowed 100 for today’s event. Even the performers maintained distance when they were on stage. Till now, we have tried to boost the morale of the artists through the online platform. But the stage, lights and a live audience is what a true artist craves. As a cultural centre, we had been yearning to have the performances back," Basu said.
She says she has been approached by several youngsters who wish to put together performances. But the way ahead is not going to be a smooth ride.
Even as Unlock 4 guidelines are being implemented across the country and the Bengal government have allowed for open-air shows while maintaining effective safety protocols, artists are struggling to get back on the stage they have loved to perform on.
After Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown post the ‘Junta Curfew’ on March 22, theatre and all other forms of live performances were halted to arrest the spread of Coronavirus.
As days turned to weeks and then to months- performers, directors, makeup artists, stage lighting contractors- all stared at dwindling resources. People took up different professions to provide for their families while staring at an economic crunch. Some left the city to go back to their hometowns and took up farming, others took to working for cab companies. In short, whatever helped them to stay afloat.
Tathagata Chaudhuri, a theatre director/actor who is part of a performance group- ‘Sanghram’ that has performed in India and even abroad, said their team had earlier decided to do a performance on August 15 as part of Independence Day celebrations. But the team was deterred due to the rising cases of Coronavirus.
“So when the government gave its nod to organise open-air events, we staged a drama act at the National Mime Institute in Saltlake. Although we had about 40 people attending on the first day and it was mostly through word of mouth, people came in enthusiastically and some even were ready to pay more for the show. This shows how much Kolkata was starved for a dose of theatre," he says.
But Chaudhuri feels that despite the hardships faced by the actors, there’s one silver lining. “A lot of the performances in and around the city were limited to the usual group of theatre halls like Madhushudhan Mancha, Girish Mancha or the Gyan Mancha till now. But as these enclosed structures are posing a risk to the public, people are innovating and the vast canvas of the theatre can be explored, given that the artists have to now think outside the box."
City artist Gambhira Bhattacharjee, a theatre artist, however, says he doesn’t want to rush things trying to get back to the theatre with any compromises. A staunch advocate of theatre in its purest form, Bhattacharjee doesn’t want the art form to dilute its sanctity by making it readily available through a video link. “How can I let a boka baksho (idiot box) take over such a personal form of creativity? It will turn it into a mechanical feeling!"
Freelance actor Sanjita echoes Bhattacharjee’s line of thought. “We love performing live. During lockdown we did a lot of projects where we remotely shot portions sitting in our homes and compiled them into a short film but those only satiate a fraction of the urge we feel to perform in front of an audience. We have been looking at open spaces to perform, be it someone’s terrace or an old and airy warehouse which we then transformed into a theatre hall to give it a creative vibe."
Help has been scarce. Some of the acclaimed actors from the theatres have indeed reached out and senior artists like Anirban Bhattacharya and Joyraj Bhattacharya and many others have set up relief funds for the contractual workers associated with the art form.
The problem, as Monalisa Das, a theatre artist involved with acclaimed theatre group Chetana, puts it is that theatre in the state does not have a parent body to fall back upon as television or films do. “The lack of a support system has been detrimental to the welfare of the theatre groups because there is absolutely no one who can take our grievances to the government. As such, the artists have only been able to get bare minimum help from those who have extended it."
Famed film and theatre actor Kaushik Sen has also founded a relief group titled ‘Soubhratitya’ that aims to help those associated with theatre. Bratya Basu also came forward and helped around 400 affected artists and technicians. The Paschim Banga Natya Academy has also reached out to several theatre groups with monetary help.
Meanwhile, Bhattacharjee has started an initiative along with several other local youths to provide bike rides to people who have been finding it difficult to find rides to commute to their workplaces. It’s an earning and it’s paying the bills, he asserts. “But I am helping people in times of duress, in whatever small way it is. I know things will get better, it will just take a while," he signs off.