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20 April, 2008

Kolkata theatre group faces ostracism for protesting against Nandigram outrage

The following is a communication which members of the well known theatre group Swapnasandhani have sent to fellow theatre workers:

We are writing this to you with grave concern.

You might all be aware of the grisly incident that took place in Nandigram (West Bengal) on 14th March 2007. This incident sparked off a major protest throughout West Bengal. In Kolkata, the common citizen finally woke up and realized that it was time they made their voices heard. Quite expectedly, the government greeted these voices with scorn, ridicule and a lot of resentment. The protests, however, have not died down. It is still continuing in various forms – through individuals, non-political civil bodies, etc.

We, as conscious theatre workers, did not remain silent either. In fact, the resignation of 14 members (theatre practitioners) from the Paschim Banga Natya Akademi was one of the first visible marks of
protest that followed the horrific incident at Nandigram.

More than a year has passed since. Over this period of time we have been noticing a silent campaign being run by the ruling party and its aide in branding the so-called different voices as reactionary forces with allegations ranging from being pro-opposition to pro-Maoists. Swapnasandhani, like many other groups/individual performers, has not been able to avoid such branding. However, being a theatre group we believe it is our responsibility to react to the surroundings and thus have continued doing both – pursue our theatre as well as continue to protest.

It might be worth mentioning that over the last one year, we have noticed a remarkable decline in the number of invited performances in our calendar. To put it simply – people/organizations have stopped
inviting us to perform for them. We would like to reinstate that we are not the lone sufferers. Many other groups are facing the same.

Lack of invited performances means:
• Lack of revenues coming into the group
• Lack of opportunity to perform outside one's periphery
• Lack of opportunity to perform in the outskirts of Kolkata, where we believe the audience is at times more mature than in Kolkata

So, this is one way of crippling us both financially and aesthetically.

At this point we would like to share with you in a chronological way a very recent experience of ours.

March 3: We were approached by the festival committee of Balipur Melatala High School to perform a play of our choice at the 50th Birth Anniversary Celebration of the school. We proposed to perform the play DAKGHAR (Post Office by Rabindranath Tagore). However, the representatives of the festival committee requested us to think about some other play since our interpretation of DAKGHAR contained comments on the contemporary political scenario. We obliged and proposed to perform the play BONKUBABUR BONDHU (based on a short story by Satyajit Ray). They instantly agreed and fixed up the show to be held on 17th of April 2008.

March 7: The secretary of the festival committee visited our group to formally book the show by giving us a formal invitation letter and an advance of Rs. 3000.

March 10: We received a call from a teacher of the school informing us that the show stands cancelled. On pressing him to divulge the reason, he referred us to talk to the headmaster. So we did, but got no proper answer. Then we spoke with the secretary of the festival committee (who had come to pay us the advance). He categorically stated that it was due to sheer political pressure being put by the local CPI(M) (namely, the standing MLA of the locality, Sri Banshibadan Moitra) network that they were having to cancel the show. He also informed us that our performances could not be held before the Panchayat elections were over. Later we also received a call from another senior government official from the locality who expressed deep regret at being forced to cancel the show. Helpless as they were, they refused to give us anything on paper citing the reason behind cancellation of the show, neither did they respond to our repeated request to take back the advance they had paid us.

The show eventually did not happen.

We feel it is necessary for us to communicate our (us and all other groups facing the same) experience to the theatre fraternity and concerned citizens. During that phase (between the 10th and the 17th of April) we were advised by quite a few people to approach the CPI(M) leadership based in Kolkata to intervene on the matter and ensure successful hosting of the show. Something that two other theatre
groups based in Kolkata had done recently when their shows were called off in North Bengal. However, we felt not to follow in their footsteps for the following reasons:
• Did the leadership not pay enough attention to these matters to ensure they do not happen again?
• Why can we not go and perform our play as part of a school celebration on our own?
• Is seeking favour from the so-called elite leadership of the ruling party so necessary for ensuring a free and safe performance barely a hundred kilometres away from Kolkata?
• By doing so, will we not endorse a dangerous trend?

We do not claim to have all the answers. We are finding them and would like you to join us with your reactions, statements, advice and responses whatever they are.

Team Swapnasandhani

About Swapnasandhani: The theatre troupe Swapnasandhani was originally founded by the actress Chitra Sen and is now looked after by her son, the actor-director Koushik Sen. Like most of us seeking an alternative way to express ourselves, Swapnasandhani, too, is looking for alternative theatre. The troupe has travelled extensively around the country and abroad and is undoubtedly the best among the city’s younger group theatres.

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