Dhaka\'s theatre movement
In a country just tasting independence after a Liberation War, the people invariably feel the urge to embark on a large-scale resurgence. It becomes incumbent on every sector in the national life to jettison the detritus of the past. Keeping the values that are universal in character, the people and their new government welcome novel ideas, as well as the methods applied for those to materialise.
Bangladesh was no exception in its eventful decade after gaining independence in 1971. With its own government in power, the country's politics, economy, social identity, scholarship and other areas underwent a remarkable change. What was most striking, creative activities experienced a veritable renaissance.
The socio-political ambience of the time amply helped all branches of the arts to blossom. New writers, painters, playwrights and film makers kept emerging in the country. Of them, a wide focus was attracted by the field of drama and stage. Breaking with the old tradition of amateur plays, the post-Liberation War period witnessed the phenomenal birth of a theatre movement in the country.
The theatre activists and admirers did not have to wait long for an ideal venue for enjoying these plays. The Mahila Samity Auditorium in Dhaka eventually turned into a humble Broadway for Dhaka's stage buffs.
After remaining closed for five years, the Mahila Samity Auditorium opened to theatre lovers on last February 28. Given the outstanding role played by the hall, its re-opening was generally viewed as a great event in the theatre world of the capital. The auditorium had been shut down for its structural overhaul and renovation.
After reopening, the Mahila Samity Auditorium wears a fresh look, with lots of its aging facilities and technical devices replaced by new ones. The hall, located on Bailey Road, is officially called Dr. Neelima Ibrahim Auditorium.
Most of the group-theatre shows these days take place at the four state-of-the-art halls at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy in the capital. These halls include a main hall and one specially designed for experimental plays. Yet people still feel nostalgic about performances at the Mahila Samity Auditorium.
The shows at that hall began in the early seventies, in 1973 to be precise. In fact, in independent Bangladesh, it was this auditorium in Dhaka which had witnessed the radical transformation of our theatre --- from pastime entertainments to an iconoclastic drama movement.
Committed and talented young playwrights, directors, artistes and technicians have since kept the movement alive. In a sense, the auditorium became a metonymy for the newer trends in the country's post-independence drama.
Apart from the groups based in the capital, those from the other cities were also found staging their shows in Dhaka. The Mahila Samity Auditorium thus eventually earned for itself a stellar place in the country's drama world.
Due mainly to this, after its reopening the drama people and enthusiasts greeted the event as great news. As had been expected, a drama festival marked the hall's spectacular reopening. It started on February 28 and concluded on March 31.
The month-long event was organised by Bangladesh Group Theatre Federation. Successful plays from various groups' repertoire were brought onstage as part of the festival.
The Mahila Samity hall now has a redesigned main stage and proscenium. The auditorium's acoustics and lighting system have undergone a drastic change.
The latest stage-craft has been added, with the sitting arrangement ensuring a comfortable time for the audience during shows. With these major developments in place, a number of groups have started mulling staging their plays at the auditorium. The irresistible appeal of Mahila Samity Auditorium is understandable.
The theatre activists discover in it the very cradle of the movement for new theatre in Bangladesh. In fact, the new-age plays of the independent country began evolving and taking a tangible shape at this venue. They marked a clear break with the past.
However, many would like to identify the Teacher-Student Centre (TSC) at Dhaka University as the birthplace of the country's new theatre.
In the post-Liberation War Bangladesh with the cultural landscape reeling from the traumas of genocide and an all-out war, the poets and playwrights came up with their vibrantly fresh creations.
They emerged in groups, everyone having a common message: 'We'll create a new path.' They did not fail to register their dreams, as well as the short bouts of disillusionment, in their works. In the field of drama, the nation got playwrights like Selim Al Din, Farhad Mazhar, Shahnoor Khan, Mujib Bin and many others.
There were directors like Nasiruddin Yousuf Bachchu, M Hamid, Al Monsur el al. A highly gifted array of artistes appeared on stage in the plays produced by Natyachakra, Bahubachan and Dhaka Theatre.
Outside the Dhaka University campus, a few groups with relatively senior playwrights, artistes and directors began staging plays.
These groups included Nagorik and Theatre in the main, with Aly Zaker, Ataur Rahman, Ramendu Majumdar, Abdullah Al Mamun, Ferdousi Majumdar, Sarah Zaker and others as active theatre personalities. With the joining of Syed Shamsul Haque, Mamunur Rashid et al a little later, the Dhaka's theatre scenario soon was bursting at the seams with creative surges.
In the meantime, theatre-going in Dhaka underwent a kind of revolution. Watching stage plays at the Mahila Samity Auditorium was not for free any more. Theatre groups opened ticket counters at the hall entrance like at the cinemas.
Barring faint opposition from some viewers at the start, watching plays on tickets finally stayed on. It was the ranking theatre groups and the Mahila Samity authorities which had played a pioneering role in making drama watching a recreation on payment.
The Bailey Road auditorium will go down in the history of Bangladesh theatre as a landmark institution. Except the 5-year gap for renovation, it has firmly held aloft the beacon of hope and inspiration for the country's drama movement for four decades.
It has to be credited with helping in the birth of scores of amateur groups, many of which later emerged as nationally and regionally famed ensembles.
Besides depicting the realities of the Liberation War and the political movements preceding it, the theatre groups have left few socio-political movements untouched. Many of the plays adopted satirical forms to attack social orthodoxies and bigotry.
The theatre groups' stance against autocracy earned for them the ire of the rulers. They had to fight against the veiled suppressive measures that descended on them. Aside from the performances with socio-political message, a few theatre groups had also turned to pure subjective contents.
Existentialist themes and those bordering on the absurd attracted a group of playwrights. Some others wonderfully blended absurdity and folk themes. Enriched with these thematic variety and newer experiments with forms, the Dhaka drama groups by the mid-nineties defined a significant segment of the country's cultural life.
Dhaka can rightfully boast its past rich with intermittent phases of stage activities. In the earlier times, the theatre activities centred round mainly Laalkuthi in old Dhaka. After travelling a couple of auditoriums, the drama enthusiasts settled for Mahbub Ali Institute near Gulistan, with occasional visits to Iskandar Mirza Hall, now Engineers' Institute.
With the mainstream theatre activities now centring round the Shilpakala Academy, Mahila Samity may not immediately get back its past glory. Given this fact, the theatre groups can keep the auditorium reserved for highly experimental and avant-garde plays. Productions with dissident, nonconformist views could also be given space here.
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