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Group theatre movement: Dhaka Theatre at fifty

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In the very early years of the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the youths involved in the greater arts became impatient to start doing something new. Their goal was to create something fresh --- and completely free of the vestiges of pre-independence times. Music, painting, literature and a few areas had already been in a mature stage; a few of them showing the signs of what would be the character and form of these areas in the coming days. Compared to them, the field of the movies proved the worst --- at least in the first decade. Ironically, a few aesthetically committed directors had already demonstrated their sparks of creative genius in the erstwhile East Pakistan and during the 9-month Liberation War. Zahir Raihan stood out among them, followed by Alamgeer Kabir. The area of the performing arts, which lagged behind the others most wretchedly, was the field of theatre.

A highly popular form of the performing arts centred in the urban areas, especially Dhaka, theatre or stage plays would hardly fail to draw audiences. But the branch of drama also stood witness to an extraordinary event in the areas of performance and presentation in 1972-`73. Few of the audiences were prepared to face this radical shift from conventional theatre presentation to a style quite unheard-of in the country. To speak briefly, the newly independent country, thus, got acquainted with a 'theatre movement', a trend of staging plays free of many traditional techniques. Ranging from acting, stagecraft to the overall presentation, a handful of newly formed theatre groups adopted these techniques to emerge as the voice of the country's theatre. These pioneering drama groups were a handful in the early 1970s. In the following years, the number rose to half a dozen --- the venue shifting to the Mahila Samity Auditorium at Bailey Road from the TSC at Dhaka University (DU).

The 'theatre movement' or the `group theatre movement' based in Dhaka, also partly in Chattogram, ruthlessly banished 'drama' or 'theatrics' from their new plays. Their aim was to highlight the message of the plays by taking recourse to poetry-charged narratives and few dialogues. Although it was mainly the three DU groups, Natyachakra, Bohubochon and Dhaka Theatre, which carried the banner of the 'theatre movement' forward, finally the last two of the three remained committed to their resolve to uphold the cause of the new theatre in the new country. Both Bohubochon and Dhaka Theatre activists adopted the stagecraft and acting style of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. The playwrights and the directors of the two groups were apparently schooled in the theory of the 'Brecht's Alienation'. Thanks to this, the productions of these two groups, especially that of Dhaka Theatre, seemed extraordinary in the context the Bangladesh drama.

After the eventual decline in the production of Bohubochon, playwright Selim Al Deen and director Nasir Uddin Yusuf instilled their all-out efforts to keep Dhaka Theatre alive, and vibrantly at that. Apart from the two, there were a number of talented performers, back-stage workers and technicians who helped the group emerge as a major group theatre platform in the country. Making its debut in 1973, Dhaka Theatre completed its eventful 50-year journey on July 29. During its long survival as an ever-creative 'new theatre' platform, the group presented around 25 outstanding plays. The productions dealt with common but mostly unnoticed contemporary episodes taken from both urban and rural lives. The ever-creative playwright Selim Al Deen (1949-2008) had chosen a broad dramatic canvas to pick his subjects from. Quite often, he turned to popular folk sagas using the village people's daily lifestyle and their dialects. Director Nasir Uddin Yusuf put in the best of his creative efforts in making the productions distinctive. There were half a dozen drama groups in the 1970s and the 80s who turned to experimental plays; but few of them were able to master the ability to reach the level of Dhaka Theatre.

Selim Al Deen and Nasir Uddin Yusuf remained immersed in the task of creating and producing unconventional plays. Their approach to the art of theatre spoke of a new type of creativity, at times devoid of dramatic moments, which completely broke away from the age-old trends of Bangla theatre. In reality, Dhaka Theatre, in commensurate with their character, didn't believe in the very concept of a separate stage. To the group's directorial team led by Nasir Uddin Yusuf, the whole auditorium was their stage. As a result, in a couple of productions, the audience finds the stage erected in the middle of the hall in the style of 'jatra', a rural operetta. In a play based on the relations between humans and trees, the whole auditorium is turned into a stage. In order to show the interactions between the protagonist and the trees in a forest, the director takes up two-thirds of the hall. This particular stagecraft was critically acclaimed as an experiment not seen before in Bangladesh.

A rich creativity and the exceptional stagecraft distinguished the Dhaka Theatre plays from the very beginning. Perhaps the early signs of these features were detected in 'Shorpobishoyok Golpo', 'Explosive O Mool Somosya', 'Mutasir Fantasy', 'Jaundice O Bibidho Balloon' etc. As years wore on, the unique elements of Dhaka Theatre continued to gain maturity in the newer plays. Those were mostly written by Selim Al Deen. The plays included 'Kittonkhola', 'Keramot Mongol', 'Haat Hodai', 'Zoiboti Konyar Mon' etc. Among the latter plays, Deen's 'Bonopangshool' was recognised as a milestone in the Post-Liberation War drama scenario in Bangladesh.

It's interesting to note that alongside the steady rise in the quality of the group theatre plays in Dhaka, newer dedicated activists kept emerging in different parts of the country. There were constraints, though. The new youthful groups could boast of dedicated workers. What they lacked was the consummately creative geniuses like the two who guided Dhaka Theatre. Selim Al Deen and Nasir Uddin Yusuf appeared to have been made for guiding their own group. They would have welcomed newer groups in Dhaka and elsewhere. But thanks to the various limitations facing the newly emerging theatre groups, especially the absence of creative and learned guides, they ran the risk of going astray. Unfortunately, they also met this ill fate. Apart from raising a new-generation audience in the capital, Dhaka Theatre deserves credit for taking the modern theatre to remote villages.

A dramatist always busy thinking of new creative outlets for the masses, different from the elitist plays, Selim Al Deen was eventually found deeply thinking of a different type of theatre, meant for the rural people. He called it 'Gram Theatre'. With the enthusiastic backing of the villagers, 'Gram Theatre' troupes didn't take time to spread to the rural areas around the capital. Like seen in the case of the group's mainstream plays, Deen also emerged as the main source of inspiration for Gram Theatre. In the preparation of scripts for this theatre, Selim Al Deen emphasised a narrative style with emphasis on communicable dialogues. For plots, he turned to obscure but once popular folk tales. Finally, he wanted to give them a modernised form by instilling time-befitting dialogues.

Selim Al Deen left this world on January 14, 2008, at the age of 59. The premature death of this prolific dramatist dealt a great blow to Dhaka Theatre. A bitter truth is the hyperactive group was mostly dependent on Deen for its new plays. Few talented playwrights were groomed for the future. In the absence of new plays, how long the group will be able to retain its younger audience is anybody's guess.

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