Sunday, 19 November 2017

A long march with theater

The work is nearing to the end, the long three years journey with theater. Actually it's more than three years. So, I thought it’s good to pen down everything as a chronicle, the entire experience, success and failures as well . It’s always wonderful and important to retrospect any work. It provides a lot of rooms for improvements for future projects. I had been thinking  to work on performing art for quite long time, not exactly theater. But I decided to work on theater in mid 2014 and started researching. Though theater was not completely foreign to me, I had a family background of art and theater, but still it was needed to delve into it before committing any long term project. Moreover theater in Bengal has a long history with different elements. It has passed through different shades and time with a lot of evolution. Those were needed to be analyzed closely.

In the initial stage of the research I decided to go conventional way of classical documentation. But as time passes on, I realized that this way is going to be boring and monotonous. So, I gave emphasis on further reading and taking notes. I spent hours in libraries, especially at Natya Sodh Sankstan, a vast archive and library of theater at Salt Lake. I really grateful to them. They provided me a huge collection of old articles and pictures on Bengal Theater. My first job was to find out what has been done already in the context of Indian theater in terms of the medium photography. I did not want to reinvent the wheel. I found only two works (may be more), one was done by veteran photographer Neemai Ghosh and another one is by Sobha Deepak Singh. I found both the works are not actually a constructive documentation or cohesive body of work, rather a huge collection of some production stills taken for a long period of time with some legendary theater personalities of India. The works were not talking in depth about the personal lives of those people or anyone beyond the celebrity circles. Those works are actually a collection of some single images on theater. The next step was to find out anything exists in other mediums like movie, fiction or non-fiction etc. There I found a lot of materials. Those materials really helped me to generate my own path. I continued the study. I meet few people, especially some researchers and scholars who were working on theater that time. I got few inputs from them. But, still I was undecided about the exact path I should follow to start the work. I was basically moving around without any exact point of interest. Still I did not have the answer of 'WHY'.

One day I was browsing through internet and came across an article on Russian theater and its influence in India. I encountered Moscow Art Theater (MAT) and its rich history. That created a permanent impression in my mind about theater in completely different dimension. That changed my whole perspective towards theater. That is the first time I read about Constantine Stanislavsky, one of the founders of MAT. I started reading more on Stanislavsky and his famous system on actors preparation. I got the answer and decided to start the work around Inner Realism and Emotional Memory which is a part of Stanislavsky’s system.

Before going further it’s good to have a brief background of the concept. Here are some excerpts from Wikipedia,

Stanislavski's system is a systematic approach to training actors that the Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski developed in the first half of the 20th century.Stanislavski was the first in the West to propose that actor training should involve something more than merely physical and vocal training.His system cultivates what he calls the "art of experiencing" (with which he contrasts the "art of representation").It mobilizes the actor's conscious thought and will in order to activate other, less-controllable psychological processes—such as emotional experience and subconscious behavior—sympathetically and indirectly.In rehearsal, the actor searches for inner motives to justify action and the definition of what the character seeks to achieve at any given moment (a "task").
Later, Stanislavski further elaborated the system with a more physically grounded rehearsal process that came to be known as the "Method of Physical Action". Minimizing at-the-table discussions, he now encouraged an "active analysis", in which the sequences of dramatic situations are improvised. "The best analysis of a play", Stanislavski argued, "is to take action in the given circumstances."
Thanks to its promotion and development by acting teachers who were former students and the many translations of Stanislavski's theoretical writings, his system acquired an unprecedented ability to cross cultural boundaries and developed an international reach, dominating debates about acting in the West.Stanislavski’s ideas have become accepted as common sense so that actors may use them without knowing that they do.

To know more about his methods one has to read some books, like Actors Prepare, Building a Character, Creating a Role etc. I collected all these and started reading extensively along with the articles, videos from internet. I spent almost seven months on the research in both directions, to know more about Stanislavsky and the history of Bengali TheaterBy that time the picture was completely clear to me. 

My next step was to find out a group or a person to start. I was quite sure that I would do this work in collaboration where I was expecting same level of commitments from opposite side. So, it was a daunting task to find that. Although there are plenty of groups are operating in Kolkata, but getting something exactly what I was looking for, was being tough and being an outsider was increasing the pain little further. It was also necessary for me to know about theater in depth and it was only possible in collaboration.

So, I kept searching and met a lady named Panchali Kar. She was a part of a theater group named Akto and got to know about the group in more details. She said their group is quite new, just few months old and they are working under a very experienced theater personality. I was quite sure that I would not work with any celebrity group. So, this group was perfect in that respect. But that had to be ready in collaborative manner. Panchali told me to send a short description to the director of the group Srideep Chatterjee about my work and intention. I sent that and within a few days I got a welcome call from them and started a long collaboration which is still going on. Mr. Chatterjee has more than twenty years of experience in stage theater with various groups. He has a strong family background of theater too. He founded this group from the urge of creating something different with some very young people without any stage theater experience that time. 

After that I started attending their rehearsals regularly at Srideep’s central Kolkata residence which is itself a charming place with some old world characteristics to practice any art. I had a separate attraction of that place beyond this work for this reason and the tea prepared by wife of Srideep Chatterjeer. It felt like heaven. So, that is the beginning and it was early 2015.

Initial few days I decided to observe their rehearsals only. Simultaneously I was taking notes about their body language, appearance, mental state, different actions etc.  One guy named Swarnava was with me to assist in this work; eventually he got interested in theater and started participating in group activities. But he could not continue as he had to travel a total of three to four hours from his home to attend the rehearsals. So, he left everything unfortunately. After few days, I started taking informal interviews of the members and trying to know more about their lives, dreams and directions. I was trying to understand their psychological orientation while talking with them informally. I used some psychological methods to read all these too. It was very necessary for this work. It gave me enough room to observe each and everyone in detail.

In initial stages of this work, I tried to take less number of photographs and as the time passes on I picked that up gradually. They were very small young group with just five, six members with a full energy that time and it really helped me to get close to all of them very quickly. Eventually I became a part of the group and a lone distant witness of their creative processes.

They were preparing two short plays that time for their first ever production. One was in English named I rise in flame, cried the phoenix by Tennessee Williams and another one is Ore Bihanga by Badal Sircar in Bengali. It was really difficult to make any big production within a short span of time and that is too with a small young group with limited stage experience. It was really a big challenge to them. Sridip Chatterjee has a lot of experience in Stage Theater, but not all the other members. So, his main challenge was to align others in same line to make the production successful.  There was no point to make an ordinary production with same cliche concept which was already being done by a lot of other groups. They started doing mental and physical workshops before starting any rehearsals. Most of these workshops were used to happen at the terrace of his house and I attended almost all of them in a period of five, six months. These workshops helped me to generate a lot of ideas. I got numerous knowledge about various elements related to acting. I saw him being ruthless, angry and same time passionate to get the work done. Some of the members left the group in this course. One point of time only four/five members were left in the group and there was a big question mark to their upcoming production. They had to try few people outside of the group to work in temporary basis. Finally they got away from that and the production was staged on 14 November, 2015 at Gyan Manch, a leading theater auditorium in Kolkata. They got very good response from the audience.

So, the journey went on and they did more productions after that. I continued my work with them as usual. After one point of time I realized that I have done enough documentation of the theatrical process and time has come to go into deep. So, my job was to identify few people within the group and analyzed their characteristics from their daily life point of view. The first thing I did that to take their detail interviews at their places. I asked various questions regarding their theatrical as well as personal lives. Those interviews went on for next few months. I collected a huge amount of data. That really helped me to figure out my next action. Another thing which went into my favor that there were very few members in the group who were acting and I concentrated on those only, otherwise that could have been a bit tougher to handle. The next action was to analyze those collected data and figure out some unique traits those might create a psychological conflicts with their theater lives. That might be their jobs or family or something else. I wanted to go into their core of their hearts. I wanted to nurture their emotional balance and these emotional aspects help or hinder their theatrical aspects. I also analyzed their characters on stage what they were portraying. It was very much important as that is the main source point of conflict to an actor. Actors, whether they are in theater or cinema, have to live multiple lives. But it is more difficult for the theater actors, because everything is happening in front of the eyes of the audience as live. A mistake is considered as mistake only. There is no chance of retake. So, the different stages of conflicting mind and fighting through it, is not a matter of joke. Very few people can do that and that is the single point of distinguishing factor between a good and a bad actor. This process went on very long time. I visited their homes, work places, traveled with them (except toilet) multiple times. I spent hours after hours with them. I spent time with their families to understand the synergies. An actor grows with experiences from the surroundings and to understand an actor one has to study the environment where the actor lives and grows. Otherwise one can only find the outer skin which is visible to anyone. I created some staged situation out of the stage to simulate the acting environments where an actor gazes past everyday. Stanislavsky once said that those are regarded as good actors who can train their subconscious mind effectively. It’s very necessary to understand the subconscious mind in order to be a good actor. Otherwise anyone can memorize a dialogue. Will the person be considered as a good actor? Everyone knows the answer, I guess.

It took me almost two years to wrap up this part and I spent most of the time in it as this is the main part of this project. I already told that I never had any intention to document or report any issue related to Bengal Theater. But those are part of the project as supporting elements obviously.

Let’s go to other aspects now. It’s better to call it some bitter or failed aspects related to the work. It’s quite obvious that you must have some bitter experiences during the course of a work. I faced more harrowing experiences in my previous works and these are very small compared to those. But, I think it’s good to document everything, especially when someone is demonstrating his experiences in a long term project.

First experience was that some of the members initially reluctant to cooperate fully, though this number is very low compared to the cooperating members. I do not know what they thought actually about this work as well as me. May be they considered me as a guy who is moving aimlessly on the street and spending some free time with the group with his expensive device like everyone else out here nowadays. But later they gradually came into the course after understanding everything. After that I never faced any problem. I faced another kind of problem much later when the group had grown up with a lot of new members after their initial success. They were completely unaware about my intention with the group. Some of them used to interrupt the shooting process, intentionally or unintentionally I do not know. Even I received some loose comments. Finally I requested one of the senior members to make them understand what I am doing here and the problem got resolved. The meaning of collaboration is most of the time misunderstood, I have seen. At the same time the responsibility to communicate everything properly to the other side is on the person who is doing the work too. He must have the command over the situation. Perhaps, I failed here a bit initially. 

Second problem I faced was with another group. Initially I thought to conduct this work with three groups in an extended period of time and I approach another young group in Howrah. They accepted my proposal and I started working with them.  But few days later, again I faced some issues while interacting with the members. I could not figure out the issue at the early stage and thought it is the same issue which I faced earlier. So, I increased my frequency of visit and interacted more with them. Even I wrote a small article in their magazine about this work. But this problem could not be eradicated. The main building block of this work is based on the personal lives of the actors. I need to understand their inner psyche. It’s not taking some production or rehearsal snaps from few days of visit. It requires deep understanding of the actors from a point of view outside of their staged life. Unfortunately I could not get these with them which I got completely in Akto. May be the director treated me as a same casual snapper just spending some time with a theater group or may be a photographer out here to build his own portfolio. I as a photographer took full responsibility of this and left the group. May be I failed to make him understand my motto. I have already told that the meaning of collaboration is hardly got understood here as almost everyone treat it as a one way traffic. But, as I spent almost seven months before walk out, I have plenty of pictures. Now I use those pictures as promotional purposes only. Those pictures will not be a part of the final work unfortunately.

Next I encountered a very strange problem. I had been following the work of a young group for quite long time. I must admit that they have been doing some really good works. The group had only two members and whenever they require any more people for any upcoming production, they simply hire them on demand basis. I really liked the approach as it is quite new concept in Bengali theater. I knew one of them and approach to continue the work on them. I met him at his residence and he was very excited after getting the project details and we decided to start the work two weeks later. Meanwhile he would talk with his partner. But, when I next time called him to start the work two weeks later, he started whining and requested me to delay the work few more weeks. I agreed. Few weeks later when I called again, I got same reply. So, I understood everything, but I did not understand the reason behind it which I still don’t know. It’s fine that they did not want to be a part of this project, but surprisingly they did not have the guts to talk about that clearly as a theater worker.

So, I finally decided not to work with any other group and continued working with Akto. Later I thanked myself for this decision as the work really stood up with a single group and I concentrated fully in a singular mission with limited people. It worked well.

 But the situation of limited people in the group was not true after certain period of time. The people here in Kolkata came to know about the group after first three performances and many joined later. So, within a very short period of time the number of members went very high. From that time onward people started taking the group seriously. Promotions in social media also helped them to some extent. They staged three more plays back to back in last two and half years in different formats and that tradition is still going on.

So, this is my entire journey so far. The wok will be finished very soon and I really cherish last three years with them. Before finishing off I would like to put some points on Bengali Theater as a whole as my experience in last three years. I apologize that I could not go to the small towns beyond Kolkata and Howrah because of some constraints, mainly financial. I tried hard to get a grant for this work. But unfortunately nobody has time for these kind of works. I know that some groups are really doing great. If I get any chance in future, I will definitely go and have a look of their works. 

If we look at the history, theater in Bengal is more than hundred years old. But current form of group theater was introduced much later. Group theater was first introduced in early 1940s with movement of Indian Peoples Theater Association (IPTA) by some leftist personalities where most of the prominent faces were from Bengal. So, Bengal has a larger contribution to shape the Indian Theater. Communist movements and left leaning philosophy shaped the structure of the Kolkata Theater in large scale. But if we look at the current state, the question comes into my mind that how much progress we have made since then. Have we transformed it to a different level? Have we created any path breaking new form? Yes, Mr. Badal Sircar initiated third theater beyond f the conventional proscenium form. But except that is there anything else? I guess the answer is no. Please correct me if I am wrong. After more than seventy years the structure is still part-time. An actor still cannot expect money from here. An actor has to do some other jobs to make living. Yes, some groups manage to provide compensation to some actors. But to whom? Only to the established one. And which are the groups able to do this? The answer is the groups with influential people who can manage to get government or corporate funds.  The number of such groups is very low. So, we cannot consider this as overall scenario. Nobody here care about the young small groups. They struggle to bring audience to their shows. If the shows are on weekdays, it’s better to forget everything. The meager earning from ticket sales are entirely eaten up by the huge production cost. The light provider, or the makeup artist or the auditorium provider is not working here out of their passion, but the actors are. So, it’s a norm not to give any money to the actors. If you want to earn money, you have to find TV serials or cinema. Theater is not for you. A lot of talented actors, especially male, leave theater midway and look for jobs outside.  Now the question is, if the structure becomes fully professional, will all the problems be solved? Certainly it’s not. But few problems can be addressed, if not solved completely. Now the next question would be at what cost? Everyone knows money can be flown to any art from two different sources. First one is the Government and second one is the corporate. Government money is limited, so it’s reachable to few groups only. In second option there is a fear of losing control on the content. If corporate provide money, they may want to decide about the content as well which will be totally unacceptable to the theater fraternity here. This is quite obvious. And also it’s very difficult for the left leaning theater circle to work with corporate directly. So, money is required to sustain, then that has to be either from government or from the public. Getting public money is also very difficult as theater is watched by a handful of niche educated people and most of them prefer to spend their money on big celebrities and rests watch TV serials or go to cinema. But a new trend has been started, mainly among the small groups, to conduct shows in collaboration where the rent of the auditorium is shared mainly. It reduces the bleeding to some extent. It is also lucrative to the audience as they can watch multiple plays of different groups with a single ticket. But, if I talk honestly, Kolkata theater is not in a good shape. Still we do not have a single drama school in Bengal. Aspiring actors have to depend on their luck to get a good mentor or director to learn. Nepotism, over used narrow political content, lack of courage to go for new creative dimension has created a permanent deadlock on progress of Bengali Theater with very few exceptions of course. Almost everyone is trying to do the same thing again and again without doing any experiment. It's getting stagnant. One should not go by the outside glitter, it is needed to be inspect the underline strains. Unfortunately those strains are getting bigger everyday. People here are too much concerned about the technicalities and grandeur, not the content. I still believe that Bengal can produce world class actors. It has the potential and we have done that in past. It is just required to have a constructive approach and stop celebrating the mediocrity. Any art is a medium of practice. One has to enjoy and live with the process. But instead of that, we are being indulged extensively to show off. We are in a hurry to create our identity at any cost. It takes years to build a mansion, but a moment is enough to destroy that. Loosing relevance is the single most dangerous thing for any art. So, to keep the relevance intact, one has to evolve and be creative at the same time through the process.

This system has been survived for so long because of the tremendous dedication, passion and support of the people who directly work here and it will be survived in future as well, in my opinion. They should not care about the numbers or the money. That was the main motto of the IPTA as opposed to entertainment based professional theater. Theater is not for nugatory entertainment. There are plenty of other things for that. That is why it’s exclusive and any exclusive thing is always available to limited people only. The main purpose of the theater must be to work as a mirror of the society, a different medium for people’s movement. Not necessarily it has to be a left movement.

So, I end here. The opinions are completely mine whatever I have seen in last few years. It's definitely not necessary to agree with me. I would like to thank again Sridip Chatterjee and the team Akto for giving me the opportunity to work with them. It has been a wonderful experience altogether. I would also like to thank to those groups with whom I could not work. Only one earnest and humble request is please be honest and clear, if you consider yourself a theater worker. Rests come much later. I must pay tribute to Constantine Stanislavsky for inspiring the entire generations of theater workers worldwide and me as well to conduct this work.

The entire work will be available very soon and the name has been decided as I am still searching myself, but not sure in which form. I am trying hard to publish a book. But, the same question comes here as well. Who will give the money? I do not have money for full blown self-publication. I may try to publish it in very limited edition copies or may be free completely. Big publishers do not care any work from any unknown author, especially in a country like India and small publishers do not have enough resource to publish a photo book. So, everything comes in the same circle. Not only the publisher, I faced some difficulty to find a good writer for this project as well. There are huge amount of text associated with this project along with the pictures and I was looking for a writer for that purpose. I asked a lot of people. Some of my friends tried too. But everyone failed. No one is ready to work with an unknown person without any fixed remuneration. I never wanted a clerk. I was looking for another stake holder and partner for this project and ready to share the earning after the publication, not any fees. Unfortunately everyone is out here for instant fame. Finally I decided to do everything by my own including writing. So, I will definitely try my level best to publish. It is not only for me, it’s for the thousands of unknown dedicated theater workers in this country who are working tirelessly without expecting anything. I dedicate this work to all of them.