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Connections: Being Badal

Updated September 15, 2013

‘Photographs published in the newspaper along with the article are not that of the writer’

In my first visit to Calcutta in early 1982, one person I wanted to meet was Badal Sircar, the accomplished Bengali playwright and director. But during my initial several days in that overwhelming city nobody I met could tell me about his whereabouts. While I wandered in the city — watching films and plays, visiting places and meeting all sorts of people, I kept asking for a way to reach Badal. At last, I met a young theatre-wallah in Calcutta’s famous high ceilinged coffee house, filled with the loud chatter of a pleasantly chaotic crowd of argumentative Bengalis.

He told me that Badal’s group performed occasionally in a weekly series of theatre events in a small hall curiously called Sindhi Memorial Hall. When I reached the place the next evening, I saw a balding, middle-aged man sitting on a small table outside the main hall selling tickets. He told me that the play being shown that evening was not by Badal’s group but by another similar group performing in the same genre — sans any props. I took out a fifty-rupee note to buy a ticket and the gentleman broke into laughter. The ticket cost one rupee, and even that was voluntary. I got the ticket and he told me the storyline of the play which was, naturally, in Bengali.

The hall was empty except for chairs for the audience lining three walls. I found a man about my age sitting next to me. Waiting for the play to begin, we started chatting. I asked him casually what Bengalis thought about Pakistan. “We don’t think about Pakistan. Why should we? Don’t we have enough problems of our own?” Amit quipped sharply. I laughed and mentioned my unfulfilled desire to meet Badal. The play was beginning when he said, “But why don’t you meet him? He is sitting out there selling tickets”. I was taken aback and as soon as the play got over, dashed out to see if he was still there. Badal — ‘Badal-da’ for everyone around him — smiled when I spoke to him. “Did you ask me if I was him?”

Badal-da told me that his group was invited the next evening to perform at a function of the Kalyani University students’ union, about 50km from Calcutta. They were leaving by train in the afternoon and I was welcome to join if I could pay my way.

Outbound trains leaving a Calcutta station in the evening are really crowded — the city’s population is said to reduce by a third at night. Room was somehow made for the female performers on the wooden seats while men, including Badal-da, sat on newspapers spread on the compartment floor leaning on the wall beneath the windows. I sat next to him, together sipping delicious tea from small, handle-less earthen pots, and he started telling me about his life’s journey from a town-planner in the Calcutta municipality to a full-time theater-person. I mentioned his play And Indrajit, a portion of which featured in English translation in that remarkable Penguin anthology New Writing in India. Badal-da told me that he had abandoned the proscenium theatre some time back in favour of the street theatre which he found better-suited to his dramatic approach. He explained how members of the group were encouraged to use their entire bodies to act without theatrical properties. They were trained to gradually make their bodies flexible and ready to assume any posture. They would even act as a table or a tree. As a part of their training, they were asked to look at the world from positions they were unaccustomed to: sitting on their haunches or lying flat on their back on a busy pavement. Since the kind of theatre Badal-da’s group performed involved collective action, it was necessary that they could trust each other in a physical way as well. Each member in turn would be lifted by a group and thrown in the air only to be safely caught by another group.

Atmosphere on the Kalyani campus was one of great camaraderie. A simple dinner of fish and rice was served. The play was performed in the middle of a circle of spectators and often got them involved in the act. Borges had mentioned an actor “who on a stage plays at being another before a gathering of people who play at taking him for that other person”, but here there was hardly a difference between the performer and the spectator. After the performance and warm goodbyes, we boarded a nearly-empty train to return to Calcutta. Members of the group were joyous after a successful performance and sang and danced all the way back, enlivening the quiet early morning scene.

Next time I got to see Badal-da in Lahore in the 1990s. Invited by a theatre group (perhaps Ajoka) he was giving a workshop for Pakistani theatrewalas. I came to know of his presence in Lahore on my way to the airport, but I wanted to have a glimpse of him before leaving. I saw him sitting in the middle of a young, enthusiastic theatre crowd, talking animatedly. He looked much older and had grown a cute beard. I left without having a word with him.

After enriching theatre in Bengal and elsewhere for several decades, Badal Sircar died in May 2011.