A Critical Survey of Bangladesh Theatre

Shafi Ahmed*

Abstract

This is an attempt to briefly introduce Bangladesh (erstwhile a part of India and Pakistan) theatre to the international audience. For reasons of linguistic similarities and common cultural heritage, Bangladesh claims a rightful share in the dramatic literature and theatrical practices with three neighboring Indian states. However, Bangladesh went through very cruel and critical political crises (1947–71) marked by bloodshed leading to war. Two decades of cultural movement and, thereafter, the people’s confrontation with religious fundamentalism led to some distinct theatre practices in this country. This essay seeks to offer a short historiographic survey of the evolution of Bangladesh theatre.  

Keywords: culture, liberation war, social relevance, folk forms, adaptation, gender, politics 

Introduction

Theatre is an ancient cultural pursuit across the world, and Bangladesh is no exception. Performances of numerous forms grew across centuries and communities. With the British colonization in mid-eighteenth century, the practices of popular culture started experiencing some strange and strong jerks leading to the origin of hitherto unknown “metropolitan” theatre against the existing multiple forms of country performances. Colonial domination infiltrated fast into the social, cultural and instructional domains. As an inevitably percolating result, the Bengalis came to know of the European “proscenium” theatre.

Interestingly, but at the cost of being unfair to the centuries-old traditional performances, many academic researchers verify 1795 as the origin of Bengali theatre. Calcutta, the then capital of British India, saw in that year two theatre performances on the proscenium stage. These were Bengali translations by Goloknath Dash of two European plays, one by Molière and one by an Englishman, Richard Paul Jodrell. A third European, the Russian Gerasim Stefanovich Lebedeff is more importantly mentioned by theatre historians as the pioneer/initiator of Bengali theatre. The story is true, but the rationale of chronicling is culturally prejudiced.  

The Lebedeff endeavor brought the proscenium idea in Bengal. But it took time to be imitated at large. Some nouveau riche Bengalis of Calcutta built small-scale private theatres in their own residential complexes/properties for performances exclusively meant for entertainment. In 1872, Calcutta experienced the first public performance in the proscenium style, which historically marks the beginning of Bengali theatre. Later, many theatre companies grew in Calcutta. Performances of religious and historic contents became very popular, with nationalism claiming some increasing space. For a long time, commercial theatre dominated the Calcutta stage.

Yatra was/is usually performed in the rural habitations for long hours starting from late evening till dawn. Photo: Courtesy of the author

But beyond the city limits, Bengal had numerous forms of folk theatre. Mention of the Yatra is a must. The centuries-old Yatra was widely popular across the country. This form is characterized by loud music, dazzling costumes and high-pitched rhetorical dialogues. It was/is usually performed in the rural habitations for long hours starting from late evening till dawn. Oral legends and religious myths enriched by imaginary contents often catering moral messages are delivered on a four-side open elevated stage.

Away from this early country form of performance, over the years, theatre, as it evolved in Bengal with its proscenium, embraced diversities in contents and style, including resistance against British rule. The British Viceroy Northbrook passed the “Dramatic Performances Act” in 1876 to control any voice against the imperialist rulers in the theatrical performances. However, as the global political order started changing with the two World Wars, in 1943 was formed, as a fraternal response to the international anti-fascist movement, the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). The members of IPTA were passionately inspired by the ideals of socialism. Bengal had a very committed unit of IPTA. The productions of this progressive, left-oriented and anti-fascist cultural front brought in an earthly as well as dynamic realism on the stage with a naked presentation of the oppression of the rich/feudal classes on the poor, the sufferings of the peasants or the agony of the workers.

Theatre artists, singers, painters and academics found in IPTA the rays of hope for the liberation of the have-nots. Unfortunately, the IPTA did not live long, mostly due the differences of opinions among the party comrades on the courses of implementation of the ideology they aspired to uphold than for the dearth of organizational efficiency. However, it left a strong cultural legacy for the future. The positive hangover of IPTA can still be felt today in the theatre of Bengal on both sides.

Till mid-August 1947, Calcutta was the center of all cultural/commercial activities. Bengal was cut into two in 1947 by a stranger, a cartographer commissioned by the imperial rulers under some unholy circumstances. Consequently, a new state—Pakistan was born and Bangladesh became its part. The Pakistani rulers preferred the politics of religion (Islam) to traditional and secular socio-cultural realities. This led to clashes of culture. Theatre plunged into danger in this confusing context.

Historically, Bangladesh wore the Pakistani label for less than 23 years and became an independent state after winning a bloody war in 1971. During 1947–71, along with local dramatists, the translated works of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Shaw and many others also found space on the stage. Theatre groups were formed, mostly in the towns. Performances took place at venues, having very limited facilities for performances. Folk theatres were practiced in the rural areas. The Pakistani rulers wanted to suppress the right of the Bengalis to their mother tongue, which created threats to the country’s secular cultural identity. This led to an anti-Pakistani socio-political resistance movement, which continuously gained momentum to proclaim the distinct national identity of the Bengali-speaking people.

Development of Bangladesh Theatre

The victory in the liberation war of 1971 led to cultural debates on issues of social structure and reforms, liberal political ideas and socialism. The people expected the reflection of these ideas on the stage. Naturally, the 1971 war was the subject matter of many plays. Unfortunately, Bangladesh theatre has not as yet presented on the stage the epic degree of inhuman sufferings, bloodshed, martyrdom and genocide that took place then. The flaw lies in the dearth of powerful dramatists.

Munier Chaudhury, Nurul Momen, Anis Chaudhury and others wrote plays in the pre-1971 days. But theatre could not thrive for various reasons. The city’s cultural space was not equipped enough to host modern theatre. The absence of an educated middle class was a critical factor. The conservative society was critical of the mixing of men and women, not to speak of women acting on the stage. The Pakistani project of preaching Islamic ideas—all these stood against the development of theatre.

Payer Awaj Paoa Jai; a play on the Liberation War. Photo: Courtesy of the author

Bangladesh theatre marks a strong start in 1972, as the nationalistic spirit got enhanced by the 1971 war. New groups were formed. Fine playwrights like Mumtazuddin Ahmed, Sayeed Ahmad, Abdullah Al Mamun, Selim Al Deen, Mamunur Rashid, among others, came up. Theatre developed with fresh Bengali plays and adaptations of the great overseas masters. Many shows were produced to purposefully uphold the progressive, secular and inclusive cultural heritage/practices and to unmask the social ills and exploitation here and beyond.

In this social context, theatre people worked hard for performances of professional quality with very limited means within the less-than-amateur-friendly premises. When theatre started thriving in the early 1970s, mainly in the cities though, the performances in Dhaka took place in two make-shift halls owned by two women organizations (Mahila Samity and Girls’ Guide), which were never meant to put up theatre shows. There was literally no arrangement for light design; sound control was a big challenge; the supply of electricity was regularly disrupted; no decent green room and acceptably good toilets. Early Bangladesh theatre is associated with such unhealthy and difficult situations. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Shaw, Brecht, Beckett, and many fine plays by native dramatists were staged on these sites. Only passion compensated for all the serious technical problems and shortcomings. Now, the Mahila Samity property has been rebuilt with a moderate-sized theatre hall having modern opportunities.  

In fact, Bangladesh got the first modern stage for performances as the journey of Bangladesh Shilpakala (Fine and Performing Arts) Academybegan in the mid-1990s. The theatre people had been demanding this site for a long time. They walked in the busy districts of Dhaka chanting slogans for good theatre space. They even organized a movement to establish their own theatre with their own contributions and alms from the sympathizers. Shilpakala has a large hall, open-air theatre, one multipurpose space with good height having opportunities for variable/flexible stage design, one studio theatre, a good number of large rooms for rehearsals and workshops, spacious lobbies and dedicated auditoriums for musical performances and film shows and galleries for art exhibitions.

Usually, there are three theatre shows at Shilpakala every evening. This big establishment is run by the Government. With a population of 12 million, Dhaka still suffers from the scarcity of theatre spaces. The groups, perpetually suffering from financial problems, can use different sites of Shilpakala at subsidized rates. But they have to experience a long wait to get a date of performance.

Bangladesh does not still have any professional theatre in the true sense of the word. It faced a serious obstacle to becoming a member of the UNESCO-sponsored International Theatre Institute (ITI) since the organization is a platform for professional thespians. However, Bangladesh was finally allowed official entry to ITI. Qualitative evidence of our stage presentations worked in our favor. Bangladesh is now a well-known name in the ITI Worldwide circle. Ramendu Majumdar of Bangladesh became the elected President of ITI Worldwide for two consecutive terms.

Bangladesh saw the inception of the first university department of theatre studies in the mid-1980s. The names of Konstantin Stanislavski, Jerzy Grotowski, Adolf Apia, Gordon Craig, Ervin Piscator, Peter Brook or Richard Schechner had not been familiar to many. These names did not make any effective noise since our stage was not quite ready for the application of their theories. This could only marginally happen as some young students came back on completion of their undergraduate courses at the Delhi School of Drama (NSD). They gradually made their presence felt.

Bangladesh theatre had to absorb a terrible shock in mid-August 1975 as the legendary leader of the liberation war and the elected Prime Minister of the country was brutally killed with his family members in a military coup d’etat, and the democratic process of the country was suspended sine die. Performances as well as life at large were halted by the continuous evening curfews. Later, theatre performances were conditionally allowed on the stage. All scripts had to go through the censorship of the military authorities. Theatre toned down its voice and volume of “resistance.” The international masters like Ibsen, Molière, Brecht and Miller were among those whose work helped us stay alive.

By the end of the 1980s, theatre found it really difficult to articulate its voice the way it wanted to. The Islamist forces that got weakened in the early 1970s gathered strength with the patronization of the post-1975 military rulers. Yatra, mentioned earlier, became a sad victim of the rage of Islamist ideologues. Unfortunately, later, even when the liberal forces came back to power, this traditional form could not properly be rehabilitated. The fundamentalists were strongly against Yatra and other folk performances that represented secular values. Sadly, the cultural movement of the theatre activists and intelligentsia could not ensure a congenial environment for such folk performances. 

To make their voices heard, the theatre activists, right from the 1990s, switched over to “street theatre” to heighten their protest against the fundamentalists and unmask the ills being done by them. They started performances at the altar of the martyrs’ memorial, university campuses and crowded street corners. The street theatre enterprise inspired many to present short plays with strong messages. This genre is still quite alive with us today. Many of the theatre groups perform both on the stage and on the streets. 

Contemporary Bangladesh Theatre

The first original Bangladesh play bearing historical significance, titled Kabar (The Grave,1951), was written by Munier Chaudhury, a renowned university teacher and leading cultural activist. The play was written while he was behind bars and was performed on the prison premises by fellow prisoners. This very fact speaks of the then cultural struggle and of the trajectory our theatre is likely to take in the future. Till today, before any preparation of production, the primary question for the groups is “What would be its social relevance?”

Plays have been produced on the lives of great figures like Socrates, Prometheus, Spartacus, Galileo (after Brecht), Lenin, even Stalin (with strong critical tones), or important national heroes of the subcontinent, purposefully to uphold their leading roles in the emancipation of people. Plays reflecting the conflict of the classes enjoy a priority for theatre artists who show interest in the alternative reading of history, the subaltern studies focusing on social discrimination and the unheard voices of the poor. Many directors and groups think that the theatre’s task is to get the audience involved. In the ancient myths across the country and ages, there exist abundant materials that unfold social discrimination and plays have been scripted and produced out of them.

But this is not the only road to tread on. Stories of everyday conflicts and crises were quite popular with the audience in the near past, with storylines intended to help the audience conceive the sociological constructs working behind social disparities. This idea of “social relevance” is rooted, more or less, in the historic fact of the theatre groups’ leaning on the “left” because of their discipleship of Rolland, Lukacs, Gramsci, Fanon and others.

Bengal—in fact, the entire Indian subcontinent—was under British rule for nearly 200 years. In a natural course, the proscenium forced its place, and so William Shakespeare became a welcome guest. He had his primary entrance through the school curriculum though. Gradually, he became “our” Shakespeare. During the British colonization and after, his plays have been variously translated into Bengali. Some laudable Shakespeare scholarship has developed across universities. However, Shakespeare appeared on the Bangladesh stage fewer times compared to some other foreign playwrights. The directors and dramaturgs found it more convenient to deal with Sophocles, Molière, Ibsen, Miller, Brecht and others such as Wole Soyinka and Girish Kanrad, rather than Shakespeare.

The urge to convey a “relevant” message remains the key objective. Sophocles’ Oedipus has been produced by many groups. It was brilliantly directed by Ahmed Iqbal Haider and produced by Tiryak, a group from Chittagong, the second largest city in Bangladesh. Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People recurrently rocks the stage of the subcontinent with its unending social relevance. The socio-political impact of the long years of suppressive British colonial rule and, then, the coercive Pakistani days prompted peoples’ resistance to discrimination and injustice. People and artists wanted to see its reflection on the stage. Shakespeare, however, was not a very handy weapon in this mission.

One incidental fact influenced the journey of Bangladesh theatre. During the war of 1971, most of the cultural activists fled to Calcutta where they watched some of the brilliant Brecht adaptations then being performed on the stage, such as Threepenny Opera, The Good Woman of Szechwan, Herr Puntilla and his Man Matti, Caucasian Chalk Circle, Mother Courage and Her Children and so on. They felt creatively inspired by the brilliant reworkings of Brecht. They realized that Brecht’s ideas would be equally appropriate for the Dhaka stage. The memory of terrible sufferings and the victory in the war excited them to create a native space for Brecht.

The adaptation of Brecht’s Herr Puntilla and his Man Matti, performed in Dhaka in the late 1970s

The liberation of the country brought all the required fresh blood and pace to Bangladesh theatre. Some new groups came up, and the old ones gathered some renewed energy. In 1973, the theatre group Nagorik Natya Sampradaya initiated in Dhaka the maiden practice of watching theatre shows on payment for tickets. Earlier, it was mostly free and often meant for invited guests only. Transfixing the dialogues into a local dialect, Nagorik brought to the stage The Good Woman of Szechwan in a Bengali setting. Dhaka’s audience experienced a new form, a forcefully vocal and out of box production. It was a tremendous success. Later, this group produced Threepenny Opera, Herr Puntilla and his Man Matti, Mother Courage and Her Children and Life of Galileo.

The German director Fritz Bennewitz came to Dhaka to direct Brecht’s Man Equals Man, produced by the Bangladesh Centre of ITI. Fine adaptations of Brecht’s plays and their successes encouraged other groups to turn to him. It further opened gates to adapt more foreign plays. Once, it so happened that 3 variations of the adaptation of Threepenny Opera by three different groups were simultaneously presented on the Dhaka stage. One group successfully produced The Irresistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Another group came up with Brecht’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (Round Heads and Pig Heads), further adapted into Bengali to suit the popular taste.

After the 1990s, with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the world starting to turn unipolar, the progressive forces of Bengal on either side felt shocked and got ideologically weakened, and the appearance of Brecht gradually receded. But to date, Brecht occupies the foremost position on the Bengali stage in terms of adaptation.

Still, it should be only academically rational to reflect here on Shakespeare and the Bengali stage. The early Shakespeare translations were often poor, largely because of the translators’ weak command of the source language. Many of them could be rather described as Bengali texts in local contexts following the original ones. However, Shakespeare had an immense impact on our playwriting. Major Bengali dramatists were largely influenced by him in areas of plot construction, characterization and dialogues. Many admitted their indebtedness to him. Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), the first non-European Nobel Laureate, recognized as the most important Bengali litterateur, was also influenced by him. Some plays by Dwijendralal Roy (1863–1913), another very popular dramatist, were also inspired by Shakespeare.

The contextualization of Shakespeare’s plays started right from the early days of proscenium performances. The four major tragedies naturally enjoyed preference; comedies, however, such as As You Like It, Comedy of Errors, Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest and others, have also been successfully adapted/produced. Munier Chaudhury showed his class in translating The Taming of the Shrew, which earned wide popularity as a TV show.

Othello (true to the original, 1981) is one early Shakespeare play that claimed popularity in post-1971 Bangladesh. It was produced by a group named Theatre. Macbeth appeared on the stage as an authentic text and also in various adapted/appropriated forms by many groups and university drama departments. A literal Bangla translation of Macbeth by Syed Shamsul Huq, a major Bengali dramatist-poet-novelist, was produced in collaboration with the British Council. It was directed by Christopher Sandford. Deborah Warner, another British director, worked in Dhaka for The Tempest. This was again a literal translation by Huq. He also translated Troilus and Cressida, which was later produced on the Dhaka stage. 

Hamlet experienced a variety of contextualization or appropriation, as elsewhere in the world. In one excellent adaptation (produced by Nagorik:1991) the title was changed to Darpon (Mirror). In fine contextualization, the story is transported to a rural setting. Aly Zaker, a famous actor-director, did it. He was nearly faithful to the original while translating the famous soliloquies and important poetic sections in Bengali, which he kept in verses, but, at other places, he used the local dialect in prose. This combination created lovely dramatic effects. The university theatre departments produced several versions of Hamlet at various intervals adding to it some local contents, colors and dialects.

Two plays, produced on the occasion of the 4th centenary of Shakespeare’s death, deserve special mention. Under the initiative of the British Council, theatre groups from many countries (erstwhile colonies of the Empire, in particular) were invited to present their productions at the Globe Theatre, London. From Bangladesh, one leading group, Dhaka Theatre, was invited to take part in this international event. Nasiruddin Yousuff, the director, chose The Tempest. The script by and large followed the original. But it was presented in a popular folk musical form (palagaan) of Bangladesh. Earlier, the same group, known for its preferences for the traditional country forms, produced The Merchant of Venice. In 2016, Nasiruddin Yousuff also directed Romeo and Juliet. This innovative work was produced in collaboration with the British Council; in it, physically challenged people performed as the actors and actresses.

From a recent production of Hamlet. Photo: Courtesy of the author

Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy produced a new appropriation of Hamlet, again by Syed Shamsul Huq. This turned out by far to be a transcreation. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been omitted. And the director (Ataur Rahman, a famous actor, too) made further experiments. He starts the play with the gravediggers and adds a Bengali song and lyrics. Another interesting and innovative attempt was made on this occasion by a leading theatre group called Aronyak. A play titled Distant Near was scripted by Shahidul Mamun in the form of dialogic encounters between Shakespeare and the Bengali literary luminary Rabindranath Tagore. Fayez Jahir directed it. This group also produced Coriolanus in the 1990s.

Shakespeare remains endlessly relevant in Bangladesh for academic as well as theatrical reasons. However, the fact remains that in spite of many new interpretations and angularities of theoretical analyses or the several experimentations of the avantgarde groups which follow or defy these intellectual exercises, or the experiences gained from the productions of visiting overseas groups, Shakespeare does not claim the popularity on the Bangladesh stage which Sophocles, Chekov, Brecht, Ibsen, Molière, Miller or even Dario Fo do.  

Kanjush; a Molière play. Photo: Courtesy of the author

One play by Molière made a big impact. His The Miser (Kanjus), adapted in Bengali by Tariq Anam Khan, has made an almost unsurpassable record in terms of the number of shows. This play was produced first in the early 1980s. Its subsequent production by Lok Natyadal (directed by Liaquat Ali Lucky) really shook the Bangladesh stage with witty dialogues and entertainment. The play has already crossed 700 nights. It even traveled to the U.S.A. However, Shakespeare lagged far behind his European or American counterparts. The reason behind this is the mindset of the larger audience, who always try to discover the social or local “relevance” in the productions. Oedipus touches them with some unanswerable questions; the tyranny of the gods shakes them; the hero’s agony transcends within their hearts. Antigone symbolizes protest against authority; it has a courageous female voice too.

Major Trends in Bangladesh Theatre

The question of gender is an important issue in Bangladesh theatre. From the gender point of view, even Medea travels our stage at different intervals in re-interpreted forms. Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House bears eternal relevance for our audience. This play has been variously adapted and produced by many groups and holds a strong position in the academic courses of literature, sociology, women, theatre and performance studies. Other Ibsen plays like the Ghosts, Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, The Lady from the Sea claim relevance for the same reason. Strindberg’s The Father also finds space in this discourse. And many others from the West or the East.

Rise and Shine; an adaptation of Franca Rame Play- Monodrama. Photo: Courtesy of the author

In many modern productions, the issue of gender claims a priority. The volume by Franca Rame and Dario Fo, A Woman Alone and Other Plays became a handbook for some groups. Some of the monologues have been successfully produced in Dhaka. One monodrama, Rise and Shine, is running at the moment in full houses. Produced in 2022 (by BotTola), this play has been adapted in the present Bangladesh context and local dialect to highlight the exploitation of women’s labor force. Theatre creators want emphatically to make the voices of women heard and reject their secondary position in society in the face of the religious fundamentalists’ gaining some fearsome power over the years. The fundamentalists resist such productions, sometimes with violent means in rural locations. The women’s voices, right from Antigone and Nora to the revival of many native mythical women of Bengal/India like (Draupadi and Khona) are recurrently audible on the stage.

Another major trend in contemporary theatre is the passion to strike an artistic synthesis of the script, be it a regular Bengali play or any translation/adaptation from a different language, with some old native folk forms. In the past, a country theatre form, known as Kathokatha/Kathanatya (narrative theatre) was largely popular. Bengali nationalistic spirit, fueled by the victory in the liberation war, ignited many to rediscover this old form. Some modern directors show an active preference for it. Tales and legends of the communities, woes of the poor or women, arising out of social injustice or unsung rebels at the local level offer dramatic materials to many directors today. Singularly, it is narrated by one known as Bayati, playing several roles with the expert modulation of his voice and with one piece of cloth that works for the costumes of all.

Kathanatya has a great impact even in today’s metropolitan performing space. A group of persons, men and women, narrate various episodes that, sometimes, represent an epic character. Novels dealing with similar folk themes are often turned into theatrical scripts for productions. The fusion of folk forms in the otherwise modern theatre is also one popular practice. Often, such attempts have led to a creative compromise or acculturation of the old and new, far and near. But some are critical of such enterprises. They think that, in the process, the originality/purity of the forms is subverted. However, till today, the Kathanatya attracts the audience.

Deliberate inclusion and interpretation of local and international political issues characterize the tone of many contemporary productions. Some directors excavate the past and even relate episodes of medieval or colonial history to explicate the present. A young director brought in the Iraq war in an otherwise symbolic play by Tagore. The conventional reading of history is contested from different socio-political perspectives. The 2008 film Changeling has been dramatized in Bangladesh, integrating the story with contemporary political realities of Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the supreme leader of our liberation war walks on the stage at different intervals. Syed Shamsul Huq wrote the play Ganonayak (People’s Leader), a superb appropriation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in the Bangladesh context. The killing of Sheikh Mujib is equated with Caesar’s. Huq also brings in Mujib in his transcreation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. There Peer speaks out the widely known orations of the Bangladesh leader. In his last work of translation—Hamlet—Huq again emphatically analogizes the killing of the Danish king with Sheikh Mujib’s.

The Shakespearean play has been contextualized in contemporary Bangladesh and its political element has been further heightened in Huq’s transcreation.

Jibon O Rajnaitik Bastobata; a political play. Photo: Courtesy of the author

Syed Jamil Ahmed is a big name in Bangladesh theatre. He is a professor in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Dhaka. He has a group named Sprdha (audacity). This group produced Jibon O Rajnaitik Bastobata meaning “Life and Political Realities.” Based on a contemporary novel, this play incited conflicting responses about the treatment of recent political history. One group, Swapnodal, created, with the insertion of some oral dialogues though, a mime version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The director deliberately injected some political content. A very recent production (by Theatre) of the widely known A. R. Gurney’s play, Love Letters, deliberately and meaningfully brings in the contents of national politics.   

The advent of digitalization on the Bengali stage is still quite limited. The views on its use are divided among the critics and artistic directors. However, Bangladesh theatre has neither the resources nor the craze for it as yet. But one director, Kamaluddin Nilu, showed some spectacular success in his production (by Centre for Asian Theatre) of Macabre with the extensive use of digital devices.It may be noted that Nilu earlier adapted and directed Kafka’s Metamorphosis with great artistic qualities. It had limited shows though.

In Bangladesh and India, too, there is an alternative campaign for organic or environmental theatre, which advocates natural and humble set design, emphasis on the harmony of the psychic and the physical aspects of the actors and a more intimate communication between the stage and the audience.

The Concluding Statement

Theatre is thriving in Bangladesh, braving many obstacles. Almost all the major universities now have departments of theatre studies. Graduates are coming up. Moreover, some groups organize very planned and rigorous training workshops. Theatre School, one private enterprise, has been conducting short-term courses for about decades. Similar endeavors are also in place. The talented and energetic young people are creating some admirable variety in theatre. One group, Prachyanat, which conducts learning sessions too, has shown how theatre can be truly artistic and yet positively iconoclastic. 

Citrangada. Dance drama. Photo: Courtesy of the author

BotTola, another vibrant group, revisits history and, sometimes, re-creates it with traditional musical forms. It also runs innovative short courses for young people and children. They call it Actors Studio. Fame School of Dance, Drama and Music of Chittagong presented some wonderful performances. It provides some structured training courses too. This school periodically produces fine French (in Bengali versions) plays which include, among others, The Trial, Caligula, The Mad Woman of Chaillot, Antigone, sponsored by Alliance Francaise. This French cultural center sponsored Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, produced by Monipuri Theatre, a group from the margins of Bangladesh. 

Adam Surat; a play on contemporary issues. Photo: Courtesy of the author

A number of festivals take place in Dhaka and other cities, sometimes with the participation of troupes from European/Asian countries, but mostly from the neighboring India. Bangladesh Centre of the International Theatre Institute organizes at regular intervals conferences/festivals in which overseas dramaturgs and troupes take part. Now-defunct Centre for Asian Theatre organized three international conferences/festivals on Henrik Ibsen in which many participants from abroad took part. On such occasions, the festival sites bubble with activities like seminars/workshops/discussions, through which the theatre persons share views with overseas delegates, dramaturgs and performers from abroad. Occasionally, we also take part in overseas events. These learning experiences contribute a lot to Bangladesh theatre.

Swarnaboal; a mythical play. Photo: Courtesy of the author

One key weakness of Bangladesh theatre is its failure to create quality dramatists. The number is simply thin, making it difficult to prepare a commendable list. Some new names are: Masum Reza, Badruzzaman Alamgir, Sadhana Ahmed, Ruma Modak, Mahfuza Hilali. Incidentally, the last three are women. No fault with being women of course, but major theatre groups have not yet shown active interest in their plays. This absence of powerful playwrights forces the groups to look for translations/adaptations of plays from abroad.

It’s a pity that “professional” theatre does not exist in Bangladesh, nor are there good prospects for its development in the foreseeable future. Recently, some repertoire groups have surfaced, and they are doing a wonderful job by involving performers and designers from different groups or freelance artists. These groups pay a little amount to the artists. But this is not even a poor answer to professional theatre. The number of groups has grown visibly in the last two decades. Women, students and youths are increasingly joining theatre. All of them feel an intense attachment to theatre without expectation of any material benefits. The groups have perpetual problems with finance. But they go on, with rehearsals at rented yet uncertain spaces. Most groups try to book spaces where they can run shows for continuous evenings, just not for making an impact but more for economizing the transport costs to carry the set and other props.

Theatre still remains largely a business of Dhaka, the capital. It is heartening that Chittagong also has some active groups and good theatre facilities. Other groups of some small towns are putting up shows at irregular intervals, but they only leave some rippling impacts. It remains that Bangladesh theatre workers are committed volunteers. The Government occasionally extends to the groups some negligible support. Indomitable passion to employ creative energies makes theatre happen here and will in the future. 


*Shafi Ahmed is Professor of English literature and theatre studies at Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka. His areas of specialization relate to Shakespeare and modern European theatre. Ahmed actively participates in the country’s progressive movement to resist the spread of religious fundamentalism that constantly threatens liberal cultural practices. He is the Vice-President of ITI Bangladesh. He was on the Executive Board of the International University Theatre Association. He has to his credit eleven books and several articles published at home and abroad.

Copyright © 2023 Shafi Ahmed
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