February 16, 2020
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Post Nandigram firing, the Communists are shooting at another movement: the theatre

Pronab Basu
Curtains Down
  • Theatre groups, directors who flayed the Nandigram killings are facing boycott
  • Leading cultural personalities allege the government, CPI(M) are behind it
  • Call shows now a trickle for many, last-minute cancellations are common
  • Faced with financial ruin, many directors say they may give up theatre, and turn to other creative pursuits


If you can't silence them, starve them of work. That seems to be the credo of the CPI(M) in West Bengal. Its target: theatre personalities who were vocal in their opposition to the CPI(M)'s depredations in Nandigram. Over the past year, dissenting directors and artistes have seen 'call shows' (invitations for staging plays) decline to a trickle and have found it impossible to hire government-owned auditoriums. Plays by directors like Kaushik Sen and Arpita Ghosh, who have been in the forefront of Nandigram-related protests, have witnessed last-minute cancellations. Faced with imminent financial ruin, many directors are openly contemplating switching to other creative pursuits.

Successful director Bratya Basu is one of the CPI(M)'s targets. He told Outlook: "All my earlier plays received a surfeit of call shows. But over the past one year, such invites have dipped to some two per cent of what I used to receive—that's soon after I started speaking out against what happened at Nandigram. I've been advised to stop criticising the government and concentrate only on my theatre."

Call shows are the lifeline of theatre groups. The invitations come from educational institutions, local clubs and cultural associations. Notes Bibhas Chakraborty, who resigned as Paschim Banga Natya Akademi president, protesting the police firing in Nandigram in March 14 last year: "The CPI(M) operates at various levels—often in an insidious manner. It is well known that the party dominates the state's cultural sphere. It has been using its clout to stop invites coming to people like us."

Kaushik Sen tops the list of those marked out by the CPI(M). Perhaps the most vociferous critic of the party among theatre personalities, Kaushik felt the backlash immediately after his post-March 14 protests. "A school invited my theatre group. I told them I'd stage Tagore's famous Dakghar, but they told me it had political overtones. I then decided on Satyajit Ray's apolitical Bonkubabur Bandhu. Even so, the show got cancelled. I came to know they were pressured by the local CPI(M) MLA. Ever since, I haven't been receiving invitations to stage my plays," Kaushik told Outlook.

Shaonli Mitra's group Pancham Baidik has also been blacklisted. Ever since Shaonli and her associates like Arpita Ghosh hit the streets on Nandigram, they have been rendered jobless. Belghoria Ethic, a theatre group from a Calcutta suburb, launched an anti-genocide forum, Ganahatya Birodhi Nagarik Mancha, post Nandigram. It organised a convention on the subject; this led a library that was its chief patron to sever all links with the group. "The library's action was dictated by local CPI(M) leaders," says Ethic's Debashish Sengupta.

The experiences of two prominent theatre directors are revealing. Manoj Mitra and Meghnad Bhattacharya, who resigned along with others from the Natya Akademi after the Nandigarm killings, had their shows at a college at Raniganj and in Cooch Behar cancelled abruptly. "I was shocked to hear about the cancellation, especially since I had been associated with Raniganj College for decades. Luckily a senior CPI(M) leader intervened and the cancellation was withdrawn," Manoj told Outlook. The senior CPI(M) leader was industries minister Nirupam Som.

In Meghnad's case, it was chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya's intervention that led to the organisers reissuing the invitation to him. "The fact that the CM and the industries minister intervened proves that withdrawing the invitations was the handiwork of the CPI(M). Why should theatre directors at all have to depend on ministers for survival?" wonders Bibhas Chakraborty.

Meghnad, who heeded the CM's request to rejoin the Natya Akademi, unwittingly admitted the CPI(M)'s sinister role. "All this is the handiwork of lower-level CPI(M) functionaries. The CM himself admitted he has no control over such people," Meghnad told Outlook in defence of the CM.

A spate of cancellations has led to directors like Bratya Basu thinking of exploring other options. "At this rate, I doubt if I can continue in theatre," he says. Others like Debesh Chattopadhyay are also thinking of giving up. If people like Bratya and Debesh were to quit, the CPI(M) would have achieved its motto of sending the message that there's a price to pay for dissent. But that would be at the cost of throttling Bengal's culturally important art form—the theatre.
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