Disentangling contradictions: Playwright Badal Sircar and the Third Theatre

A scene from Badal Sircar's play, Ebong Indrajit (Youtube) Photograph:( Others )

WION London, United Kingdom Mar 27, 2017, 12.54 PM (IST) Manujendra Kundu


Bengali playwright Badal Sircar’s theatre idiom not only influenced the Indian theatrescape, but also shaped the South Asian theatre at large. People from diverse fields claim to have been influenced by his theatre discourse. Sircar's ideas enjoyed a global reach; Madeeha Gauhar’s Ajoka Theatre in Lahore is as much influenced by his ideas as are Asesh Malla’s Sarwanam Theatre in Kathmandu and Teesri Duniya Theatre at Montreal.


During the early stage of his career, Sircar was very successful with the repertoire of his proscenium plays; some of which brought him fame and recognition nationally. But except for a few, which were related, primarily, to his anxiety about nuclear warfare, none of these was concerned with the Indian political situation as such. Few of these were either romantic comedies - full of humour and fun, focusing on relationship between man and woman, and others were adaptations of foreign plays.  


In a number of plays of this period, the issue of nuclear attack was repeated again and again. It is true that the terror of warfare, particularly, after India's conflicts with China and Pakistan, might have horrified certain sections of Indians. Additionally, with India successfully test firing its first nuclear bomb in 1974, there was the spectre of another war. Having said these, India had so many other exigencies to attend that, nuclear war, though a very important issue, was not actually a matter of concern to the millions of starved individuals. In fact, Sircar admitted, only once, in the Third Theatre magazine Angan, that he had been focussing on this issue because of its international exposure.


These are not only misleading, but also deeply disturbing, particularly because it comes from a theatre personality who have reiterated social change and personal honesty all his life


In his seminal booklet, The Third Theatre, Sircar has emphasised on incorporating Indian folk traditions in his art. However, from the four volumes of his autobiography as well as from other accounts, it is clear that Sircar never did get the opportunity to experience Indian folk tradition intimately. It was only after his meetings with the Western theatre legends that he developed an understanding of Indian traditions. Except in a recondite interview in Amritalok, a Bengali journal, where he actually admitted of his superficial knowledge of the field, Sircar claimed otherwise almost everywhere else. 


In fact, if we read his plays carefully, or see the performances, we would understand that, with some rare exceptions, there was barely any significant incorporation of folk material.


In the theatre world, Sircar is critically appreciated for the concept of "gram parikrama", in accordance to which he conducted village tours with his theatre group. But many does know that "gram parikrama" was not actually Badal Sircar's idea, but of Debasis Chakraborty, the founder of Ritam and the Angan Theatre Group. It was at his suggestion that Sircar started village tours. But Sircar has never explicitly clarified this conceptual debt to Chakraborty anywhere.


Throughout his career, Sircar claimed that his Third Theatre plays were the results of contributions by the group members of Satabdi. The claim was confirmed in my interviews with the former members of the group like Sandip Saha, Ratna Ghosal, and Arijit Roy as well as Bisakha Ray, the playwright's second wife. However, it is beyond comprehension if this practice was indeed followed, then why do the plays bear only Sircar’s name. In fact, the question was raised in the group whether Sircar’s name would appear as the playwright, but that was doused without any result. Consequently, we do not know who contributed to those path-breaking plays, and in what manner. 


Egalitarianism was, therefore, sacrificed to cater to common, prevalent norms of the market. This kind of unacknowledged borrowing is obvious in his treatises as well. In the latter case, there are a number of occasions when we come across such unmentioned borrowings from the Western scholars and theatre practitioners, posited as Sircar's own. These are not only misleading, but also deeply disturbing, particularly because it comes from a theatre personality who have reiterated social change and personal honesty all his life.


The presence of money can be seen throughout the history of the Third Theatre; it was not a free theatre in the strictest sense of the term


Sircar’s theatre  known has been known to be free theatre; to watch it viewers need not paid any admission fee. But why then a piece of cloth was spread out at the end of a performance. The playwright said, he did not require money and would not take grants or any other forms of assistance from either public or private institutions. But Sircar said in his book, Theatre-er Bhasha that money might come as a spontaneous contribution by the audience. How can a staunch Marxist, like Badal Sircar, saw any kind of monetary contribution as spontaneous donation is not understandable at all. 


Moreover, on the other hand, Sircar kept receiving several government accolades, awards and fellowships. He even accepted the lifetime achievement award from the Mahindra group. In spite of Sircar's close association with the Third Theatre magazine Angan, it collected money from different sources, including merchant companies, industrial consultants, government contractor and order suppliers, to name a few. Besides, one cannot ignore the presence of money when performances took place in a hall or enclosed private area. The presence of money can be seen throughout the history of the Third Theatre; it was not a free theatre in the strictest sense of the term. Money was absolutely necessary, however, small the amount. Therefore, when he says ‘we don’t need money’, that statement becomes impractical, incorrect, and nothing more than an emotional claim.


Sircar said that his plays were well received by the educated urban and illiterate rural audience alike. But during my interview, his old comrades-in-arms divulged that the rural performances were in many cases adapted to suit their taste; in many cases the viewers did not understand the plays at all or understood only partially. Besides, Siracr never in his entire career admitted the difference between the floor/hall management and field management. According to him, the performances were received well everywhere, almost in a same manner, be it a gathering of 20 people or thousands.


There are many such contradictions in Sircar's statements and activities. For a better understanding of the nature and the course of the Third Theatre, it is very important to understand these contradictions along with developing an appreciation for the genre. After all, according to Sircar, he had been doing theatre for social change, and not merely to achieve artistic feat. Reading well-established, much appreciated tenets of Sircar’s plays is not an easy task. His plays, treatise, and interviews are so well-knit, that the fabric of the Third Theatre becomes almost impenetrable, and one can hardly escape the possibility of going round and round the same old reading. 


Therefore, in order to get to the bottom of its texture or the obvious surface, it becomes very important to understand the contradictions in any text by ‘disentangling’ its fabric.


(Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author's alone and not of WION. For a fuller treatment, please read his book on the topic.)

Manujendra Kundu

Manujendra Kundu is ICSSR Postdoctoral fellow at the University of Delhi. He is the author of the book, So Near, Yet So Far: Badal Sircar?s Third Theatre. His research interest is in history of politics and economics within literary traditions.