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Shobha Sen, the doyenne of Indian theatre, will be forever remembered

Shobha Sen dies at 93, leaving behind her remarkable work for which she will be remembered forever. Photo Credit: Youtube Photograph: (Others)

Delhi, India Aug 14, 2017, 02.43 AM (IST) Manujendra Kundu

Shobha Sen, the doyenne of Bengali theatre passed away yesterday in Kolkata at the age of 93. Bengali theatre fraternity would remember her not only as a wonderful actress in some of the remarkable performances both on stage and on the silver screen but also as a champion of the rights of female performers in a male-dominating theatre society.

It would always remain an important question in the history of Bengali theatre whether she got her due.
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She emerged as a class performer in her own right but the aura of her husband, the legendary actor-director-playwright-scholar Utpal Dutt, somewhere overcast her presence in theatre. Perhaps Sen would have objected to my reading, and critics may also take exception to my views, but it would always remain an important question in the history of Bengali theatre whether she got her due.

Soon after graduating from the Bethune College, Kolkata she joined the IPTA (Bengal chapter), played the female lead in the historic IPTA production of Bijan Bhattacharya’s Nabanna. In the early 1950s, she joined Dutt’s Little Theatre Group (LTG), which was later renamed as People’s Little Theatre (PLT), and performed in a number of remarkable productions by the group, under the direction of Dutt. Acting and performance brought Dutt and Sen closer to each other, which culminated into a lifelong conjugal relationship. She was also a staff artist of the Akashvani (All India Radio); her voice could be heard often in Friday-radio dramas (Bibhash Chakraborty, Amader Theatre-e Matriarch Hoe Benche Thakun Sobha-di, Bangodorshon, acc. 13 August 2017).

Bengali film industry failed to provide her with the opportunity that she deserved.
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She also acted in some landmark movies like Bedeni (unfinished; 1952), Ek Adhuri Kahani (1972), Ek Din Pratidin (1979), Baisakhi Megh (1981), Shadows of Time (2004), etc. Bibhas Chakraborty recounted her spontaneity, and easy acting style against theatrical acting of Ritwik Ghatak and Bijan Bhattacharya in the first neorealist movie Chhinnamul (1950), or in Nagarik (1977). In his opinion, Bengali film industry failed to provide her with the opportunity that she deserved (ibid.). Sen’s daughter, Professor Bishnupriya Dutt points out that she has observed Brechtian dialecticalism in her acting without any duplication of roles in her entire career.

Her autobiographical work is titled Smarane Bismarane: Nabanna Theke Laldurgo (2nd edition, 1996). In spite of increasing frailty, she had been closely monitoring the works of the Utpal Dutt Foundation for International Theatre Studies.

Sen struggled to promote female performers, identify talents in them, we realize that she will be missed by many in a theatrical world which is fragmented and dominated by people who believes in male supremacy.
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Bishnupriya Dutt thinks that Sobha Sen along with Utpal Dutt tried to defy profit motive, corporatism in their theatre practice. They practised Marxism in theatre their own ways, the fundamental idea of which was egalitarianism. Indeed, when we remember how Sen struggled to promote female performers, identify talents in them, we realise that she will be missed by many in a theatrical world which is fragmented and dominated by people who believes in male supremacy. Even in death, she tried to help the community of people around her by donating her body for medical research.

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.

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