Usha Ganguli is a well-known theatre person, and is Artistic Director of her Kolkatta based theatre company called ‘Rangkarmee’. She was invited to the Prithvi Theatre Festival 2006’ to present her play KASHINAMA. The following conversation between Atul Tewari and her took place on 11th November 2006 as part of the ‘Meet the Playwrights’ sessions. The conversation has been edited as necessary.
Atul Tewari: Like always, the ‘Meet The Playwrights’ sessions are one more great initiative that Prithvi has made in order for us to come together and I am not at all depressed by the numbers present here. It seems that when Buddha started his conversations there were only five people with him. We are at least five times more than that! So here we have gathered to talk to Usha Ganguli. But I hope to meet not just the playwright because Usha is not just a playwright. She has many facets to her personality. She is an actor, a director, an activist. She is also an art administrator who is associated with the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the National School of Drama as well as with few of the important institutions in Bengal. She is of course a very well known teacher in Kolkata. She taught Hindi for many years, before she retired last year and then of course she is a playwright and a composer of music. Though she says that she was never trained formally in music, she was trained as a dancer in Bharatnatyam. This evening we will try to touch upon the many different facets of Usha’s personality. So welcome Usha Ganguli. One more thing that I would like to say is that as we are talking about Hindi theatre, we will proceed with this conversation in both languages – Hindi and English. I cannot speak Bangla so….
Usha Ganguli: I am also not too familiar with Bangla (laughs).
Atul Tewari: Another thing that I would like to say is that as Usha’s work has mostly dealt with revolts against narrow, parochial and regional biases as well as economic, social and sexual oppression, so I will also start this discussion with a narrow regional and parochial thought. This is something that I discovered today itself. Although I knew that Usha is from Uttar Pradesh, the state to which I too belong, I today came to know that we not only belong to the same state but also to the same village called Nerva. It is coincidental that we should come together like this today. But what is more important here is that the Hindi theatre in Kolkata , which is being nurtured and looked after by people like Dr. Prothiba Agarwal, Vimal Lad, Vinay Sharma , Shakil Sahib, Chetna Tewari and two other people who have now shifted their base to Mumbai , Kulbhushan Kharbanda and our very own Satyadev Dubey , Usha Ganguly is in the league of these people who have played a major role in the existence and nourishment of Hindi theatre in Kolkata. I would like to therefore ask you that when you started of as a student in Kolkata- those were the days of ‘Anamika’- so what kind of influence did that have on you when you first did theatre?
Usha Ganguli: I never really thought that I would be doing theatre because I was a Bharatnatyam dancer then, but yes I did get letters from ‘Anamika’ that they needed a theatre actress. Most of the parents then and perhaps even today are apprehensive about their children doing theatre. It is a general presumption that by doing theatre “sab bana banaya bighad jayega”. So I had never thought that I would be doing theatre. I had appeared for my MA examination and had just started teaching and at that time everyone was in search of Vasantsena, the dancer. This was in 1970. I did my first play called MITTI KI GADI BACHI KATAKAM with an institution called Sangeet Kalamandir. Many groups like ‘Anamika’ were doing several plays. Krishna Kumar G was acting in one of the plays by ‘Aadhakanch’ , a group in association with ‘Anamika’. But in my case what happened was that though I did do AADHE ADHURE, I was more in link with ‘Bawla’ Theatre and their people like K.R. Chakravorty and Pritimitra. When I saw Utpal Dutt’s MANSHI RUDIKARI and AAVDHIPAS by Shobha Mitra, it opened a completely different world for me. Here I was this girl from Uttar Pradesh , studying Hindi literature, so Bangla theatre was a totally new world for me. The Coffee Housewala adda , those intellectual discussions and the poetry taking place there; all of it influenced me greatly and from there on slowly and steadily I moved towards theatre. Dance had installed in me a discipline right from childhood and it is this discipline that really saved me. During my childhood I reacted a lot, questioned a lot. There was this wall in our village. My mother always told me to stay away from that wall. I always felt like breaking through that wall. So as a child, there were so many questions in my mind. At our house in the village, our ammijaan would often come with other relatives. They were given a separate room and food was served to them in a separate vessel. When I asked my mother why they weren’t served from the same vessels, she asked me to shut up and not ask such questions. I was born in Jodhpur and then went to Kolkata where I completed my education. From there I slowly and steadily made my way out of the conservative atmosphere of my house and started learning dance, and today it is almost 35 years that I am associated and connected with the theatre. I was pretty clear about what I wanted and was never really confused. I always had it in my mind that I have to do this my way. That’s why later I did not do theatre with any other group but instead formed my own group – ‘Rangkarmee.’ I still remember that we used to meet at Mukta Ram Babu’s place. There were around a hundred of us. Anjan Shrivastav was also there. All of us used to fight and discuss about what kind of theatre should we do and by the time the year ended, the number was reduced to just fifteen of us. We went our ways. Then there were intense discussions about the name of the group and ultimately we decided upon ‘Rangkarmee’ in 1976. My strength is my group. We have around three hundred members and nobody will believe me, but we have sixty female artistes in our group. We are like a family. We are constantly travelling with our productions. We sometimes do around eighteen shows in a month. From Bombay to Jabalpur, the work is increasing. There is a lot of theatre activity. But one’s own group helps us have a very strong base. And when one works with like-minded people, the thoughts keep coming and the vision remains clear. Where do we have to go? Whom should we go to? - all of these things become clear.