Utpal Dutt's Revolutionary Theatre

Nalin Rai

Utpal Dutt

Apart from the theatre community, particularly in West Bengal, there aren't many people who are aware of Utpal Dutt's contribution to theatre. As a matter of fact he was first a man of theatre and subsequently a man of cinema, and whatever he earned through cinema he deployed it to promote the cause of theatre.

His 20th death anniversary was on August 19 2013. It's an opportune time to revisit Utpal Dutt's monumental contribution to the cause of theatre. Utpal Dutt used theatre as a tool to educate the masses and when he was alive no political rally of the Marxists was complete without his 30 minute street plays that were catalyst in swaying the opinion in favour of the Marxists. He considered his theatre to be a theatre of revolution. For Utpal Dutt, the common man was always more important than all the intelligentsia put together. He also used his theatre to expose the wrongdoings of the State.

This path towards a theatre of revolution evolved out of epic theatre. Bengal had experienced the effects of colonialism in a profound manner, and the vestige of colonialism continued to dominate the local psyche. Utpal Dutt, when he enacted his first play on the life of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, juxtaposed the existentialist dilemma of the Bengali that swayed from one extreme of ''colonial admiration'' to the other extreme of ''colonial revolt''. The element of revolt however became the leitmotif that defined the plays of Utpal Dutt.

Though Utpal Dutt borrowed the idea of Epic Theatre from Bertolt Brecht, his formulation of Epic Theatre was at a different tangent with that of Brecht's. Himani Bannerji, a Sociologist and writer based in Canada, has succinctly underlined the difference between the two approaches. According to her 'Utpal Dutt's Epic Theatre, unlike Brecht's Epic Theatre for class struggle, is first and foremost a nationalist theatre with an added on rather than intrinsic socialist agenda.'' What this means is that whereas Utpal Dutt, closer to his own theatrical tradition and to Stanislavsky, aspired to raise his Epic Theatre based on the reinvigorating power of myths, Brecht formulated his vision by subjecting this very myth to question. One was anchored in his rich and vibrant epic-mythic mode, and the other delighted in sabotaging the myths from inside out. Utpal Dutt needed colourful heroes, Brecht longed for a society which did not need heroes. Brecht's famous plays such as MOTHER COURAGE and GALILEO have nothing heroic about them in the Aristotelian or Elizabethan sense.

Utpal Dutt was an unabashed fan of Josef Stalin and Stalin's influence, one way or the other, dominated his plays. It could be said that Utpal Dutt was made for theatre. After his graduation from St. Xavier's college in Calcutta, as it was formerly known, he formed a group called The Shakespeareans. The first play performed by this group was RICHARD III. Geoffrey and Laura Kendall were so impacted by the performance that they roped Utpal Dutt into their Shakespearana theatre company and for two years continuously Utpal Dutt enacted various roles from Shakespeare's plays and performed all across India and in Pakistan. However he was disenchanted with the elitist plays that he was working in, and decided to start performing in his native language Bengali by forming the Little Theatre Group.

His translations of Shakespeare and other Russian classicists into Bengali are still fondly remembered by fans of theatre in Bengal. Utpal Dutt did not restrict himself to forming only one theatre group. He also formed other groups, namely the Peoples Theatre Group, Arjo Opera and Vivek Yatra Sama Samaj. To deepen his understanding of literary works in other languages and to be able to translate them into his native language Bengali, Utpal Dutt taught himself Spanish, German, French and Latin. In the meanwhile, he continued to teach English in South Point School in Kolkata and did so even after he became famous.

Utpal Dutt's Little Theatre became the platform that staged the struggle of oppressed groups against the repressive forces. Evolving at the intersection of European and Indian culture, it was a key force that demolished many a myth associated with colonialism. Utpal Dutt regarded colonialism as exploitation of the worst kind and through his theatre he challenged the bourgeoisie and other distorted versions of history.

He was also instrumental in rejuvenating the Yatra Pala or what is popularly known as Jatra, a kind of folk drama performance in Bengali. He leveraged the platform of the Jatra in an effective manner to expound his leftist ideology and belief among the rural folk in the villages of Bengal. He formed his own Jatra groups and wrote twenty-two full-length plays, fifteen street plays, and nineteen Jatra scripts. He acted in thousands of shows, and directed more than sixty productions.

Minerva Theatre in Kolkata was his prime address. He had taken the theatre on lease in 1959. His association with the issues of the masses began with ANGAR (Fire) a play that was based on exploitation of the coal miners in 1959. It set the course for a series of similar plays which were characterized by the imaginative use of lights, sound, visual extravaganza, music, tense acting and situations peppered with melodramatic performances. Minerva thus became his karmabhoomi for the next decade.

His longest running play was KALLOL. It had the backdrop of the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny of 1946, and it was performed through and through with an anti-government tone, for which Utpal Dutt was imprisoned and put behind the bars. He was also thrown out of Minerva theatre, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as he adopted the street as his stage. He emerged as the shining beacon of street plays in Kolkata in those times. For the phenomenal contribution that he made to theatre, Utpal Dutt was awarded a lifetime fellowship by the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

The jury may still be out on whether Utpal Dutt did the right thing by aligning himself with the Marxist ideology. One thing is for sure though - his yeomen contribution to the cause of theatre has a singular legacy in the history of modern theatre in India.

Nalin Rai is a writer interested in drama. He tries to focus on theatre outside urban spaces.

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