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In Memory Of Amitava Dasgupta

By Shamsul Islam

18 October, 2010
Countercurrents.org

Acclaimed peoples’ theatre and music director Amitava Dasgupta, known to his friends as Amit Da, breathed his last on October 9, 2010 (born on July 1, 1947). He did not recover well from a heart surgery in July and continued working until his very last days. His was a four-decade career of a hectic, enormous and distinguished pro-people cultural activist whose passion to use music and theatre against injustice never diminished.

The German theatre director, Fritz Bennewitz (1926-1995) an authority on Brechtian theatre and Dr Werner Hecht, the current head of Brecht Centre, Germany regarded Amit Da among the most prominent practitioners of Brechtian theatre. With his death India and the world also lost a prominent practitioner of Brechtian genre of theatre.

I came in contact with Amit Da in 1971 when he arrived in Delhi from Calcutta to escape the White Terror of the killing gangs (it was difficult to distinguish whether these were sponsored by the state or a political party which claimed to represent left) who were out on streets to liquidate all those activists and intellectuals who supported the cause of Naxalbari Uprising. Calcutta thus lost Amit Da and many more talented and socially committed personalities like him but it was a great gain for Delhi. It was a second forced migration for him. His parents who hailed from Barisal (now in Bangladesh) had to migrate to Calcutta in the wake of Partition.

At that time Sapru House in Mandi House area used to be the abode of homeless rebel intellectuals, artists and activists. It was also the time when the first street theatre group of Northern India, Mukti, was being groomed under the creative leadership of Srilata Swaminathan. We met first time on the Sapru House lawns and developed an instant comradeship. He had great cultural dreams, the most important being to mould Brechtian theatre into the folk theatre as practiced by different sections of the working class of Delhi. He had been experimenting with jatra while he was in Bengal. When a drama critic described it as a project to Indianize Brecht, Amit Da was quick to retort that he did not subscribe to this kind of nomenclature as it seemed to claim that Indian theatre was some kind of homogenous whole or free of class biases. For him folk forms of theatre were the product of the toil-sweat-blood of the Havenots and as a cultural response were close to Epic Theatre of Brecht which not only exposed the hypocrisy of rulers/elites but also aimed at enabling the audience to critically respond to human conditions in a class divided society. He was conscious that ruling classes in the past were able to introduce anti-woman and vulgar content to this genre thus killing its political substance. By combining Indian folk traditions with the Brechtian theatre he wanted to bring back the original thrust of the former.

I still remember Amit Da and myself spending nights together with jhalliwallas (porters), thelewalas (cart-pullers), cycle-rickshaw pullers, construction workers, folk performers etc listening to their folk music-songs, witnessing and occasionally participating in their folk theatrical performances in areas like Chandni Chowk, Ajmeri Gate, Jamuna Pushta (where he helped to establish ‘Sukanto Colony’ for rickshaw-pullers), Karol Bagh, under construction site near RK Puram where JNU campus was being built and Mehrauli where farm houses of the neo-rich were coming up. He always impressed with his knowledge and mastery over music and remained his forte through out.

He had no hesitation in calling himself a social and political activist. His spelled out his plans and thinking in the following words: “I decided to stay in Delhi, using theatre as my platform, staging plays in Hindi. As a political and social activist I decided to follow Bertolt Brecht's concept of Epic Theatre and formed Brechtian Mirror in 1971. I found two important things in Brechtian theatre-it has a satirical approach towards bourgeois society and culture. And its theory of alienation conveys a message to enable the audience to reflect on the human condition in a class society." [Interview in The Hindu, March 9, 2007].

There was no looking back. He lamented the fact that no attempt had been made to theorise the creative elements of country’s centuries-old anti-feudal and anti-colonial folk theatre tradition (which he named as Grameen Theatre) resulting in the extinction of more than 75 per cent of rare folk forms of India. He did not confine himself to Delhi or Hindi belt. He and his life companion, Noor Zaheer (daughter of legendry progressive Urdu writer Sajjad Zaheer) concentrated on reviving political folk theatre in Himachal, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Tamilnadu and Jammu & Kashmir and Haryana.

Even Emergency could not deter him and he was ready with his repertoire of short Brechtian plays exposing the emerging fascist state. He also helped in organizing the printing and circulation of anti-Emergency literature, especially folk songs in and around Delhi.

The weakening of the left politics and set-backs to mass struggles in the wake of the rising tide of the neo-liberal order world-over did not dishearten him and he took these set-backs as part of the struggle for justice. However, he had to seek funds from state cultural academies to continue his work. He was not happy with the situation and hoped that a day would come when mass movements would sustain works like his.

He remained a firm Communist in his personal life which has always been in short supply among the Communist in India. He and Noor Zaheer became life partners in 1986 without resorting to any religious gimmick. It was a relationship between two Communists which remained steadfast till his death. Their three children, Pankhuri, Damru and Surdhani were given no religious names and they practice no religion. At the time of the electric cremation, friends and relatives were told that as per the agreement of the family there would be no religious karamkand (religious rites). His friends like me were relieved. Amit Da was remembered and his Communist legacy recollected in a memorial meeting which was held at Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi. It ended with a song penned by Amit Da and sung beautifully by his three children. This was the dream for which Amit Da lived and died:

Ameeron kee jab naa hukmarani rahegi/Naa raja rahega, naa hukmarani rahegi/Hamari hae dharti, hamari rahegi/Mehnat kashon kee kahani kahegee

[When the rich will not be the rulers/there will be no king and no kingdoms/the land belongs to us and we will claim it/the stories of those who toil will be sung]

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