Sunil Das

Kris Manjapra

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Interview Participants
KM
Test, test, test. Test, test, test.123,123, 123, 123,123, 123. Could you also test?
Yeah, I was born in 25th May, 1943.
KM
Just wait one second.
KM
This is an oral history interview on August 25th, 2009 with Dr. Sunil Das. Dr. Das, thank you for your time. And perhaps we can begin by some bio data - when you were born, where you were born. And then we can go from there.
I was born in Calcutta in 25th May, 1943.
KM
And at the time here in, in Bengali culture, usually when the boy or the girl at the age of 5, 6, 7, then they start learning some thing, not before that. It was so free. But today, when the babies born, from the time the parents are so much anxious to be admitted in a school. In our time it was not like that. But luckily I was admitted in a school where the main, I mean, head mistress, she was from Santiniketan. She is somewhere related to Satyajit Ray.
KM
Her name is Nalini Das. She is, at the time I was not knowing, that she is a famous writer for children. Later I came to know. But she was, she was our class teacher and there, in that school, in my first school, there was enough freedom. There was no restriction that, no bondage that you have to learn this, learn that - you have to write, you have to read. We were very much free, they gave us freedom- as you like it, do that.
KM
What was the name of the school?
The name of the school was here, it was a Bengali name -'Basic Primary School, Hastings House. Here, it was very near.
KM
It was a Bengali-medium school?
Bengali-medium yes. But they had the idea. Actually, they got that idea from Santiniketan; mixing Santiniketan and Gandhiji-, Gandhiji's idea. The government made that school. Luckily, I was the first student of that school, listed my name [laughs] and all my teacher, most of them from Santiniketan, and Nalini Das, she is a relative of Satyajit Ray. And she and Mr. Ray, they ran that paper "Sandesh."
KM
She was the editor with Satyajit Ray for a long time and later I came to know when I became grown, that she is a very good writer for the children, for juvenile literature. She is really a celebrity in that sense. With her, I first came to know how to write, and we call in Bengali, "Hate Khari" for the beginning there. And in that school, we had that freedom, that we can do anything. Usually I was interested in doing theater and some times, clay model also.
KM
But there, for the first time, we did one theater script. It is from Tagore's poem, "Pujarini" one - " Nibati bimbisara Nobiya Budha Magiya Loilo Podono Khokono Tar" $[bengali - 4:09]. Bimbisara, he was disciple of Buddha, but his son was against it. And so, so he became a very tyrant. And finally one woman, she was very fond of Buddha, she was worshipped Buddha. That's why, Ajatasatru, the son of that first king, when Ajatasatru became the king, he murdered that woman.
KM
That, that's the story of that poem. Its a long poem. From that poem, we did one theater, one small play.
KM
And how old were you then?
At the time I was seven. It is my first, I mean, theater play, and my teacher, Nalini Das, she first taught that not to act in the stage is the main acting. You have to realize that you are not acting.
KM
That is the first lesson I got from her and after that from, from the, I mean, Pujarini, in the school life, in every year 2, 3, 4 project theater play we used to do in school.
KM
Mostly Tagore or is it different?
Mostly Tagore, some times it's from Sukumar Ray, who is the father of Satyajit Ray, or Upendrakishore, the grand father of Satyajit's.
KM
Actually it was because of Nalini Das, she was very keen on doing some thing on her relatives or some thing like that. So in school life, I was very much accustomed in the acting and after, when I passing from school then I come to the general school. That school (primary school) ran only for 5 years.
KM
What was its name?
That school, this one.
KM
Oh this one, that you were just speaking spoke of.
Yes, only for five years. It was a very big project from the government. The central government and West Bengal government, both of them, they helped a lot about that. And it was free, we didn't pay anything for that. At that time, even the Education Minister, Mr. Karju, he visited once here.
KM
And the relation with the Japanese children also- we used to send our handworks, like model, painting to the Japanese students. They used to sent us, some thing like that. It was a very nice beginning. After that, when I came to the general school, then in that general school, there was not so much cultural atmosphere. But I used to do it myself. We became a group with a group of boys. We used to stage some play in our home, on the roof or somewhere.
KM
Then, when I was student in the college, Asutosh College, that time Utpal Datt's Little Theater was a very prominent group in Bengali theater. Actually, in the modern time, you know, Sombhu Mitra and Utpal Dutt, they are the most, I mean, projected man. You know in every sense of the term, related to the theater, they did a lot for the Bengali theater, you can say for the Indian theater so far. So this, there was a - actor, Rabi Ghosh, by then.
KM
He, he acted in many films of Satyajit Ray's. Rabi Ghosh was the director of a new group formed, its known as Chalachal. They came from Uttpal Dutt's group. Some, at least ten or fifteen members, they had some tussle with Utpal Dutt, Subhas Sen so-
KM
Around what year was this?
It was '60, '61-'62, rounded.
KM
The Tagore centre also going on at that time- '61. '59, I passed my school final examination in '59, and after the passing that, I went to the Asutosh College at '59, end of '59. And 1960 I, I was acquainted with Robi Ghosh and the old theater persons from Utpal Dutt's team, that is "Little Theater Group", like Umanath Bhattacharyya, Bhola Dutta, Shyamal Sen, Robi Ghosh himself and some good actress also, like Nilima Das, she was very famous actress at that time.
KM
She has also taken part in many films also. And Chitra Sen, now still she is there. They were the members of that group. In that group, I was first trained from the group theater, group theater "Hatat Nabab". One Bengali, I mean, translation from Molière, Molière's play, written by Jyotirindranath Thakur, brother of Rabindranath. And it was my first group theater play. I was there from '60, '61-'62 up to six or seven years.
KM
When you say group theater play- do you mean play in this group or do you mean a particular kind?
Group Theater means actually, in Calcutta, from the very beginning of our theater history, we have two types of theater - one is commercial theater. Actually in 1970, in 1872, the first commercial theater movement started, by Girish Ghosh. Girish Ghosh and his followers 'Notibinodini' $[word unclear, bengali] and others.
KM
They first started the commercial theater, that means, that means they will sell the ticket, the audience will buy the ticket, and come to the theater hall and see their play. Before that it was only amateur. I mean some zamindar, some rich man, they sponsored and, usually in their garden house, there was one stage and theater-lovers; they used to do some plays there. And that zamindar, he used to invite to his friends there.
KM
You know, our first modern playwright, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, accidentally he started writing play when he was invited to see one of that type of play, in one theater garden, and he saw that they are making plays. The, the lords, they are spending so much money, but there was no modernity. You know, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, was very much accustomed to the western world. Actually, among our playwrights, he is the first who was very much acquainted with the western theater, western plays, drama and so on.
KM
So seeing that, Madhusudan said- then why they are spending so much money when this is nothing which could be presented with this modern ways? $[word unclear -12:40]. Then, then his friend just said, "Why you are saying so? Can you write one play? You don't know how to write Bengali and you are just criticizing everything." Then Madhusudan, "OK, I will write one play and show you how modern Bengali play could be." You know, that's the history.
KM
First he wrote six plays, two comedy and four long plays. One of the historical play, "Krishna Kumari" and the two comedies that, that was very interesting. So with Madhusudan, Bengali theater had just started, connected with the western ideas and play. And then gradually after Madhusudan, we got one very important theater person, playwright Dinabandhu.
KM
From-?
From, from Dinabandhu, we got some, some different plays with village revolution things and so. OK, we are coming to my, my I mean, practice. When I was acquainted with that Rabi Ghosh, we started with "Hatat Nabab" by Molière, then we did many plays with them. At least, six or seven years, I was in that group, group. And I, I learnt a lot from them. We had many invitations in different districts of West Bengal and we did, did that. After that in 1971, I actually founded my own group, Sangbad group theater, with my own play Dashami by name- the background was the Naxalite movement.
KM
You can say, it just was the first play on that movement, coming in to the stage. After that many play came, but it was in 1971, Dashami,my first play which I wrote and I directed. At the time I passed M.A. and I became teacher of a school, Tirthapati Institution name, near Deshapriya Park. And with my students- there was very, I mean, very interested student in that school. After that some of them have became very famous in theater, in film, in other, other life also. They was very eager for doing theater, they told me to do some thing. And with them, I just founded that group Sangbad in 1971.
KM
And from 1971 with my own play, I wrote many play which is now, published now in books also. Dashami, then Chagol, then Anna Jonmo, then Singhason. I wrote one after another, and then in round about five years back, five years later, in 1975, one of my student, Sanjay Bhattacharyya, now he is now very good music director also he directs telefilm. He did two or three telefilms on my story. He said that he want to do some dance theater and one of my student he was also very much, he had the knack of dancing and he had the wish to do something.
KM
So for these students one is Subhashish Bhattacharyya and other is Sanjay Bhattacharyya. Sanjay is interested for doing music and Subhashish he, he himself was a dancer. And for them I wrote, one dance theater known as Alor Pakhi. Later on, when we did the Alor Pakhi in Berlin, Berlin Youth Festival, in 19-, 19 - when Alor Pakhi we did?
1998. [Thank you!]
So in, in 1998, there was a youth exchange program between Brandenburg and Calcutta. The mayor of Brandenburg and mayor of Calcutta, they exchanged - with the youth program. So 21-,
'98.
Na na. Boys and girls, 21 boys and girls from Calcutta, they will go to Germany.
KM
First in Brandenburg, then they will visit all the places in Germany. And they will participate in two youth festival, one in Berlin and other is, another place, called Templin, near 75 kilometers away, 175 kilometers away. $[bengali - 18:29].
KM
This, this, this will happen or, this has happened?
No, it has happened!
Then the mayor of Calcutta told me that, this youth will stage your dance theater in Berlin and Templin, in youth festival. So as a mayor of Calcutta, I would like if you go with the team, as a leader of the team, because we need some elder person at the time. Because all the, I mean, participants, they were between 20, 21, 22, maximum 25. This is the age of the group and only I was the senior person there I went. In that festival- he's also dance composer of our, my group, Bimal Das by name, and Taan, my daughter at the time, she was young at the time.
KM
They did that 'Alor Pakhi' as a pivotal role, Pakhiwala $[unclear, 19:36]. And there, actually particularly in Templin, it so interesting that, at the time, the Governor of Uckermark, a province of Germany, he was there. He was there, and after seeing all seven or eight production at that day, our production became the best and he presented me one, I mean, silver medal for the best production. We enjoyed it very much that time.
KM
Its fascinating to hear about this trip to Germany and makes me want to ask more about the international context in which your art developed. If you could even go back to the roots, when you were developing within group theater, studying with great figures that you mentioned. You mentioned that one of the first plays you did was Molière.
Yeah.
KM
Was there, was there a shift between doing Tagore plays and classic plays to doing Molière and Brecht-
Yes.
KM
And you know, more international playwrights-
Yes-
KM
If there was a shift, when did that shift happen? .
Actually it happened like that before that. I told you just about 1998. But there was break in my life - it is 1991. At the time, the Max Mueller Bhavan, they wanted to produce one Tagore play with one Indian director and another one, guest director from Germany. They invited Volva Marin $[name unclear], the veteran and most respected theater director from Germany. And they said, they had that idea, that with one Tagore play, one director from Germany, guest director from Germany, and one director from Calcutta, they will coordinate and they will produce one Tagore play.
KM
And at that time Martin Kampchen did a wonderful role there. You know, perhaps in 1926 maybe, Tagore visited Germany thrice: '21, '26 and '30. Once there was 105 production of "Post Office" in Germany, which was so popular in Germany. And at the time, many translations from, from English to Germany happened, from German happened. But at the in 1900, may be in 1980, '89 or '88, Martin, he translated Post Office directly from Bengali to German.
KM
And one small place, Chur by name, this is the border of Switzerland and Germany, they staged that Post Office, postum $[unclear word - 23:17] with Martin's translation. And they selected Volva Marin $[name unclear] as the director. And there, Volva Marin $[name unclear], he did some thing path-breaking, theater production of this Dak Ghar or The Post Office. So when Calcutta, just two years after that, it was in 1988 or '89. And in 1991, Calcutta, Max Mueller Bhavan, they decided to make that performance with this co-direction, and it will be presented in original Bengali.
KM
So they selected me from Calcutta and, and Volva Marin $[name unclear] $[name unclear] suggested by Martin. Martin did every thing because he knew everything, he knew me. No! Martin didn't knew me. Max Mueller Bhavan knew me, Martin said to Mr. Ramanand at Max Mueller Bhavan you can select because Martin was at that time, Martin was not known very much to the theater world of Calcutta. So, when I was doing the rehearsing for this Post Office, I was acquainted with Martin.
KM
That was the first time, and then we became very much good friend. I went there and Martin used to come to my house all the time. He was very much connected with all our boys, that's why. And in 1991, this production, Tagore's Post Office in Bengali, it was a really fantastic production. And with that production, we then went through all India. Calcutta- we have, we have done 104 shows all over India. All the big cities of Calcutta and, not Calcutta, India. And even in the remote village, we did this Post Office in Martin's village.
KM
Have you visited Bishnupur?
KM
No.
One, you can see Bishnupur and Ghosaldagha $[unclear name of place - 25:34], there we also staged it and all over India. In Delhi, Madra-, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Lucknow, even in Imphal, Guwahati. All over India, we did it.
KM
And we very also invited, in 1994, the production was in 1991. 1994, with my group we, we first went abroad- that is in England. Because, seeing this Tagore's production, Ketaki Kushari Dyson of Oxford became so much interested, she came to me, she invited me, and she told me that can I direct one her plays. And I liked it, very much intellectual play- something different from so-called Bengali plays. So I had that interest and we started doing that.
KM
Hmm.
All of a sudden it was Ketaki, this is all her credit. In, in 1994, Manchester became the city of drama. Manchester organized all through the year City of Drama festival and we were invited there. That is the only play from Ketaki Kushari Dyson, "Rater Rodh" by name, night sun by name. The Manchester City of Drama festival invited us for staging consecutive two days in Manchester Dance Theater Hall.
KM
And with that connection, Ketaki did all this. We had to play, we performed in Oxford, in Birmingham also in London. At that same time, we were also invited by the Tagore Society of London to stage this Post Office. So with our group, we were invited there and we did the, all this 'Rater Rodh' four, five, five, five times we did there. In Manchester, two; one in Oxford, one in Birmingham, one in London. And we did also in London, it was a very big hall and very much crowded also with the Post Office. That was our first going to abroad country.
KM
And how did, how is Bengali theater, your experience of Bengali theater--we'll make it my last question for this interview since I don't want it to on for too long--how was Bengali theater connected to the the political realm, the political realm. Given that one always is aware of IPTA for example, the inter-group in the 1940s. When you were rising in theater in the 1950s, in the '60s, was that connection, say to Marxism or to the Indian People's Theater Association, was that still alive or was there some change that was there?
Yes, it was they are still but it was changing also. Because you know, this Utpal Dutt, the, the man with whom, whose, whose I mean members are connected with the Chalachal, where I first learned my group theater acting. This Rabi Ghosh, Shyamal Sen, all they used to act in the political plays. Little Theater group they, they came from this IPTA, Indian Peoples Theater group, they. So they had their political left ideas there, and in that connection, they used to always stage some plays with revolutionary ideas.
KM
But when in Chalachal, it was not like that. When they came, the amount from Little Theater group, they used to play others' play also. But up to, you can say, '70-'71, the Marxist wave was very, very strong in Bengali stage. Still today also, but in with not with that vigor. After that, nowadays, as the days pass by, we have more interested to do some Indian plays. In that case, Tagore became the most important playwright because there we are getting actually, where the Indianised, I mean, ideas can be easily projected with the international look.
KM
And for my, my part, I have seen when we started working with Volva Marin $[name unclear] then I, we had the chance I and my, my daughter and some of my group members, we had the chance of doing many theater workshop with Volva Marin $[name unclear] and others. Many others, theater director from Germany, they also came we had our workshop there. And we are there learn physical acting, more and more physical acting, and in my case it's like that, that Volva Marin $[name unclear] is very much connected with the international theater movement.
KM
He is the only director in the world who had directed plays in one, more than 150 languages, all over the world. Perhaps, he is the only director. Though he did not know all the languages but with his total acting theory he, he was educated in Paris, he was in France. There, he learned theater, acting then he came to Germany, his own place, Freiberg, but he married with a Japanese lady and he, he was very much interested with the Japan culture.
KM
Because his father-in-law was a celebrated person in ohio $[name unclear- 32.55] and then he was also in Tokyo also. There, that's why Marin had a very good connection with Japan, and from Japan, he learned a lot with about Noh theater, about Kabuki. Kabuki and Noh, most typical Japanese plays, he learned it. And what Marin said to me, "I got, I learned a lot from East. I took it to the West, and now I am bringing that to the East again."
KM
So, so it's a round way and we learned it from Marin also and also we have given some of our ideas, he has taken it, and we took his ideas. In that way we went into production.
KM
Very last question, I promise. What are the main features of Calcutta group acting method? The method that in Calcutta is practiced within the group class context?
What I start started saying before, that when our commercial theater started, then there was a commercial theater and amateur theater. After the Independence, the amateur theater was no more. In place of that, group theater grew up. Group theater means with more discipline, more practice, more regularity and also they try to do something new by selling tickets and other. But they have small money, so its small money and equipments, they want to do something experimental.
KM
In that way, gradually this group theater movement became very popular. Roundabout '40, '50, '60, you will find in the Bengali theater, that the commercial theater is very much dominating. Star, Vishwarupa, Rang Mahal; all this very big theater hall, they do regular theater there three or four times in a week or five times in a week. And people used to buy tickets there. They are all commercial.
KM
What, what the audience- they are dance, and so and so with very, I mean, lucid story, or theater from some very popular novel they use to do. That's why in, from '40, '50, '60 up to '70, the commercial theater was very, very strong. Good theater was there, some started the experiment. But from '71 onwards, this commercial theater went down. Now there is no commercial theatre, gradually all this from group theater is now is the only strength of Calcutta.
KM
But now we are also thinking, that is not good the commercial theater went away.
Dada!
They had- [Yes]. So today, is, today' Calcutta's theater, you will find some groups who are experimenting very much.
KM
[Pause.]
KM
Well-,
Your question was-?
KM
That was it - the group theater and what the methods in group theater were?
Yes.
KM
That Marin for example-,
Yes.
KM
Encountered and found new? And what did he take from Calcutta group theater? This was the question.
Yeah. He, he what, he told us also that. That from Calcutta people, Marin told me also, that this here, the actor and actress very much eager to learn something new, which he didn't found in Germany also. Even his, he told me, here always people they are very much eager to do something new, that's why they can accept anything. So it's easy for him to do something new. They are not very much accustomed to particular one type of acting.
KM
They're open, very much open. And that openness, what Marin said, this this openness is very much interesting for you. But what we learn from him is the discipline. The wonderful discipline from him, we have learned. In particular the labor, the work, one thing doing once and again. He will, just for one sentence, one dialogue, he will practice for one hour- that's tenacity, that we learn form him. And also with this body acting. Before that, up to you could say '50, '50s up to '50s, in Bengali theater body acting was not so important, not so important.
KM
Tagore once mentioned that really, it is the most difficult thing with the hands of the actor, where it will put. He discussed, but in Bengali theater before, this body acting was not that much important. They had the voice throwing and so.
KM
At the very beginning, that means in the time of Girish Ghosh, where our commercial theater started 1970-'71, aye 1871, 100 year ago, they used to say, "Go in the front of the stage, deliver your dialogue and come back."
KM
This was the "Agiye Giye Pichiye Eso" $[bengali, 40:00] and that is Girish's idea. But locking the body acting, body language, that we learned very much from West. But, but the Western teacher, they are saying they have learned it from East also. Particularly from Japan, from Noh and Kabuki theater. Actually, you know, when Tagore visited Japan, one place in Japan, he wrote a letter to one of his friend, that this is for the first time I have seen in Japanese theater, Noh and Kabuki, that silence is so important in the stage.
KM
In ours, in our stage loud, loud and loud. It was like that, even its experiment. But silence has so much importance in theater, I came to know after seeing this Japanese theater. And after that, when Tagore came back in the fag end of his life, he started writing "Danswah" $[name unclear - 41.28]. All, all the Shyama and others, all he wrote in end of his life. And he said that to, to give the most important to a scene, particular where the inner drama is going on, this body acting with rhythm is very much essential and that I learnt in Japan.
KM
Marine and all our other Western French theater, they also said that actually, this body acting now which we are very much accustomed in the West, we got it from East. In that way, Japan, China in that way. We had here also, our dance theater like the Kathakali and others there also, we have that body movement in that way. So now, in the international, I mean, panorama, you can see that body acting is very, very much essential with this voice throwing art.
KM
So in this East and West mixing, we got that. That any type of, any type of play, we can project.
KM
Thank you very much for our conversation. It was very informative. I appreciate it.
Thank you also for discussing so much about it.
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