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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 44, October 23, 2010

Acclaimed People’s Theatre and Music Director, Communist and Friend

Sunday 24 October 2010, by Shamsul Islam


Acclaimed people’s theatre and music director Amitava Dasgupta, known to his friends as Amit-da, breathed his last on October 9, 2010 (he was 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 an outstanding and distinguished pro-people cultural activist whose passion to use music and theatre against injustice never diminished.

The German theatre director, Fritz Bennewitz (1926-95), an authority on Brechtian theatre, and Dr Werner Hecht, the current head of the 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 the 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 the gangs sponsored by the state from those organised by a political party which claimed to represent the Left) who were out on streets to liquidate all those activists and intellectuals who supported the cause of the 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 the Mandi House area used to be the abode of homeless rebel intellectuals, artistes 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 for the 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 practised 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 Indianise 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 Have-nots and as a cultural response were close to the Epic Theatre of Brecht which not only exposed the hypocrisy of the rulers/elites but also aimed at enabling the audience to critically respond to human conditions in a class divided society. He was conscious that the ruling classes in the past were able to introduce the anti-women and vulgar content to this genre thus killing its political substance. By combining Indian folk traditions with 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 the ‘Sukanto Colony’ for the rickshaw-pullers), Karol Bagh, the under construc-tion site near RK Puram where the JNU campus was being built and Mehrauli where farm houses of the neo-rich were coming up. He always impressed one with his knowledge and mastery over music and this 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 the Epic Theatre and formed the Brechtian Mirror in 1971. I found two important things in Brechtian theatre—it has a satirical approach towards the 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 the 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 the Hindi belt. He and his life companion, Noor Zaheer (daughter of the legendary progressive Urdu writer Sajjad Zaheer), concentrated on reviving the political folk theatre in West Bengal, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir, and Haryana.

Even the 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 organising the printing and circulation of anti-Emergency literature, especially folk songs in and around Delhi.

The weakening of Left politics and setbacks to mass struggles in the wake of the rising tide of the neo-liberal order the world over did not dishearten him and he took these setbacks as part of the struggle for justice. However, he had to seek funds from the 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; this has always been in short supply among the Communists in India. He and Noor Zaheer became life partners in 1986 without resorting to any religious gimmick. It was a relationship between two Communists that remained steadfast till his death. Their three children—Pankhuri, Damru and Surdhani—were given no religious names and they practise no religion. At the time of his cremation at the electric crematorium 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 at a memorial meeting held at the 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]

The author, who teaches at Satyawati College, University of Delhi, is himself a noted theatre personality and heads the Nishant Natya Manch.

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