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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 51 New Delhi December 12, 2015

Revisiting the World of Keya

Sunday 13 December 2015, by Arup Kumar Sen

Keya Chakraborty (1942-1977) was a legendary actress on the Bengali stage in the late 1960s and 1970s. She died a mysterious death while shooting for a Bengali film, Jeevan Jey Rakam (Life as it is). She jumped into the Ganges from the boat in a particular scene and was washed away. The body was recovered with multiple injuries.

I did not have a chance to see Keya Chakra-borty’s acting. I saw her once as a school boy on the Annual Sports Day of Scottish Church College where she taught in the Department of English (1964-1974) and my father taught in the Depart-ment of Physics.

Keya emerged as a legendary actress by acting in the plays produced by the Nandikar Group on the Bengali stage, including Tin Poisar Pala, Bhalomanush (Bengali versions of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera and Good Person of Szechwan) and the Bengali rendition of Antigone.

Very recently, an edited book (ed. by Debesh Chattopadhyay) bearing the title Keya has been published. It is basically a reprint of the special issue of a little magazine dedicated to Keya Chakraborty, published in 1995, eighteen years after her death. Reading the book makes one conscious of a lost world.

Keya was not only a great actress. She had a collective feeling for the group for which she acted. She even mortgaged her jewellery and sought loans from others in moments of crisis of the Nandikar group. Her ethical sense was so strong that she resigned from the Scottish Church College in 1974 when she thought that she could not devote sufficient time to her teaching job because of her deep involvement in the world of acting. After resigning from this job Keya was in charge of publicity for her group.

The great Indian playwright, Badal Sarkar, eloquently portrayed Keya’s personality after her death. Sarkar noted that Keya had a deadly emotion in her character, perhaps some sort of dream-driven romanticism; she had a free, energetic and healthy mind; she was not a party to our mask-civilisation; she boldly expressed what she felt and did not care inviting the displeasure of many people for that. Sarkar recollected how meticulous was Keya in her preparation before she acted in the play Micchil (Procession), a famous Bengali play written by Sarkar, which was collectively performed by several small groups in the Curzon Park of Central Calcutta, to protest against the killing of Prabir Dutta, a young man, by the police in the same open field.

Keya’s passionate feeling for others was evident in the fact that in the early 1970s she alone rushed late at night to an area dominated by the Naxalites in North Calcutta to give her care to a severely wounded innocent young man. On another occasion, while returning from the rehearsal on a rainy day, Keya gave her woolen wrapper to an old man who was shivering in cold. She once showed the courage of saving a poor man in her locality when he was being severely beaten by a mob for alleged theft.

While recollecting Keya’s acting in Michhil, Badal Sarkar stated that it is unthinkable in present-day Kolkata that people will protest against the death of a young man in police firing but that happened in the 1970s. Two decades have passed since Badalbabu’s assessment of Keya’s personality in the mid-1990s. Now, Kolkata is a city where any kind of State or non-State violence does not create lasting ripples in the public mind. Keya’s creative life enlightens us for imagining an alternative public life in Kolkata where compassion for others will be an organic part of our intellectual and political journey.