In quest of another history through theatre
Few creative endeavours, certainly, remind the Bangladeshi citizens that there are more stories buried in the mammoth structures of plain and simple nationalistic narrative. Needless to say, it calls for the academics to understand that a vast mine of unheard, unknown, un-discovered, are awaiting explorations. Such explorations may not bring about heavy funding from national or international funding agencies immediately, something that Bangladeshi academia is by and large obsessed with.
For instance, Bot Tala, a theatre group of promising artists in Dhaka, brings to the proscenium a critical moment of historical significance. It was yet another performance of a play on 12 May 2017 at Mahila Samiti theatre. A theatrical adaption of the novel written by Shahaduzzaman, the play titled 'Crutch-er Colonel' echoes the intellectual aspiration, emotional quests, and probing questions perhaps hiding in the hearts of citizens.
This is indeed something much needed at this hour of monochromatic politics in Bangladesh, where nobody dares questioning history of Liberation war and its aftermath. It asks cardinal questions in the middle of tired answers: who is the hero, where is the hero, and how to approach the heroes in the history of Bangladesh? Does the play, so fabulously directed by Mohammad Ali Haider and written with unparallel sensitivity by Soumya Sarkar and Samina Luthfa Nitra, answer any of the questions?
It chooses to leave the audience with provocations abound to live their rest of the lives with these questions. And that is the accomplishment of the play. The play creatively employs the metaphor of hero in unsettling the linear sense of theatrical practices. And most importantly, it beautifully upsets the clinical preoccupation of history with simpler narratives, offering an opportunity for the drab historiographers in Bangladeshi academia.
The performance is not about 'left-rhetoric', despite its empathy with 'biplabi' (revolutionary) spirit. This is a challenging task to narrate history from the vantage points of revolutionaries without falling prey to the dominant rhetoric. This is important as the left-leaning progressive theatre has met with severe dead-ends in terms of art and craft in various parts of South Asia. While rest of the theatre groups in the region are left with left-rhetoric, Bot Tala shows the way forward without forgetting its political commitments.
The writer duo of 'Crutch-er Colonel' ought to be commended for meeting the extraordinary sensitivity in maintaining the interrogative mode throughout the play. Even though melodrama is at work as a crucial device, as an insightful director Mohammad Ali Haider keeps the leash tight with actions, humour, sarcasm, wit, along with moistures of emotion.
This play is indeed a perfect example of team spirit taking the performance to the levels of complex solidarity of actions off-stage and on-stage. And anyone with faintest idea of good theatre would immediately admit the necessity of the unison of the two-parts of the production in making a play incredibly credible. Each actor in the cast looks capable of effortlessly switching to many roles. They are in any case both, theatre actors and the characters from history in the script that unfolds on the stage. This simpler duality of actor and character, added by more layers of historicity and politics, keeps an audience riveted. At times, it seems that the actors of Bot Tala are in the habit of consuming some sublime energy which enables them to look fresh even though they perform challenging multiple roles in one play.
The 'Crutch-er Colonel' is important contribution in the performance scene of Bangladesh. Not only for the finesse of theatrical craft with which it comes. But also, because it occasions a critical engagement with 'what is Bangladesh's history of liberation war and its aftermath'? As mentioned earlier, it aids in the search for the heroes, in the times when there is growing disillusionment with the familiar heroes who dominate the grand narrative with nearly failed fantasies.
It nudges us to rethink of a historical hero, yet to be recognized and discussed. This invites for a subaltern turn, so to say, in the historiography of Bangladesh without being determined by the bipolar ideology of national and anti-national.
The play is fairly nationalistic in the sense that it is respectful to the idea of an independent Bangladesh. The rant of Jai-Bangla, coupled with anti-Pakistan sentiments, is testimonials of historically contextualized patriotism in the narrative scheme of the play. But then, it asks for more as it speaks to the audience through the biography of a wounded war veteran Abu Taher.
Thankfully, a theatre group such as Bot Tala is attempting to be an ideal heir to the glorious tradition of critical theatre in Bangladesh by doing plays, indeed, filling in the vacuums created by sterile academic intelligentsia. It makes us optimistic that there could be a radical transformation in the scheme of reasoning in Bangladeshi intelligentsia, sooner or later.
Dev Pathak teaches Sociology at South Asian University, New Delhi, and is a Bongo-phile who likes to study cultural lives in Bangladesh