Thursday, April 23, 2009

Theatre of Probir Guha

1Expressions/‘pure’ physicality: Alternative Language of Theatre (ALT in Bengal)

Benil Biswas

This is a theatre that prides itself in violating conventions of dramatic art. It does not use any language, any written script or any accessories, moving the dramatic action from the proscenium stage to the open lawns, enacting images of oppression and plight of the victimised sinking deeper in their misery and degradation.”, comments Diwan Singh Bajeli, noted theatre critic1 after seeing a show by the Alternative Living Theatre.

The plays doesn’t have any written script and uses no spoken language than the question arises what is the medium of communication.... here it is the body, body is used in a very “political” sense, and to bare it all to us, as if to urge us to rethink not just “how” of theatre, but also the “what” of theatre.

Every body- Every body is political; and it speaks: through our physical expressions, our gestures and mimic, our body tells stories about our background, about what mood we are in, about what we would like people around us to do, etc. Our decoding or reading of body language has been shaped throughout our lives by the culture we live in. Without thinking, we perceive or interpret certain gestures in a certain way. To cut it short, as Susan Bordo so succinctly puts it; “the body ... is a medium of culture”.2

Of course, in modern theatre like a resurrection of the phoenix, this notion of culture specificity resurrected a few decades ago, giving birth to new mode and languages of theatre and worthy sons of theatre like Bhanu Bharti's "Pashu Gayatri", Ratan Thiyan's "Chakravyuh", Prasanna's "Huliya Neralu" and Bansi Kaul's "Khel Guru Ka", whose production ware considered to be landmark in contemporary Indian Theatre. Guha's1

Ahalya” -a unique theatrical experiment with the body came to national attention when he shared the stage with the above mentioned doyens on the lawns of the Sangeet Natak Akademi way back in 1984 at the Natya Samaroh.

As in India, the physical theatre or the dominance of a strict code of the body was quite a feature of the classical- folk- traditional theatre, so these directors found the need and sites of practice of this pure physical theatre in our modern theatrical domain, and in the process found out elements of the traditional performances from the past rejuvenated in our times, liberating it in both the sense. Liberating modern theatre as it breaks free from already fixed expressions, stale verbality and creating new; ways of expressions, and on the other hand introducing the new generation to the traditional performances, where they could connect themselves with their own past.

Of course, this ritual and cultural representation alone in its form, divorced from the relationship to the practical entity of the body is a limiting one. Infact, the body has to go through the transformation in the social order, on the contrary we just tend to understand it in terms of culture. We don’t understand that it is the body that is conditioned by the routine table manners, toilet, and other civic amenities, is slowly drifting away, beyond our grasp by this unconscious politics of body. Thus, our conscious politics, social commitments, strivings for change may be undermined and betrayed by the life of our bodies. Elanine Scarry warns that it is almost impossible to assess the myriad ways in which the nation -state “penetrates the deepest layers of consciousness, and manifest itself in the body itself.... The political identity of the body is usually learned unconsciously, effortlessly, and very early.”3

So, As the body is the prime site in performance and in the manifestation of politics, then the usage of that very body in performance to subvert the erstwhile dominating politics is all the more organically possible. Thus, to constitute or look for a universal model of political theatre in India, illuminates us about the notion of newly formed nation state influencing Piscatorial political theatre in India. But over time the notion of politics has already changed, and so are the goals and definition of politics and political theatre. Economic viability is no longer the understanding of politics. The broad framework of class division of the oppressed in the society no longer exist. Now it is always a group as a body among many bodies /groups and each one has its own politics.

So, while searching for those circumstances where the body is undeniable, Jeanie Forte zeroed down of two such situation. One is very obvious, that is performance more closely Theatre. And the other situation is of pain.4

On one hand you have the live performance baring the undeniablity of the body and the other situation is of the felt material existence of this corporeality. Artaud too talks about this notion of the body in performance in his Theatre and its Double.

Of course, in Indian context, the so called Agit-Prop plays that marked our politico-/people’s theatre during 70's and 80's too feeds up this notion of the pain. The lack of basic amenities for the body, Roti, Kapra and Makan ( Food, Clothing and Livelihood) leads one to the angst or the pain of portraying it in theatre. Earliest and the most potent example of this is IPTA’s Nabanna.2

Nabanna depicted the ruthless pain of the famine in its all possible noir shades, creating a dialogue between what has happened and what should be. Such a theatre that hopes for a social change would enable the people with that lack, gain equality out of it. But as I have pointed out earlier that the very notion of political has changed, and therefore, the Bhaktinian equation of the Centre-Margin is not just on the broad economic lines, as just economic crisis is not the heart of political moves now, it has multiplied as veins and cappilaries, creating this complex matrix of multiple marginalities. Starting from antropological marginalities of the tribes, through socio-cultural marginalities of religion, caste and of course nation to the very closed marginal space of that being a woman, gay etc and this many go on. So, this deluge of multiple marginalities would lose its apparently specific strength, if our parameter of studying them is just a broad economic equality, or at most an attempt on the political lines to club together many sub cultures to a dominant culture that would provide them with the tools to shirk off their marginality. Though this might seem to be a very illuminatory, it is just a theoretical possibility. The works of Nancy Fraser, Pierre Bourdieu5 and many other socio-political thinker, would lead one to understand and ultimately critic the above mentioned theoritical possibiltiy and almost negate it. In such a troubled time as ours, the only practical similarity across these marginalized communities, or subcultures is the pain of being on the margins or even beyond it. Thus, the proper portrayal of the pain in theatre can now be the locus of the power and politics.

Case studies on these portrayal of pain can be many, for example all the marginal communities that I have named earlier are visible as they have consciously rendered their pain visible to us. Thus, we see that pain is the ultimate expression towards the building of (to use Augusto Boal’s term) an aesthetics of the oppressed.

ALT’s activity is one such case study and a vital case study to begin with as here the focus is on body. Well, there are many more groups in Bengal that are doing political theatre or rather community theatre. But here in ALT it is a special act of concentrating on just the body and that becomes your text. As we have earlier pointed out that the two circumstance when the body is visible are on stage in performance and in pain. And further, though we have understood pain as a category to be quite universal though may be varying in its cause and effect, is another site of the visibility of body, but it comes in with a poison tooth of its own. Scarry referring to this poison tooth of pain, defines “ pain is that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed”, and as such, is always subject to doubt when claimed by someone other than oneself. It shows a persistent resistence to language, in fact actively destroying language, in that it reduces its subject to a state of anterior to language and this is essential to what pain is. Nevertheless, the language of pain is first and foremost an attempt to communicate to the person who is not in pain, in order to move them into action; “verbally expressing pain is a necessary prelude to the collective task of diminishing pain,”. At this point, doesn’t the earlier statement sound striking similar to what people’s theatre or community theatre in our times seek to do. They(theatre) try and build consciousness again, in order to move them into action. Well, I believe it is theatre on one level even for Amnesty International, when they perform through their firsthand account of torture, pain in their posters. The purpose of which is to get the reader to identify with the tortured, to be moved to end that suffering, as if it were her or his own.

Thus, now we have a more concrete entry point, that might lead us to develop a proper methodology into that realm of theatre or the so called people’s theatre that has been quite dominant across the vast Indian theatrical landscape, where distinct genres of theatre is produced by distinct marginalised groups, portraying their own pain with a force that has its vector.

Let that entry point be Guha, who felt the need of exploring this expressive physical language of theatre that depicts this pain, but not at the cost of the message or the ideology that propels him and many others to do theatre. On the other hand it is leading us to develop an aesthetics of people’s theatre in our times. ALT felt the need of developing an alternative language that would be more organic and be universal and on the other hand save theatre from the paralyzing influence of the language based verbal theatre that of course has social cause but tends to be didactic and further more is limiting and limited as it cannot cross the language barrier. One more stake is to initiate the audience to get involved in it, and start thinking, questioning it and not just be a mute observer. Of course, We see these all happening when we depict the pain in performance as Jill Dolan would suggest that moments of liminal clarity and communion, fleeting, briefly transcendent bits of profound human feeling and connection, spring from alchemy between performers and spectators and their mutual confrontation with a historical present that lets them imagine a different, putatively better future.6

Thus, ALT’s productions AMMA: a play based on the fragments of woman issue across the globe, Tritiya Yuddha : an anthropo- socio- economic interpretation of the rupturous phenomenon of globalization. And finally Victimised: a response to the on going act of terror, gloomy ghost of partition still looming large in our hearts are few representative example of this kind of theatre, that speaks the language of pain. More particularly, in Victimised, when in the final scene, an actor playing the role of a victimised, an oppressed, starts pouring burning-melting candle on his body, it is a real ‘moment’ where all boundaries blur. The pain being performed, felt and imagined at different levels, definitely creates a connection like never before between the actors, performance and the spectators. This image stays long after you have left the performance space and is the true strength of the performance.

This subtle understanding of shock at the final moments of the play also refines politics as a very organic concept, not a didactic propaganda, but something which is dynamic and is dialectical, as everybody would have a different response to the shock. Thus, Alternative Living Theatre as a movement or a moment in history illuminates our understanding of the delicate dialectics marked between 1950's Agit -prop political theatre and the organic nature of politics emerging as a dialogue between power and powerless nowadays. This will definitely help us to develop a tangible aesthetics in this intangible domain of theatre that lives on the vision of bringing about a social change or at least lead the “witness” to engage in the organic act of thinking, liberating them from their passivity, and inspire them to be in direct contact with the actors, and the issues in concern. The movement for a strong Alternative Living Theatre will grow in the future that would definitely bring in many new perspectives, and of course more true, and apt models to extend the frontiers of performance.


1 Probir Guha,- A student of Jerzy Grotowski, he opened Living Theatre in Khardah, a small town near Kolkata, in 1977. Later formed the Alternative Living Theatre. He is a recipient of Prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, 2008 for Direction

2 Nabanna staged on 24th October, 1943, by IPTA at Kolkata

1. The Hindu, Friday Review Delhi, dated- Friday, Feb 09, 2007


Susan R. Bordo, “The Body and the reproduction of Femininity: A feminist Appropriation of Foucault,” in Jaggar and Bordo, Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstruction of Being and Knowing, ed. Alison M. Jaggar and Susan R. Bordo (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 13

3.Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 109

4.Jeanie Forte, “Focus on the body: Pain, Praxis, and Pleasure in Feminist Performance” in Critical Theory and Perfromance, ed. Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach ( Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1992)

5Nancy Fraser and Pierre Bourdieu, (Mis) recognition, Soical Inequality and Social Justice, ed. Terry Lovell, (Routledge, 2007)

6 Jill Dolan, Utopia in Performance, Finding Hope at the Theater, (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2005.) Page-168

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