On January 15, 71-year-old Benu Chattopadhyay, the Calcutta-based director of New Theatre Group, was forced to apologise in Cooch Behar by Trinamul activists who claimed his group's play Setubandhan had slandered the government by allegedly using the words "Ma Maati Manush" and "Didi" in a context that suggested corruption was being condoned.
The director said the play had the words "ma" and "maati" but not "Ma Maati and Manush" which Trinamul uses as its slogan.
Theatre artistes in Calcutta held a protest march on Thursday against the conduct of the Trinamul leaders of Cooch Behar. "There is a general atmosphere of fear, which is not good. We are not allowed to express our feelings," Usha Ganguli had said.
Metro asked some leading lights of Calcutta theatre about this fear factor…
Usha Ganguli, director-actor
If paribartan has been the key word then we want paribartan from the present scenario. If something like this keeps happening, people will get demoralised and not want to continue living here…. This fear and atmosphere is not good. Bengal was open. That openness is dying.... I was six when I moved from north India to Calcutta. I have seen many phases of political change but this kind of a scenario I haven't witnessed. This creates disturbance within.
Rudraprasad Sengupta, director-actor
Members of Trinamul Congress who were there when Benubabu was allegedly made to apologise, as members of the governing party in Bengal, it is their duty to ensure freedom of speech instead of infringing upon it just because it does not at the moment condone their ideals. Democracy should be upheld at any cost.... From this incident we realise that fear is something that perhaps is still more important than reason, as things prevail.
But to save the sanity of theatre we need to be a bit less partisan and be broader in our mentality because theatre itself is a democratic process. We can express our concern about the political situation through theatre but it is not right to voice our individual political agendas in the name of theatre. It is unfortunate that people concerned with theatre are increasingly using their partisanship and focussing less on the needs of theatre itself.
Suman Mukhopadhyay, director-actor
Eta aagey chhilo na ta noy (It's not that this wasn't there before). In fact this was started by CPM, of attacking any anti-voice but when we thought of paribartan we expected things to happen differently. Unfortunately things are being repeated and often worse.
What happened at Dinhata is unnerving.
Some kind of hegemony is going on. There is no proper representation of artistes. CPM would place their own people in the cultural committees who would dictate terms. Trinamul is doing the same.
There seems to be no space for independent protest. This has been their problem right from the start. Before the elections, I refused to have my face on the paribartan campaign poster. I wanted to be an independent protester. I remember receiving a lot of reactions from core people in the culture team questioning me if 'that meant I was supporting CPM?' I don't know if this is a basic problem with Bengalis ' or with a political party ' that one cannot accept that a person can have an independent position.
Bibhash Chakraborty, director
This fear of expression is not something new. It's always been there…. I cannot talk about the other incidents but if I confine myself to the theatre world only, to see Arpita Ghosh and Bratya Basu criticise the Dinhata incident despite their political positions is a good example of cutting across their party allegiance and voice what is fair.
Koushik Sen, actor-director
There is not only an atmosphere of fear but also an atmosphere of confusion. There is a general uncertainty in the air. The present government is confused. It is not clear what is construed as a "good action" and what makes it "bad". Cops are arresting people for liking a cartoon on Facebook, innocent students are labelled Maoists ' what can we make of these actions? It is so uncertain! But art thrives amid adversity as well and the current situation will give rise to more responsible and better theatre.
Badsha Maitra, actor
We had seen people expressing their opinion fearlessly in support of paribartan before the present government came to power. Irrespective of whether I believed in paribartan or not, I appreciated the fact that people could express their opinion freely. But today, after the Trinamul Congress came to power, particularly after the arrest of Ambikesh Mahapatra, the situation in Bengal has become alarming.Why should someone be made to apologise for using words like "ma, maati" etc in a play? There can be difference of opinion on the philosophy of the play. But that doesn't mean that the man could be harassed. It is unfortunate and shocking.