‘Theatre must fight for truth’

Cultural personality and veteran thespian Ataur Rahman reflects about the importance of theatre and the scope for its improvement in Bangladesh. Sadiqur Rahman writes…

SONY RAMANY

SONY RAMANY

You have played an important role in the theatre movement of the country over the decades. How did you get involved in this area of performing art?
I was involved in theatre through my family ambiance. My father used to act on stage, being a government servant. My maternal family members were also culturally enlightened. My mother had a great affinity toward Rabindranath Tagore. Hence, I was brought up in a cultural ambience.
As a student at the University of Dacca [currently Dhaka], I wanted to try out my cultural bent of mind towards painting and singing. But I was no good in those areas. Once I got involved in theatre, I thought, acting is much easier and directing plays perhaps would suit me. I realised later that this job is not easy either.

Theatre has time and again been used to initiate political movements. The last we saw this, was during the 90s against a dictator. We do not see this happening any more. Why do you think this is happening?
We have seen great paintings like ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso against the backdrop of Spanish civil law. Pablo Neruda rose against autocratic misrule. Jean Paul Sartre took prominent actions against
French rule in Algeria. Tagore’s Rakto Korobi and Bisharjan were written against all kinds of social discrimination and mindless killing.
I believe, actors, painters, poets, singers or artists are very sensitive people. They rise against misrule, bigotry, religious fundamentalism and so on. The artists always want equality in the society. This is one of the purposes of my being in art. I would like to say that theatre must fight for the truth. It should not bow down head to a particular administration. Previously, we had done many plays against autocratic regime General Hossain Mohammad Ershad and war criminal Ghulam Azam and other religious fundamentalist people. These came automatically. But personally I feel that it must not be done blatantly. There is a kind of theatre which has emerged in the last few years, working for social development. They take a social issue for a play. They depict plight of a garments worker, as well as raising awareness among the audience about workers’ rights. They say that workers must not work so many hours, minimum wage should be provided, there should not be accidents in the factories. They stage drama for environmental issues.
Good theatre automatically comes out. Let it be in allegorical form. Let these be metaphors and above all artistically accepted.

Has theatre, which occurs on stage and at times on the streets and public places, been aided or affected by emergence of more popular media like radio or television?
Yes, to an extent. But in a big society like American or European society, there is a popular saying that it takes all kinds. If you are planning for a pure classical music show, you should expect less audience compared to a rock music show. One should carry on with his or her cup of tea. If one loves classical music then he/she should carry on with that. Just three members in the audience for him/her will be equivalent to three million. I always believe in meaningful theatre.
Commercialism may be there. Currently there are about 25 TV channels in our country. Twenty of them air teleplays, episodic plays and series. Some of the plays are very well made. A number of families of actors and technicians are living on these media. But I think, our theatre should not be that commercial.
I want that a National Theatre should be formed in the country, similar to the National Theatre of England or the National Theatre of France. These get government financial support and support from many other foundations.

In recent times, we see many young actors, directors, producers etc. joining TV plays even when they do not have prior experience in theatre. Do you feel that this is leading to bad quality drama on TV?
Stardom is really beautiful to a professional actor. Producers try to exploit this. As we know that a star can fall, but there is no fall for an true artist. There is no fall for an actor. So an actor whether in teleplay or film, needs to improve his or her acting skill.
There are drama departments in our public and private universities. Even with those academic facilities, you need to prepare yourself. You need to know what art is.
Theatre is a combination of all arts. A theatre activist has to know how to prepare stage, dress design, lights, singing, dancing everything. I was not from a theatre school. But I had to learn about these aspects gradually through dedication and practical work.
There are a lot of actors who are coming to media to project themselves even though they have no prior experience on stage. I should not discard all of them. Some of them are trying their best.
It is certainly better to know how a sentence should be pronounced. It does not mean that you have to follow all the things like in a book. You can make anything unique. But before that, you will need the preparation.

Finally, what steps should the government take to promote theatre on a national level?
Our present Cultural Minister used to work with us in the same group-Nagarik Natya Sampraday. He acted and directed a number of plays. He is a wonderful actor. He is trying very hard in this direction.
You know, the cultural ministry is usually poor compared to other ministries. They are spending a lot of money in cricket. The government can divert a certain amount of funds to promote theatre and give a subsidy or support similar to the time when it had granted Tk 20 lakh for the celebrations of Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. During that time, we prepared a number of good Tagore plays.
If the government can provide Tk 30 to 40 crores, which is not a big deal for the government, and distribute between 50 groups across the country, there will be more quality plays on stage.
Our only demand is to invest in production cost of theatre plays. The rest of the money we can use as salary grant to the practitioners and recurring expenses.
Theatre needs to be subsidised. It can be done by the government or a foundation or by the multinational companies.