There was a time when English theatre, much like its Bengali counterpart, thrived in Calcutta (as the city was then known) with groups like The Amateurs, SAD (an acronym for the Society of Amateur Dramatics), the Calcutta Players and Red Curtain, among several others, staging plays – Miller to Mamet, Pirandello to Pinter, Stoppard to Simon; from the relentless dramatic suspense of Albee’s Zoo Story to the fantastical, funny, farcical antics of the shockingly surprising characters of Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce – of consistently high standards that, if it were Pinter or Albee, demanded serious acting chops of the main protagonists (who, at most, numbered two or three) to hold a discerning audience in thrall for the better part of 90 minutes without support of elaborate set decorations or frequent lighting changes or, as in the case of Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn, impeccable comic timing from an ensemble cast to keep the action fast, free and furious without overwhelming the audience with the frenetic pace and improvisational style that usually accompanies such productions. That the acting was of such high standard was even more remarkable when one considered that the participants were mostly boxwallahs – not travelling salesmen, with large boxes of clothes and jewellery to peddle door-to-door, after whom the term originated, but mid-level executives of multinational firms that at the time I speak of prodigiously dotted Calcutta’s commercial landscape – who held time-consuming day jobs (albeit not of a particularly taxing nature) and had professional career objectives to fulfill but were prepared to sacrifice quality time with family and friends at the altar of English theatre, pursuing it with a passion that others of lesser thespian talent reserved for golf, except that rehearsals usually tended to aggregate more hours in the four months to opening day than did golf in an equivalent time frame.
At the risk of being facetious, I tend to think that the decline of English theatre started with the change in the city’s name from the colonial ‘Calcutta’ to the countrified ‘Kolkata,’ in January 2001, not, perhaps on the exact day that the renaming happened nor in one all-destroying tidal swoop but the germ of decay, almost certainly, was insidiously planted then, gathering momentum in the years thereafter, growing and spreading, like a raging Trojan virus, unchecked, unstoppable and unrelenting.
Inheriting an incomparable, unparalleled and highly unique legacy like the Great Bengal Renaissance (circa 1872 – 1941), it was no surprise that till the end of the last millennium Calcutta, as I prefer to remember it as, dominated the Indian cultural scene continuing to produce modern giants in the fields of literature, cinema, music, dance and drama with almost monotonous regularity and though their English counterparts, born out of arts borrowed and, at best, only passionate pastimes for those who pursued them, were never in the same league (except for Indian writing in English which, arguably, was of a gold standard), some of the excellence bubbling in the local cultural cauldron must have spilled over to English theatre as well because the plays were staged with exceptional stagecraft and professionalism, some of the more regular actors going on to achieve international acclaim, one, in particular, becoming the biggest movie star India’s ever known.
So, I wasn’t particularly surprised to find on my return to Calcutta after 20 years that the cultural pot was still simmering merrily although the sheer number of people painting, sculpting, dancing, singing, writing books, spouting poetry or staging plays – a veritable tsunami of creative excess and narcissism – should have served as fair warning (if only one had not been blinded by the nostalgia of homecoming) that with everything else in the city in spiraling decline, it was highly unlikely that a second Bengal renaissance was in the making. Any false impressions I might have had in that regard were put to rest with the finality of death when, after nimbly avoiding countless glossy invitations – via electronic mail and maddeningly repeated Facebook posts – to book launches, poetry readings, art and sculpture shows, Bangla-rock band concerts, dance drama recitals, paid movie premieres, et al, one succumbed, in a moment of regrettable weakness, to an invitation to a performance of Neil Simon’s “Tumours” that was billed as a laugh riot, enacted by a cast of Kolkata’s most promising thespians, all members of one of the city’s most prestigious clubs once known – in its long-gone salad days – for its exclusive membership (by invitation only), strict adherence to the snootiest of dress codes, Friday buffets, Chinese cuisine and the extensive library where many of the books – gifts from departing Englishmen returning home after furling the Union Jack – rivaled the median age of the Club’s members.
[To Be Continued]