For most people, all over the world, theatre has been a prime form of self-expression, a source of entertainment as well as awareness and learning. For me, the exposure to theatre came late. As a child, I was only privileged to watching our school plays, and mostly I would not have an active participation in the same. Once my class-teacher had complained to my mother that while almost the entire class had been eager to audition for the play to be staged on the annual day programme, I had been reticent. Well, I was the shy guy, I hated the limelight, and could not imagine myself mouthing rehearsed dialogues on stage (although I used to regularly take part in the music concerts at the school auditorium.
The only connect with theatre used to be the airing of the plays each week on television or on radio, and some of the performances at the local soirées. But hardly that was the real deal, I was yet to wake up to the full blown magic of stagecraft.
It was in my late teens, that I fell in love with theatre, and that happened rather oddly while I started enjoying plays in the written format, as opposed to them being performed, which I hadn't been privy to. I pored over many of the contemporary plays of the American and British playwrights and even bought and studied plays written by the Indian masters like Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad. Then, came the touring Shakespearean company who gave me a taste of the magic of Shakespeare's plays (till then I had not been able to enjoy any of the Shakespearean classics in their original form, unaided, and had only seen the recordings and film adaptations of some of Shakespeare's plays at the British Council and on television), and I fell for the same - hook, line, and sinker. I discovered to my amazement how madly in love with theatre was my very own city - Kolkata!
By the way, I must also mention yet another influential factor in shaping my regard for theatre. It was the privilege of witnessing the mammoth production of Peter Brook's 'The Mahabharata' - the filmed version of the stage play.
The Academy of Fine Arts, Max Mueller Bhavan, Rabindra Sadan, Sisir Mancha, Madhusudan Mancha and many such venues became my weekend haunts. I would take time out of my schedule of classes and tuitions and hop along with a few other theatre-enthusiast friends of mine to watch the latest stage productions of the theatre groups. Commercial or mainstream theatre's heydays were over by then, and the repertory companies had a tough time performing on a rotational basis at the thriving auditoriums. I shall never get over the fact that I did not get to see thespians like Shambhu Mitra, Tripti Mitra, Ajitesh Banerjee and Utpal Dutt perform live. However, the ones who regaled me were also to learn from and their performances have enriched me immensely as a viewer. I have been fortunate to watch the live performances of thespians and stalwarts like Badal Sircar, Kumar Roy, Rudraprasad Sengupta, Bibhas Chakraborty, Ashok Mukhopadhyay, Soumitra Chatterjee, Swatilekha Sengupta, Aparna Sen, Sohag Sen, Manoj Mitra, Usha Ganguly, and Saoli Mitra. Among the new-age actors and directors, Gautam Halder, Anjan Dutt, Kaushik Sen, Sohini Sengupta, and Suman Mukhopadhyay are just a handful of names who have had much influence on me. I feel privileged to have seen some of them from close quarters, honing their craft. Reminiscing about theatre, I can never forget Steven Berkoff who had come from London and had absolutely mesmerized me as he performed Shakespeare's Villains at an intimate gathering one evening.
I feel a tad guilty as lately I haven't been able to catch up with the stagings as much as I would have wanted to.
Theatre has prospered and evolved even with the apparent encroachments of consumerist culture that favours cinema and television more. Theatre's pro-active role is unique, its influence far-reaching, and its impact tremendous. The joy of performing in front of a live audience is unparalleled for an actor, and hence we see that actors who migrate to other forms return to theatre time and again. Nowadays, there is greater appreciation; there's greater exposure to world theatre as well. The number of training institutes have grown.
Across the world there are multiple specialisations to choose from at the diverse drama schools and training institutes that teach the basics of acting and stagecraft. Theatre still struggles for funding, and hopes for a better future. Ultimately, for an individual, theatre is not about a career or a profession. Theatre is a genuine passion that one can't let go whatsoever. On this day, I salute all such passionate individuals and theatre groups. Happy World Theatre Day!