It was noontime at Deshopriyo Park in Kolkata. Unlike any other placid midday, the park was filled with people and positive energy. 12th April, 2015 on National Street Theatre day, an esteemed street theatre group in our city, Urotaar organized ‘Ullash’ – an open air theatre festival that offered us 15 back to back drama performances by notable drama troupes from all across Bengal. One powerful performance ended and we went out for a smoke with other spectators. Suddenly, the calm of that lazy midday was pierced by a woman’s scream.
I turned towards the festival ground with a sickening anticipation of witnessing something really bad. And there it was, a girl was slammed to the ground by a gang of senseless horny scums and they were trying to tarnish her soul for their demonic pleasure. I don’t know when I dropped my cigarette, started walking towards the theatre ground and found myself a place to sit on the drizzled patch of grass. For the next 25 minutes I witnessed a performance by Alternative Living Theatre. When I came out of my trance few seconds after the last scene, I looked around to find faces marked with tear-lines all around me.
Here we have Probir Guha, the creator of Alternative Living Theatre and winner of Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, in a conversation to try and explore the endless chasm of Alternative Living Theatre in a short interview.
BongRong: If you were to send a message to those human beings, who haven’t yet experienced a single Alternative Living Theatre performance, what would you tell them to expect?
Probir Guha: What you usually see in theatre is not something you should expect from Alternative Living Theatre. It’s much more than what words are capable of expressing. You will have to watch it to realize what we do and I can promise you it’s very easy to realize what our theatre is telling you.
BongRong: We already know you started your professional theatre career under the tutelage of Bibhas Chakraborty. What instigated the decision of leaving the Proscenium theatre, which was already commercially established, and joining an uncertain wave of 3rd theatre?
Probir Guha: Firstly I haven’t worked with Bibhasda in any professional theatre. It was amateur theatre and till date almost 90% of theatres we see around us are still amateur theatres. People got involved out of passion and did theatre in the evening after work.
For my political background, I always felt committed towards the people of our village areas. I came to the theatre world to do theatre for those marginal people. I have learned the techniques and science of theatre from Bibhasda, but my purpose of doing theatre was not getting served. After seeing Badalbabu’s work I felt this is a path that can take me to what I want to do with my theatre.
People from interiors don’t come to the Academy to watch theatre. You have to go to them and deliver something that they can understand and that’s what I have learned from Badalbabu.
There came a point when I felt that I need my own troupe to speak in my personal language of theatre. In 1977, I started Living Theatre and it was amateur theatre as well. Personally, you can say I started looking at theatre from a professional perspective after 90’s. Then I left my job and started devoting all my time to the world of theatre.
BongRong: How did Alternative Theatre happen?
Probir Guha: In my early days I went to the villages with Badal Sarkar’s theatre group and realized people there didn’t understand what we were doing. But urban people got it easily. I did not get the reason behind it. With time I realized theatre is very regional. Theatre for urban spectators can’t be the same as for the village audience. Theatre for a village of Bengal cannot be same as the theatre for a village in Bihar or Punjab. Everyone has a different reality. I have to understand those realities and create theatre for them. So we tried to understand and adopt. We learned Chow nach, we learned Thang cha …we learned constantly. We de-conditioned ourselves and tried to break free from what we know and tried to invent a new and original body language. That joinery has made our theatre very physical and we saw that’s helping us connect to more people.
You have to understand that we are not against the use of words in theatre. But we believe in economic use of dialogues. When words are needed we use them. When there is a need of giving lyrical form to it, we use poems.
Nothing was planned and our presentation style changed continuously. I found a problem and tried to find a solution or a way around it. I learned and tried out things. Made mistakes repeatedly and learnt from them. So today’s living theatre is not like yesterday’s and it’s not going to be the same tomorrow.
BongRong: Three advantages of physical expression in theatre that other forms of theatre don’t have?
Probir Guha: As physicality is delivering the message, there is no language barrier. Secondly, as we are using our physicality to express, there is an explosion of energy that creates an impact on our audience. And when you try to say something with that energy, it goes straight and hits a human soul. Our theatre doesn’t stay caged in any particular space, it works constantly to break free from all barriers and reach out to our audience and creates a mutual harmony.
BongRong: Jerzy Grotowski or Badal Sircar, who would you say left more impact on Alternative Living Theatre?
Probir Guha: I didn’t quite understand Grotowski before I saw Badalda at work. Grotowski gave us the theory and Badalda taught us how to implement it. And I needed both.
BongRong: Tell us a bit about your “Aakhra”.
Probir Guha: People tried to uproot us from Khardah. We were thrown out of school, we tried to practice in our houses, and neighbors came and complained about being disturbed. We went to a park to practice and there too we heard that our theatre is disturbing people. We tried to work on the footpath and we were told we are disrupting pedestrians. So, eventually we reached a point where we had nowhere to go and that made us desperate. Then I left my job and bought a piece of land in Madhyamgram. We had a very small budget so we could only afford a wetland 2km away from the main town. But we had a space to ourselves and nobody could kick us out. Aakhra is the first name that we thought of and it stuck.
BongRong: From the beginning of the journey to this moment in life, you have always preferred to work with Non-actors. Is there any specific reason for that?
Probir Guha: Yes. There are two reasons. From the beginning of Alternative Living Theatre we did something very different from what most of the theatre groups do. Experienced actors are molded in a very different way and it’s difficult to channelize them in our path. A new actor is like a piece of clay and it’s easy to connect them to our philosophy of work.
Secondly, we always wanted to work with downtrodden people for political reasons. I wanted to showcase the ability of those people whom society cancelled out as unimportant. I felt society is wrong and these people have the capacity to become a potential force.
BongRong: Your son, Subhadeep Guha is getting more involved with Alternative Living Theatre each day. What new aspects does he bring to your troupe?
Probir Guha: Our philosophy of theatre is same but his style of production is very different from mine. I want him to explore theatre the way he wants and so far he has added a very different flavor to our production. Our musical scores have developed immensely under him. The aesthetics of our production is also changing. I always support new things and I want to wait and see where it goes.
BongRong: Thank you very much for your time Probir Kaku. We wish all the luck to you and your Alternative Living Theatre and we look forward to your next show.
Probir Guha: We are actually arranging a theatre festival called Para-Porshir theatre from 20th May. Troupes from all over the country and Bangladesh will be coming down to perform with us. We would like to invite your readers for the festival.
Click the image below for more details of the upcoming theatre festival by Alternative Living Theatre.