Indomitable Spirit Of Odia Theatre And Its Doyens

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With an honorary doctorate conferred on him this year by Ravenshaw University, his alma mater, he is now Dr Anant Mahapatra.

In India, awards probably indicate a swansong but in Dr Mahapatra, we find a live wire, charging up every moment to innovate the theatre space in Odisha. He breathes drama. In the last six decades and more, he has seen it all but not done it all, because his appetite is insatiable. New lighting techniques, subtitling of dialogues for non-Odia audience and adapting international storytelling is a routine experiment in his “Purabi” lab in Bhubaneswar.

From its birth, Odia theatre has been routinely experimenting notwithstanding severe financial constraints. That’s the madness of the medium for Odia and Odisha. He and Odia theatre have travelled together for almost six decades now — co-habitating. From leftist inspired college platforms to present day tech-driven, device dominant presentations, he has been an active witness to the changing times of India and Odisha, going through waves of cataclysmic changes. From IPTA to WhatsApp, he is omnipresent and omniscient.

From the era of government patronage to corporate endorsement, he is equally at home with his craft. Central to his life is his craft and not icons. He is an iconoclast. When many would choose to thrive on government funding, he openly miffed with his peers for
diluting the craft for doles by philistine upstarts. Hailing from a privileged background, he chose the less chartered journey of a whole, long life of drama.

The gumption and steadfastness show even today. Many term it as obstinacy. Whatever, but it comes with uncompromising quality, ruthless discipline – not even in a little misstep on the stage and minor blemish on the makeup. Perfection is absolute for him. It is said that Ramshankar Ray, the maker of the first play of Odia theatre, Kanchi-Kaveri, in 1881, was such a martinet.

Innovative drive

Dr Mahaptara has re-engineered the craft many times over after the early pioneers of Odia theatre, which included stalwarts like Bhikari Charan Patnaik, Kampal Mishra and Godavarish Mishra. While theatre was gradually making inroads into Odisha, permanent stages for Odia theatre were erected by famous theatre aficionados of Odisha – Bira Bikram Dev’s Bikram Theatre at Khariar and Padmanav Rangalay at Paralakhemundi.

Constantly inventive, Dr Mahapatra even advocates dialogue-less plays.

Why do you need sound when silence speaks?

“He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words…

He laments the deliberately created crassness of the medium of theatre to shake the box office. But he also ponders that power is always in democracy and in numbers. Jatra, the new blockbuster version of theatre is a tongue-in-cheek, street smart avatar of theatre. Theatre of the masses. True to the fibre of a creative soul, he accepts contradictions without an iota of ego or remorse. Even if sometimes these are the opposing forces in life, which affects art directly because he is an existential thinker and craftsman. An artiste who has immersed himself in both cinema and stage theatre, he was shaped by his early
life exposure to education in Cuttack and Allahabad and an enviable lineage.

A bit of history

In Odisha, Jatra is an industry now with a turnover exceeding Rs 120 crore. These are moving troupes with 100-150 members including actors, directors, dancers, sound and costume assistants, lights men, cooks, technicians and labourers. It is an entourage like the erstwhile circus groups. The Jatra troupes spend almost a whole year travelling and are the common man’s theatre. Odisha was not new to opera style of presentations — long dialogues, musical interludes, satires thrown in between but Jatra became the sleek, blockbuster opera with social subjects.

Theatre in Odisha took off at the same time when Odisha became a state — 1936. I find a strong link between the recognition of Odia language and its expression in theatre. Though limited to mostly the elites, Annapurna Theatre was the first organised alma mater of stage performance and the Eton of Odia culture and entertainment.

In 1933, Somnath Das formed Jayadurga Natya Mandali an opera party in Khandualkote village in the then Puri district. In 1935, the opera party was revamped as a theatre. The tribe of artistes grew rapidly and in 1936, the full-fledged Annapurna Theatre kicked off as a touring troupe. In 1933, the movement started in Puri and later Cuttack became the epicentre of opera party turned theatre style entertainment.

There were stand alone, smaller theatre troupes like the Banamali Art Theatre but when a more institutionalised theatre group like the Annapurna took shape, the artistes came flocking. The floodgates opened. Traditionally, Odias are artistic and culturally inclined — in different forms — art, dance, craft work, singing, drama, music. About eight decades ago, the encouragement and state support for art and artistes was almost non-existent, barring the ones patronised by the royals. That too was limited in Odisha.

In 1936, Odisha created its identity as a political state and that was when the cultural renaissance also gained currency. It is about periods in the life of a state, which become turning points in the lives of the people of the state too. This was the time when Utkal Sammilani spearheaded the Odisha formation agenda. The Odisha delegation, headed by Maharaja Krushna Chandra Gajapati reached London to negotiate with the British government. The group of leading Odias included the Rajasaheb of Khallikote, Lingaraj Panigrahi, Bhubanananda Das and Shyam Sundar Das.

With the persuasion of the delegation, a report was published on behalf of the joint select committee, which was accepted by the British Parliament. On April 1, 1936 Odisha became a separate province after about three decades of tireless struggle. With a tumultuous political scenario in the background, the culture brigade provided an outlet for creativity in Odisha, which had no showcasing till then, in a professional and commercial set up. But success was yet to come till 1939, when Kartik Kumar Ghose ran a play (adaptation from a Bengali story and play), which was produced by Annapurna Theatre. It was successful in the box office. Its success ensured more support for theatre in a state not known for magnanimous support to the performing arts. Of course, I would still like to believe that the permanent stage patronised by Jaga Mohan Lala in Mahanga village, Cuttack district, was the first stage in 1875 and it gave birth to contemporary Odia theatre. Lala was a theatre buff and he wrote the first Odia social drama, Babaji i.e. “The Holy Man”.

Odia theatre is very similar to tiatr in Goa, which is over a century in age. It is a homegrown form of theatre that blends drama, comedy, tragedy and music, has been a crucial part of Goan life all these decades. In Goa, tiatr is staged almost 365 days of the year, sometimes twice a day. But traditional opera in Odisha revolved majorly around mythology.

Annapurna Theatre and its division

After Kartik Ghosh’s show, gradually, the number of artistes increased and then it was decided to divide the theatre company and run it from two places, Puri and Cuttack. They were run from permanent stages, unheard of then. The Annapurna A-group was in Puri and was managed by Bauri Bandhu Mohanty. The Annapurna B-group was in Cuttack. Ramchandra Mishra’s social play, ‘Manager’, was probably the first big success in 1945 at Cuttack. Over a period of time, the two groups A & B split and almost became competitors. But Cuttack, due to its prominence had a much better audience and commercial success than Puri. Annapurna at Cuttack had its own permanent stage at Tinkonia Bagicha.

This iconic theatre building was razed to the ground and has given way to a shopping mall. The revenue model for Puri division of Annapurna Theatre was slightly different as they banked on touring. The viewership only in Puri was less and not viable to run a permanent set up. There was also a splinter group Annapurna-C, which existed for a short period.

Odisha’s theatre stalwarts

Odisha theatre then was greatly influenced by the Calcutta theatre. So was the film industry and the music. Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), formed in 1942 had major inroads into the stage and music style in Odisha. Some members of the group like, Bijon Bhattacharya, Balraj Sahni, Ritwik Ghatak, Utpal Dutt, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Salil Chowdhury, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Jyotirindra Moitra, Niranjan Singh Maan, S. Tera Singh Chan, Jagdish Faryadi, Khalili Faryadi, Rajendra Raghuvanshi Safdar Mir, Hasan Premani, etc were connected in one way or the other with Odisha.

Many of them, including Utpal Dutt, Uttam Kumar, Salil Chowdhury, Gulzar, Girish Karnad, Mohan Agashe, Lilette Dubey, Mahesh Dattani, are personal friends of Anant Mahapatra. But seldom would you hear him flaunting. This speaks of his comity. One of the significant dramas supported by IPTA was ‘Nabanna’ (Harvest). This Bengali drama, written by Bijon Bhattacharya and directed by Sombhu Mitra, portrayed the evils of the Bengal famine of 1943 and the alleged indifference of the British rulers and the ruling class of India towards the plight of the millions of famine-stricken poor. The adaptation was a runaway hit. Though in Cuttack, Annapurna Theatre was a melting pot — artistes from all over the state took to acting due to the platform. Artistes from Ganjam, Koraput, Mayurbhanj, Sambalpur were actively engaged in different departments.

Art needs professional management and a strong revenue plan to sustain. Both were lacking and both the Annapurnas – A & B were fast becoming losing propositions. Financially, the theatres were languishing till they virtually closed in 1970, when they were struggling to run five or six plays annually. It was painful because Annapurna Theatre was the only organised theatre in the state, and they helped create a strong tradition in drama and produced brilliant performers, playwrights and other stage personalities. They enjoyed a special privilege in cinema later, due to their grounding and experience. They were considered masters of their craft.

Annapurna Theatre, a training ground for artistes

In any case, theatres, even today is considered the foundation for acting. Dramatists like Ramchandra Mishra, Bhanja Kishore Patnaik, Kamal Lochan Mohanty, and Bijay Mishra were products of Annapurna. But many untiring enthusiasts tried to keep Annapurna B running and breathe life into the cradle of Odia theatre. However, the final curtains on Annapurna Theatre came down in the mid 1980s and it was abandoned thereafter. Such is the callousness, that the mascot of Cuttack city and the state theatre has collapsed, and the infrastructure razed to the ground.

Annapurna has been the breeding ground or the nursery for actors. Noted cine and stage artiste of yesteryears, Bhanumati Devi who passed away recently, was born in Myanmar. She came to Puri and started acting on stage before joining Odia cinema in 1954. She was an integral part of Annapurna Theatre, Cuttack, for about four decades. She acted in Mrinal Sen’s National Award-winning Odia film ‘Matira Manisha’. From actors, such as Bhanumati Devi, Durlabh Chandra Singh, Nityanada Das to Dukhiram Swain to the founder gurus of Odissi, Pankaj Charan Das, Debaprasad Das and Kelucharan Mohapatra — Annapurna has been the foundation school of legendary artistes of the state. But even after the vanquishing of Annapurna, Dr Anant Mahapatra, remained undeterred and staged shows, trained new blood and experimented dauntlessly. Commerce has never scared him.

Annapurna gave us pristine Odia performances (the acting, the diction, the storytelling, the powerful portrait of social issues) from icons and actors like Samuel Sahu (Babi), Hemant Das and many more. Despite producing acting legends and entertainment doyens, Annapurna has frittered away due to gross apathy towards the state’s theatre legacy. Annapurna A in Puri and the Annapurna B in Cuttack have been struggling for survival. After Phailin, the weak structures of the theatres have been reduced to ruins.

Annapurna in Puri was set up with the help of the then King of Keonjhar on a land that belongs to the Jagannath Temple of Puri, which was a part of Uttarparswa Matha. Over
the years, the troupe faced demise. Puri used to stage at least one play a month with the help of local amateur troupes. But after Phailin, most of the structure collapsed. Because of a litigation over the land in a case between the matha and the Jagannath Temple administration in the Orissa High Court, nothing can be done to repair and renovate the building.

Despite its uniqueness and quality, the theatre movement, which started with Annapurna couldn’t attract young talents to keep it going. The Annapurna at Cuttack, formed in 1942-43 by Lingaraj Nanda was very popular in Odisha but couldn’t survive. The infrastructure is dilapidated, and leaseholders have converted the land usage to more commercially viable business projects. Since the theatre complex is in the name of a private person, the government is making efforts in going for an amicable settlement with him for renovation of the theatre. This apart, adequate step are planned to be taken to rehabilitate the old and retired artistes living in the complex. If the government doesn’t take focussed steps to revive drama and play culture in Odisha, then who would and who can? The Odisha government has committed to revive the two units of ‘Annapurna Theatre’ established at Puri and Cuttack at an estimated cost of over Rs. 1O crores.

The sad downfall

We go on creating new platforms without taking care of the existing ones. The Annapurna Theatres could never move with the times. The younger generation was never interested not did they know much about the theatre in Odisha. Recently, it has been encouraging to see trained youngsters doing excellent theatre work in Odisha. In October 2006, a group had staged a marathon of plays stretching over eight-and-a-half hours. The event included six plays, each of 80 to 90 minutes’ duration played with the intention of reviving interest in theatre.

This was the result of an emotional outburst of stage aficionados when they saw the collapse of the massive gates of Annapurna Theatre’s arched gateway in February 2006. But how long can anyone keep squatters away? Stage needs regular patronising both by the government and the people. Anant Mahapatra set up the Utkal Rangmanch Trust (URT) in 1997 with the pioneering and innovative idea of popularising and encouraging professional theatre in Odisha and staged plays on a weekly basis.

Change in focus

Quite averse to dependency on government funding, in 2005, URT presented ‘Women Directors Special Festival’ plays from SAARC countries. The Renaissance Man of Odia Theatre is one among the culturati. Over a century of plays staged in different states of India and his travel to many countries since 1958, he has established his school of theatre, though not formally. Today, we have brilliant young theatre artistes and enthusiasts who could gain immensely from Anant Mahapatra’s experience, repertoire and depth.

It’s time we realise that we have a gold mine amongst us. Chittaranjan Tripathy, Biswaranjan Kanungo of Sunabeda, Surya Mohanty, Dolagovind Rath, are brilliant theatre all-rounders of national calibre should utilise the mentorship of Anant Mahapatra. Anant babu has also been a jury member in several editions of India International Film Festival and Indian Panorama and a member of state and Central Academies for several years.

While the legendary Kali Charan Patnaik the promoter of a company Orissa Theatre was the
trendsetter in corporatising theatre in 1942, headquartered at Banka Bazar, Cuttack, he was the first to change the trend — from mythological to social plays. Govinda Chandra Surdeo, Mohansundar Deva Goswami, Ramchandra Mishra, Bhanja Kishore Patnaik, Gopal Chhotray, Ananda Sankar Das, and Kamal Lochan Mohanty are the other theatre greats of Odisha.

Anant Mahapatra – Never say die

Anant Mahapatra symbolises unflinching trust in the medium in a low developing state like Odisha, which has always been condemned to play second fiddle to theatre hotbeds like Kolkata, Mumbai or Kerala. Anant gave Odisha theatre the national stature. Never one to drop names of his celebrity friends, he is yet to be overwhelmed or awed. He is still hungrily looking for the extraordinary. There aren’t many business houses who could take art and culture as their corporate social responsibility in Odisha. We need to encourage contributions to art and culture. That needs to be developed as a culture and norm in the state. A state with the much discussed, soft skills of the people. The unique feature of Odisha theatre is its resilience in the face of acute poverty and despondency.

Creativity in the middle of helplessness, limited viewership, resource-constrained obsolete
technologies, limping film industry unable to support theatre, unorganised art promotion and almost apathetic governments is unimaginable. Kerala, Maharashtra, Bengal have not lived through this. In Odisha, art is the greatest survivor. If art is God then God has not given up in Odisha. Theatre artists had to take up jobs for their livelihood. Dr Mahapatra has braved the storm throughout.

Odia theatre in its centenary deserves a bow. Rise and salute Odia theatre. It continues to act when the world around it is even inert. The exceptional life of Anant Mahapatra is intertwined with the life curve of Odisha theatre. Both have loved each other, lived together and grown together. Someone called Dr Anant Mahapatra ( I am sure he would not like the Dr prefix) is permanently betrothed to Odisha Theatre.

[The writer is a columnist based in New Delhi]

[Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily represent that of the website]

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