Translated by Swapna Dutta
It was a tumultuous period, as dramatic as any of the hugely successful plays that he staged in the course of an illustrious career in theatre. And thespian Sisir Kumar Bhaduri’s life, too, was just as turbulent as the times he lived in. Prolific Bengali novelist, poet and playwright Sunil Gangopadhyay, who passed away in late October last year, brought it alive as only he could in the riveting novel Nihsanga Samrat. This felicitous English translation by children’s writer Swapna Dutta captures the spirit of the book and the era to absolute perfection.
This, as Gangopadhyay had said in the author’s note, is a novel and not a biography although the book is about one towering individual who worked relentlessly to give Bengali theatre a distinct voice of its own by blending European stagecraft with the traditions of the jatra. “I’ve had to fill the available framework with my imagination,” wrote Gangopadhyay. Clearly, it was no ordinary imagination!
The Lonely Monarch is historical fiction of the same genre as the writer’s widely lauded Prothom Alo (The First Light) and Sei Somoy (Those Times), which are regarded as two of the greatest novels in contemporary Bengali literature. There can be no doubt that this particular book, too, belongs to the very highest league although it is neither as voluminous nor as famed as the aforementioned works.
The Lonely Monarch captures a substantial sliver of life in Bengal of the first half of the 20th century by tracking the intimate interactions that the theatre doyen had with some of the greatest minds of the era as he pursued his aim of freeing his craft from the strident melodrama of the past and recast it in a more refined mould.
Bhaduri, an English literature grad who began life as a college professor, gravitated to the world of professional theatre because acting was his first love. As a student, he would often feature in amateur plays put up at the University Institute, both in English and Bengali.
As The Lonely Monarch recounts, Rabindranath Tagore once came to see a performance of Baikunther Khata (Baikuntha’s Diary), a play he himself had authored. At the end of the play, the poet asked a friend: “Who is that lad…? Watching him on stage made me envious. It’s a role I was once famous for.”
Later in life, Bhaduri, who evolved into an erudite scholar, had several other encounters with Tagore till the end of the poet’s life. The latter hailed the theatre legend as a master and even wrote a comic play (Shesh Raksha) for the actor-director’s troupe. Tagore was by no means the only titan that Bhaduri worked with.
The book is replete with tales of Bhaduri’s fruitful exchanges, both personal and professional, with novelist Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, linguist Sunitikumar Chattopadhyay and such like. Many of these remarkable men were close friends who influenced him and were influenced by him.
Bhaduri’s was a life devoted to creating a new space and respect for theatre in Bengal’s life and culture. “Until now no other man as highly educated and well bred as him had become a professional actor… The actresses were from the red light area. The actors were mostly uneducated and given to various vices.”
By attracting some of the most talented writers of the day to create plays for him, Bhaduri brought about a sea-change. But It wasn’t all that easy transforming the audience. However, Bhaduri never gave up. By the end of his life, he was aware that he had not quite won the battle, but he knew that he had never abandoned the fight and, in persisting, had made a dent somewhere.
When Satyajit Ray, in the 1950s following his early successes as a director, approached him for a role in a film towards the end of his life, Bhaduri politely declined. He said he would not be comfortable shifting to a new medium although Bhaduri did act in a few movies in the 1920s and 1930s, including the first-ever screen adaptation of a Saratchandra story, Aandhare Alo (Light in the Darkness).
The story of Sisir Bhaduri, the powerhouse who helped Bengali theatre acquire modernist trappings is, crucially, is also the story of the evolution of Bengal’s contemporary culture, helped along by its men of letters, poets, dramatists and linguists, men that the towering actor was friends with.
The book also presents a portrait of the private Sisir Bhaduri, a man who struggled with alcoholism, faced shattering personal tragedies, including the violent suicide of his misunderstood wife and the untimely death of friend and committed supporter Manilal Gangopadhyay, and had messy run-ins with both his male friends and the women in his life. A super narrative superbly well crafted.