Special || Centenary: Shree Sombhu Mitra (1915 – 2015)
The transition of Bengali theatre from its purely commerce-based identity to where it was artfully employed by predominantly political outfits such as the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) as a means of communicating ideologies en masse, did not do much in lieu of working towards perfecting the form of art they were utilising for specific ends.
While profits had been the driving force behind the functioning of the ‘commercial theatre’ scene that controlled the majority of the prosceniums in the city, left-bound artistic endeavours began to put politics and their ensuing agenda on top, steadily pushing away stalwart artistes such as Salil Choudhury, Ritwik Ghatak, Debabrata Biswas and of course, Sombhu Mitra away from their stringent fold that never prioritised theatre as an art form nor believe in any form of art that failed to uphold and glorify purely red ideals.
In 1944, as Bengal struggled to recover from the devastating famine of ’43, Sombhu Mitra would have the privilege of co-staging Bijan Bhattacharya’s seminal masterpiece ‘Nabanna’, a work which effectively highlighted the plight of impressionable farmers at the hands of the marauding proletariat and garnered commendable response wherever it was staged in Bengal.
He would also feature, along with wife Tripti Mitra, in the 1946 film ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ (Directed by fellow IPTA member Khwaja Ahmad Abbas), which was a contemptuous analysis of the great Bengal famine of 1943.
Despite these well known success stories, Mitra had eventually become exhausted of the set of compromises he had to make in his art due to the assorted political doctrines. The makeshift stages, the lack of resources to sustain a proper ‘travelling troupe’, the sheer restrictions imposed on the content of the productions; were weighing hard on the sole thing that truly mattered to Mitra.
Sombhu Mitra’s quest for a perfect state of the auspicious high in his adopted medium of art, inspired him to break off from the communist theatre fold in 1948, seven days after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, along with Ahindra Chaudhuri & Tripti Mitra and establish ‘Bohurupee’ – a theatre troupe that would go on to initiate a theatre movement whose primary objective would be to create art for the elusive ‘art’s sake’.
Sombhu Mitra was born in Calcutta on August 22, 1915. The sixth child of the Geological Survey of India employee Sarat Kumar Mitra, he lost his mother Shatadalbashini Mitra at the tender age of twelve.
Mitra’s penchant for the dramatic arts was invoked when he was a student at the Ballygunge Government High School & later the St. Xavier’s College in Calcutta.
He joined the Rangmahal Theatre in North Calcutta in 1939, followed by stints at the Minerva, Natya-niketan and Srirangam respectively. The lack of contentment with the quality of dramatic art that was being practised was the prime reason why Mitra turned away from Commercial theatre and ultimately joined the IPTA.
THE MANY FACETS
‘Bohurupee’ (literally: Multi-faceted) officially marked the beginning of the ‘Group Theatre’ movement in Bengal, which characterised theatre that did not wish to capture the fancy of audiences by billing names that would attract colossal crowds but tried to become the ideal form of ‘Gananatya’ (Theatre of and by the people) by introducing novelty in theme, content and execution, primarily with the aid of non-professional actors who had grouped together for the collective love of the artform.
Of course, highlighting social issues and serving critiques of the society was a prerogative of these organisations, as espoused to a large extent by Bohurupee itself, besides Utpal Dutt’s uber-political ‘Little Theatre Group’ (another off-shoot of the IPTA, incidentally formed a year before Bohurupee), Ajitesh Bandopadhyay’s ‘Nandikar’ or Manoj Mitra’s ‘Sundaram’.
Bohurupee survived an intense struggle for survival during its initial years. Shunned by both factions of the political spectrum for its largely dissociative identity, Bohurupee was perceived as a threat by commercial theatre groups, which were afraid that its productions would act as a palate cleanser for their patrons who had developed a fine taste for the mediocre, melodramatic drivel they would continually serve.
Stories of Mitra and his wife sustaining on tea and boiled vegetables with their celluloid appearances paying the bills and delaying predicaments are part of the saga of ‘Bohurupee’, which came into the national limelight after staging the plays of an individual who was as polarising as Bohurupee itself had been for multifarious raison d’être.
Bohurupee had begun their journey by staging two of Tulsi Lahiri’s plays and Mitra’s own ‘Ulukhagra’ (The Nondescript). ‘Pathik’ (Wanderer) and ‘Chhenra Taar’ (A Broken String) managed to attract attention and were even lauded by critics. Mitra, of course, was destined for a broader canvas and the choice of playwright he made next would effectually redefine Bengali theatre and put Bohurupee on the nation’s theatre map.
The Nobel winning Rabindranath Tagore, despite a body of work that defies blind categorisation, had been a figure much revered and reviled by opposing Bengali factions. Whereas a section considered him a demigod for his invaluable contribution to Bengali culture, some leftist groups considered him to be a stooge of British imperialism.
Whatever his standing might have been among the Bengali intelligentsia, it was a fact almost universally acknowledged that Tagore’s dramas were simply un-stageable.
Mitra tested the waters by adapting Tagore’s novel ‘Char Adhyay’ (Four Chapters) in 1951, before taking up the herculean challenge of staging one of the most complex and political of Tagore’s plays. Rakta Karabi (Red Oleanders). Premiering on May 10, 1954 under Mitra’s direction, it not only established the mighty Tagore as a ‘successful’ dramatist but was also a raging success which received nearly unanimous commendations for the curiously stylized delivery of lines, Tripti Mitra’s ethereal stage presence and the hypnotic baritone of Mitra himself, unseen on stage as the tyrant king.
Mitra’s troupe went on to produce several other Tagore dramas, including ‘Visarjan’ (Immersion) and ‘Raja’ (The King), which were directed by Mitra. Tripti Mitra staged ‘Dakghar’ (The Post Office) and ‘Ghare Baire’ (Home and the World) while Kumar Roy directed ‘Malini’.
Bohurupee did not ostracize European dramatic works as Sombhu Mitra staged lauded Bengali versions of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People’ (Dasachakra) in 1952 and ‘A Doll’s House’ (Putulkhela) in 1958.
Mitra’s penchant for the tragic was coming to the fore but it would be a while before he decided to invoke the spirit of Sophocles on the Calcutta stage.
The choice of Sombhu Mitra and Amit Maitra for directing RK Films’ social satire ‘Jagte Raho’ was yet another stroke of genius by the superstar actor/director/producer of Bollywood Raj Kapoor.
Yet, the 1956 film, which played well with Kapoor’s adoring Soviet audiences, was presented in International Film Festival Arenas with the requisite directorial credits being effectively stripped off to make it appear as an all out ‘Raj Kapoor’ experience.
The intensely guarded Sombhu Mitra was known to retreat into a shell whenever the subject of him being a film director or actor was broached, even in relatively close circles.
Nowhere was Mitra’s glorious stage presence more evident than in the titular role of Raja Oedipus in 1964, which was the Bengali rendition of Sophocles’ classic Greek tragedy ‘Oedipus Rex’.
It will be grossly unfair to write about a legendary life led and compare it to an unfolding Greek tragedy, but Oedipus can, in hindsight, be held as a focal point of Mitra’s artistic trajectory, which was followed by several of noted playwright Badal Sircar’s plays which were not received with adequate enthusiasm. Sircar would later go on to indict that Bohurupee had ‘messed’ with his dramas, even as the group successfully staged several of Sircar’s monumental plays such as ‘Evam Indrajit’ (And Indrajit, 1965), ‘Baki Itihas’ (Untold History, 1967) and Pagla Ghoda (The Mad Horse, 1971).
Mitra would again take centrestage with the virulent rendition of Vijay Tendulkar’s Marathi drama ‘Shantata! Court chalu ahe’ in 1971. ‘Chop, Adalat cholchhe’ (Order, the court is in session). The meta-theatrical drama which effectively blurs the distinction between fact and fiction was received with unadulterated fervour by the Calcutta theatre-goers.
Sombhu Mitra mysteriously quit Bohurupee in 1979. While it is presently a reality acknowledged, even admitted by his daughter Shaoli Mitra, that Mitra was unceremoniously ousted from the group, the reasons for the same remain unclear still. Often blamed are the unique family equations that pervaded the group. Shaoli had quit Bohurupee even before her father did, while Tripti Mitra was serving as the President and Kaliprosad Ghosh, Shaoli’s ex-husband, as the secretary. Which exact incident led to the ouster remains shrouded even as it can be assumed that Mitra’s unwavering will and unwillingness to bend to a higher will had led to him being cornered in an organisation which had been co-founded by Mitra.
An enigmatic figure, largely unsympathetic to the whims of the media and ‘uncharacteristically’ silent regarding his peers and their artistic endeavours, Mitra did command the genuine appreciation of luminaries who dominated the Calcutta stage in his times.
Utpal Dutt, who tore at Mitra often enough for being an ‘escapist’ to have foregone the political aspirations that Dutt held dear till his final breath, did not shy away from praising Mitra’s ‘Rakta Karabi’.
Rudraprasad Sengupta showed his appreciation by playing the pivotal role in assimilating multiple theatre groups to stage Bertolt Brecht’s ‘The Life of Galileo’ under the direction of Fritz Bennivitz with Mitra portraying the Italian man of science, post his official ouster from Bohurupee.
Even though Mitra separated from his wife, the duo continued to work in collaboration. Mitra even brought his wife Tripti home during her final days and we can only assume that the two buried their differences before Tripti Mitra’s demise in 1989.
Mitra’s most famous piece of dramatic writing remains ‘Chand Baniker Pala’ (The Play of the Merchant Chand, 1978). The indigenous-content driven play (adopted from the Hindu rural epic ‘Manasa Mangal’), primarily meant for audio productions, remains a cumulative high for Mitra, who expounds his insistent philosophy of standing up for one’s beliefs through Chand Banik’s unrelenting refusal of worshipping the Snake Goddess Manasa instead of Shiva and the consequent wrath of the Goddess that befalls Chand Banik and his family.
Staunchly refusing a government ploy to publicise his death, Sombhu Mitra had officially stipulated the presence of a regular hearse instead of a state-sanctioned fad where his body would be kept on display at Rabindra Sadan, the mecca of Calcutta’s cultural callings. Not only did he forbid a ritualistic ‘mukhagni’ and funeral, he also directed (contrary to the norm) that his clothes should not be changed before cremation.
Having led a life sans compromises, it was only fitting that Sombhu Mitra decided to part on his own terms on May 19, 1997.
2015 marks Sombhu Mitra’s birth centenary. Let us conclude this remembrance with the ardent wish that his uncompromising spirit invoking perfection washes over the promising artistes of this generation and those alike who strive to live life on their own terms.
A SELECT LIST OF DRAMAS DIRECTED BY SOMBHU MITRA
1944 – Nabanna (Written and Co-directed by Bijan Bhattacharya); 1950(?) – Ulukhagra (Written by Sombhu Mitra); 1950 – Chhenra Taar (Written by Tulsi Lahiri); 1951 – Char Adhyay (Based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore); 1952 – Dasachakra (Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People); 1954 – Rakta Karabi (Written by Rabindranath Tagore); 1958 – Putul Khela (Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House); 1961 – Visarjan (Written by Rabindranath Tagore); 1964 – Raja (Written by Rabindranath Tagore); 1964 – Raja Oedipus (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex); 1965 – Evam Indrajit (Written by Badal Sircar); 1967 – Baki Itihas (Written by Badal Sircar); 1971 – Pagla Ghoda (Written by Badal Sircar); 1971 – Chop! Adalat Cholchhe (Vijay Tendulkar, Shantata! Adalat Chalu ahe)
A SELECT LIST OF AWARDS CONFERRED TO SOMBHU MITRA
1957 – The Crystal Globe for ‘Jagte Raho’ at the 1957 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival; 1966 – Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship; 1970 – Padma Bhushan; 1976 – Ramon Magsaysay Award; 1982-83 – Kalidasa Samman (Madhya Pradesh Government); 1989 – Desikottama (Visva-Bharati University); Honourary D.Litts from Rabindra Bharati University and Jadavpur University; Grand Prix Award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for Mitra’s contribution to films.
First Published: CultureCult Magazine, Issue One: October 2015