Spardha: Independent Theatre Collective
In Bangladesh today, ‘Group Theatre’ is the dominant mode of organization that is engaged in producing theatre in urban locations. Theatre ensembles organized by adopting such a mode produce plays entirely in Bengali, and emphasize collective egalitarianism against the dominance of celebrity performers. The Group Theatre mode of organization began to emerge in the country in 1972, immediately after a horrendous civil war fought against Pakistan in 1971. Today, a network of over 250 non-profit city-based theatre ensembles, gathered under an umbrella organization named Group Theatre Federation, stage modern theatre productions in many urban locations of the country. Members of these ensembles are mostly middle-class students and professionals belonging to the media, advertising agencies, and other private services. The ensembles inculcate professionalism in the work that they produce, but are run by voluntary contributions of its members, box office receipt, revenue accrued from adverts published in souvenirs, and occasional sponsorship from national and multinational industrial and trading houses.
The organizational notion of Group Theatre emerged in Kolkata in India immediately after 1947, when theatre ensembles such as Bohurupee attempted to distinguish themselves from both the amateur companies (which failed to reach up to the professional standard) and the professional companies (which pandered with profit and commerce, and hence could not aim for artistic excellence even at the cost of box-office failure). When the notion of the Group Theatre was introduced in Bangladesh in 1972, most of the practitioners were fresh, with hardly any or no prior experience in theatre. Nevertheless, they were seared with indelible experience of the war that liberated Bangladesh in 1971, and were charged with memorable performances by Group Theatre ensembles they had attended in Kolkata. Today, the network of Group Theatre ensembles in Bangladesh can claim a glorious history, for it has produced a number of amazing and wondrous productions. However, pursued by globalization and neoliberalism, the middle-class theatre practitioners who form the backbone of the ensembles today, appear to be shadows of their former dynamic selves. The economics of life and living are at complete odds with their passion for theatre that fetches no financial reward. In such a context, the Group Theatre ensembles are failing to produce quality performances that live up to a professional standard. If theatre in Bangladesh has to continue producing acclaimed productions, the organizational mechanics of the Group Theatre is no longer a valid option.
This is not to claim that there is no professional theatre in Bangladesh. The indigenous (folk) theatre circuit is entirely professional. Additionally, there have been a few attempts in the modern theatre circuit to raise professional theatre companies. The earliest of these in what is today Bangladesh was the Crown Theatre of Dhaka, formed sometime in 1890-92. The Crown’s monopoly as the sole player in the professional field was disrupted in 1897, when the Diamond Jubilee Theatre appeared as its rival. In post-independence Bangladesh, a few notable attempts at raising professional theatre companies are Bangla Theatre and Centre for Asian Theatre (CAT). However, CAT had to close its business after its foreign funding ceased. As for Bangla Theatre, it did not prove to be commercially viable. There are a few professional companies in Dhaka city that claim repertory status, Unfortunately, their performances are sporadic. More importantly, these are not repertoires in the truest sense of term, since the companies do not rotate a number of performances that they have ‘in repertoire’. Even in Kolkata, the Group Theatre mode of organization is gradually being replaced by professional ensembles that call themselves ‘company theatre’.
With the objective of overcoming the current stalemate in the modern theatre circuit of Bangladesh, “Spardha: Independent Theatre Collective” was constituted on 12 September 2018, by Syed Jamil Ahmed and some of his students such as Mohsina Akhter and Mohammad Sohel Rana. The group is a ‘floating island’, not quite along the grain of Eugenio Barba’s explication. For, it is an ‘island’ that has cut loose artistically as well as organizationally from the ‘mainland’ of the conventional, the normative, the expected; and it is ‘floating’ because it eschews ‘roots’ that seek normative and majoritarian identity. In that sense, the group is ‘foreign’ even at ‘home’ in Bangladesh. Its raison d’être is to perform the cutting edge of the avant garde that destabilizes the norm by playing as a trickster seeking to subvert all intellectual and artistic guardianship. Organizationally, the ensemble is constituted of a ‘stable’ core group and a ‘provisional’ performance group. The core group, made up of three members (Syed Jamil Ahmed, Mohsina Akhter and Mohammad Sohel Rana), is the decision-making body that subsists on lean times by running workshops and conducting research. Whenever the financial underpinning is stable enough, a performance group is raised through a series of workshops. It is dissolved when the production folds. All members of “Spardha: Independent Theatre Collective”, the core group as well as the performance group, are professional theatre practitioners who are ensured a minimum remuneration. The group is totally non-profit, and is now striving to become a fully functional repertory company with weekly performances all over Bangladesh.