The novel Firebird explores innocence and its loss in the setting of crumbling commercial theatre in Kolkata. The theme has found echo in Mumbai theatre and literature world.
In the 1980s, one kind of theatre was dwindling and another gaining momentum in Kolkata, though one not necessarily causing the rise or fall of the other. Theatre of the commercial kind, with little traces left now, was in its final throes. Yet, it drew an audience that filled auditoriums even if the middle class was often disapproving of its gaudy productions. These auditoriums in the north of the city were also located in close proximity to the Sonagachhi, the largest red light area in Kolkata — hinging back to the history of commercial theatre there, when most actresses were from Sonagachhi.
The alley in the picture above is from north Kolkata. A cluster of houses with maze-like lanes often leading out to a playhouse, now crumbling or absent. Some called the theatre, ‘paras’ (Bengali: locality). They carry the tell-tale signs of time and history on them. It is in such a lane that the protagonist, a teenaged boy, of the novel, The Firebird, grows up developing a hatred for theatre as his mother performs in the playhouses nearby. PIC COURTESY/RAJAT Chaudhuri
This is the universe that The Firebird, a novel by Saikat Majumdar, who is an assistant professor of English Literature at Stanford University, is set in. He explains that the Left-leaning group theatre then had more moral sanction from the Communist Party in power in West Bengal and the crowds, which still thronged for the commercial plays, were dismissive and suspicious of women acting in them.
Minerva Theatre at Shovabazar in Kolkata. Pic courtesy/SANCHITA CHATTERJEE
It is in such a climate that the protagonist, Ori, a teenaged boy growing up in a geriatric middleclass lane, loses his mother to his self-destructive streak enabled and partly created by the world around him. This is where the novel ceases to become a city novel or a theatre novel going beyond the limits of its origin.
A moment from Mahesh Dattani’s play Tara
Exploring the hatred and suspicion that morality plants into the boy or perhaps every child and the invisible violence on the flight of a woman.
A jatra poster in Kolkata. Pic courtesy/Rajat Chaudhuri
The book opens profoundly and with a sense of death and destruction leaving a bit of an edge for those acquainted with the ways of the stage. “Disaster came early in Ori’s life, at the age of five, the first time he saw his mother die.” And this first line, Majumdar conveys, has been well taken and so has the book.
“I’m very happy with the reviews, not only because they are overwhelmingly positive (literally not a single negative thing said so far), but a good number of them are also very intelligent,” he says.
The language and the way the story has been dealt with has also been lauded, he informs.
“People are calling it a very bold book, especially in terms of its local rootedness, its vernacular sensibility, its against-the-grain story. People have also commented on what they have called the powerful interplay between violence and sexuality,” he says.
On the story being painful and the characters, which are the only hopes of light, dying, he says, “They could not possibly have lived in a world like this. The world of the book is a world of decay.”
Quasar Thakore Padamsee
From Bengal to Maharashtra
People from the theatre and literary world have appreciated the book and its themes. Playwright Mahesh Dattani, who has read the book, finds an immediate connect for the reader in Maharashtra.
Ratna Pathak Shah
“Both Bengal and Maharashtra share a rich modern theatre movement. So The Firebird, with its subjective view of a bohemian stage actress will appeal to readers in Mumbai,” he explains. He, also, sees the germs of a movie in it. “The world of the theatre is presented almost like it is a hallucinogen. I think it will make a great film because of its play with the illusions of a deluded mind and the illusions offered by the world of theatre,” the city based playwright suggests.
Mumbai based author, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, whose novels set in Mumbai have been widely acclaimed, feels the setting of this book is only incidental. “I read Saikat’s book with enjoyment and engagement for the primary reason that it is energetically written, and composed with an eerie foreboding loss. Aspects such as its setting being Calcutta were incidental to the pleasure I derived from it. So, it does transcend the city of its origin, as most novels that are universal in their scope tend to,” he says.
Mumbai to the fore
The idea of the novel dealing with theatre has interested both veteran theatre personalities like Ratna Pathak Shah and younger faces like Quasar Thakore Padamsee alike.
Pathak says that she was not aware that there were such moral issues relating to theatre in 1980s Kolkata and she would like to know more.
Padamsee considers the story relevant and contemporary for actors and readers even now.
“The stigma for performers has been around for quite a while. It is one of the paradoxes of society. We like to receive the entertainment, but don’t want people from our family to work on creating that. It has been changing. But it is a very important story to be told,” he says.
He points out that we still have an old incredibly sexist core. “I think Bollywood is doing a fair bit, with our female stars being unapologetic about their dating life, or even working after marriage. These things were taboo not very long ago. Dancers, actors, singers are all very brave to be pursuing their passion,” he says.
Majumdar says that he has a special interest in finding out if its rootedness in the world of performing arts finds resonance in the city of theatre and cinema. “The Marathi theatre scene is legendary, and interestingly, the world of Marathi commercial theatre is also very alive, unlike commercial theatre in Kolkata, which is dead. Mumbai is also probably the capital of English-language theatre in India. So, I am particularly keen to see the responses to the performance angle,” he signs off.
The Firebird, Saikat Majumdar, Hachette India, Rs 499. Available at all leading bookstores