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Cultural Activism in India & IPTA (Part 1) – Pratyay

India – A land blessed by nature, cursed by history. The curse of history afflicted on India in the form myriad invasions throughout the ages. The most seminal being the British rule that lasted 200 years. IPTA was born in 1943 as the post-world war wave of global communist movement hit the shores of India.

To trace the origins of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, we need to travel in time back to colonial India during 1932. With the growth of fascism and imperialism by the British India Government, India saw the rise of a mass literary movement by a group of independent writers and artists apart from the mainstream national freedom movement. In 1932, four writers in UP, Ahmed Ali, Sajjad Zaheer, Rashid Jahan & Mahmuduz Zafar brought out a collection ‘Angaaray’ comprising of nine short stories and a one act play addressing colonial repression, religious conservatism, and orthodoxy. The book was banned by the British Government in 1933 on account of hurting religious orthodoxy and sentiments. This event was the stepping stone for South Asia’s largest literary movement, the formation of the Indian Progressive Writer’s Association in 1936. So, a strong and formidable foundation was laid down for the future, and the activities of the Progressive Writer’s Association slowly and steadily led to the formation of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).

IPTA emerged as formative generation of left cultural movement in India

For instance, the universal Paul Robeson was fused with Indian music by Kamal Sarkar and sung by Hemango Biswas from the IPTA.

The translation of the first few lines:

They do not let us sing, They do not let us sing, They are afraid to let us sing our song, Oh my friend Paul Robeson, The art and political activist Paul Robeson, They do not want us to sing for you, Paul Robeson

Backdrop of World War II and IPTA

World War II – Soldiers from the impoverished colonies were dragged into the futile war of competing imperial forces.

The historical song ‘Gourishringo tulechhe shir’ was written and composed by one of the key members of IPTA and a maestro composer who changed the vision of Indian music, Shri Salil Chowdhury.

After the second World War there was a worldwide youth movement for peace. This song was composed in 1946 to celebrate that. A call to the youth to unite for peace. This version was recorded in the ’80s with Salil’s commentary.

Naval Mutiny and IPTA

The Royal Indian Navy revolt at Bombay harbour on 18 February 1946 – The revolt spread and found support throughout British India, from Karachi to Calcutta, and ultimately came to involve over 20,000 sailors in 78 ships and shore establishments.

The mutiny was repressed with force by British troops and Royal Navy warships. Only the Communist Party supported the strike.

Dheu uthchhe (Rising wave of freedom) – Composed on 29th July 1946, the day when communists rose to support the Naval Mutiny.

The translation of the first few lines:

‘The waves of freedom are rising, The shackles of bondage & slavery are starting to crack, The sun of a new era is rising on the eastern sky, People are blooming with life and expression’

Peasant Movements and IPTA

The Tebhaga movement was a significant peasant agitation, initiated in Bengal by the Kisan Sabha (peasant front of the Communist Party of India) in 1946–47. Hei Samhalo – Composed by Shri Salil Chowdhury during the ‘Tebhaga Aandolon’ (tripartate movement), when the farmers demanded that 3-parts of the produce should be theirs and 1-part should be handed over to the landowner. First recorded by IPTA singers in 1948.

The translation of the first few lines:

‘During the harvest season we will not give up our share of the crops to the landowner, We have toiled hard and grown the crops throughout the season, We will give our lives to protect them from being taken away with brute force.’

Ganasangeet and Gananatya

Jyotirindra Moitra, poet, composer, singer, a founder member of IPTA was the pioneer of ‘Ganasangeet’ or People’s Songs. He composed a series of songs for the IPTA movement. The collection was called ‘Nabajibaner Gaan’. Later, he was also instrumental in providing a shape to the development of Indian music both in films and theatre.

Gananatya, or Gananatya Sangha, which started the Gananatya Andolan (People’s Theatre Movement), was a radical theatre group which attempted to bring social and political theatre to rural villages in Bengal in the 1930s and 1940s. Even later, the tradition of this form of theatre was adapted by a lot of emerging theatre groups in the country specially in Maharashtra and Bengal.

From the beginning we were talking about music, but theatre was the backbone of the movement in its truest sense. In this first part of our work we talk about the one theatre that brought the IPTA movement to the forefront. The play was ‘Nabanna’.

Nabanna was written by Bijon Bhattacharya and was first staged by the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1944 under the direction of Bijon Bhattacharya and Sambhu Mitra and later, in 1948, by Bohurupee under the direction of Kumar Roy. The play is about the Bengal famine of 1943. The Bengal IPTA took the play to many parts of India as a part of its festival, Voice of Bengal, and it became a major success and collected lakhs of rupees for famine relief in rural Bengal.

So, the IPTA is an important part of Indian History and Indian Cultural Activism which has been intentionally removed from the mainstream consciousness and ignored continuously by the national political parties and the mainstream media of the nation. All the prolific and brilliant writers, actors, musicians, theatre workers had come together to join this cultural movement against the British imperialism and in independent India against all kinds of injustice. Apart from the mainstream national freedom movement, the Progressive Writers’ Association and the Indian People’s Theatre Association played an especially important part in the Indian freedom struggle.

This is an introductory article to what will be a detailed and extended series on the works and people of the IPTA. Hope this work will reach young minds and students and activists who work relentlessly to achieve the dream of a better world.

Pratyay Raha: Nature lover, deep interest in sustainable tourism, nature and wildlife conservation. Music & Folk culture enthusiast, profound interest in the history and the language of music. Founder and co-editor of Kothabriksha.

References and Acknowledgements

1. The Radical Impulse: Music in the Tradition of the Indian People’s Theatre Association – Sumangala Damodaran. 2. Indian People’s Theatre Association : A Retrospect – Susnata Das 3. Wikipedia 4. Special thanks: Shounak Mukherjee & Purnendu Mukherjee

Cover image source: India Post, Government of India

© Kothabriksha 2020, All Rights Reserved.

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