Nostalgia: Frontier & Utpal Dutt

Utpal Dutt with Satyajit Ray

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Frontierthe Left magazine edited by Samar Sen, used to carry regularly advertisements of Epic Theatre, a magazine devoted to theatre.

Like Frontier, Epic Theatre too was published from Calcutta, now Kolkata. The Editor of Epic Theatre was the leading light of Bengal’s vibrant theatre movement, Utpal Dutt. The magazine’s name was, apparently, based on Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre movement.

Dutt was not only an advertiser, but also a frequent contributor to Frontier, particularly in its early days. Epic Theatre’s April issue, whose advertisement is carried below, was a Lenin special, containing inter alia, the full script of Dutt’s firebrand political play Leniner Dak, Lenin’s Call. (This link takes you to a song, Leniner Dak Shuni.)

The association between Samar Sen and Utpal Dutt goes back a long way. In the ’60s when Sen used to edit Now, the magazine’s Deputy Editor was Utpal Dutt.

Accomplished Actor 

Hindi heartland, of course, remembers Utpal Dutt as an accomplished actor – the eccentric Bhavani Shankar of Golmal (1979), now a benchmark for comedy movies. Critics love him for his versatility as an actor in Bengali and Hindi cinema, both mainstream and parallel – for classics like Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969) and Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk (1991).

But theatre-lovers would always remember him as one of the greatest thespians that Bengal’s fertile and vibrant theatre movement has produced. Another great thespian of that era was the redoubtable Sombhu Mitra.

Dutt’s was an extraordinary journey, a metamorphosis from producing Shakespeare and Shaw for Calcutta’s bhadralok crowd to enacting theatre for the masses. He became a raze through his brilliant experiments in the 60s and 70s, applying the potential of mass appeal of jatra, the Bengali folk theatre, to political street theatre.

A Marxist

He was a Marxist.

Dutt used theatre as a tool to educate the masses. His political leanings were evident quite early, even in his Shakespeareana days when in 1949 he dressed characters in Julius Caesar in Italian fascist uniform.

Shakespeare’s English play created ripples in Calcutta. “Without even changing an alphabet, Caesar has become a very modern political play,” Dutt would recall later.

His Angar (Coal), whose music was provided by Ravi Shankar, took theatre scene by storm in 1959, now considered a classic of Bengali theatre. Kallol (1965) was another classic, a play about 1946 naval mutiny. The hugely popular drama – running for months – made Government extremely uncomfortable, as, using Brechtian technique, Dutt transported past to the present.

Hugely popular

Throughout the ’60s his troupes – Little Theatre that subsequently became Epic Theatre – were so popular that he had taken on lease Kolkata’s famous landmark, Minerva Theatre.  Minerva became a Utpal Dutt landmark.

Subsequently, when he was thrown out of Minerva after a decade’s successful run, says Nalin Rai, it became “a blessing in disguise” with Dutt emerging as a “shining beacon of street plays”.

Anti-establishment crowd loved Dutt for his rebellious nature. The West Bengal Government banned his play Samajtantrik Chal (1964) that exposed hoarders and black-marketeers of food-grains. Dutt was riding the wave of popularity at that time. Authorities thought, probably rightly, that the drama would incite the masses against the Government.

Says Nalin Rai: “No political rally of the Marxists was complete without his 30 minute street plays that were catalysts in swinging the opinion in favour of the Marxists.”

Seditious Artist

In 1965 he was arrested on sedition charges under the Preventive Detention Act for writing an article, ‘Another Side of Struggle’, in Deshhitaishee, the Bengali weekly organ of the CPM. The issue was banned and Dutt spent seven months in Calcutta’s Presidency Jail.

His daughter, Bishnupriya Dutt, a professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, recalled that arrest in an article for The Quint.

“My memories of him being in jail,” she writes, “resonate with his accounts of his time” and then she goes on to quote her father:

“I am no hero, I hated every minute of my prison time. But the seven months passed off quickly, because all the top leaders of the Marxist Party (of India) were already there and there was a lot to learn from them. And then there were the fascinating convicts – murderers, bandits and completely innocent men sent to prison by conniving feudal lords. I filled two notebooks with interviews and realized for the first time why Marx had included the prison in his definition of the state machinery of repression. About 98% of the prisoners serving sentences in jail had been convicted for the so-called crimes against ‘property’. The prisoner is a weapon in the class struggle, in the ceaseless war to maintain private property. All the talk of reforming and re-educating criminals is balderdash.”

Naxal movement

Dutt’s fascination for the emerging Naxal movement landed him in jail for a second time on charge of sedition. He was arrested in 1967, a week after his People Theatre Group staged Teer, the arrow, based on Naxal movement.

His powerful theatre, loaded with political messages, kept bringing him in conflict with the powers that be. Throughout 1970s three of his plays were banned – BarricadeDusswapner Nagari meaning city of nightmare and Ebbar Rajar Pala, now it is the king’s turn.

Frontier was a magazine of the rebellious souls. No wonder, Utpal Dutt, the eternal rebel, was drawn to it.

Here is the Epic Theatre Ad, published in Frontier:

The article was updated on 6 July 2020 and again on 16 August 2020.

The Epic Theatre Ad, published in Frontier:

Ad in Frontier 9 May 1970

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