By Aiyushman Dutta
In the cultural world of Assam, his is a name which hardly needs an introduction. A man who is credited with ushering in a new wave in the world of theatre through incorporation of professional and modern techniques, he can rightfully be considered as a doyen as far as Assamese theatre is concerned. One of the first artists to have taken professional training in stage, film and television abroad in London, he is hugely responsible for the development of Assamese theatre as a whole. His immense contributions can be gauged from the fact that he had spearheaded Assamese theatre into a national movement when he launched the Asom Jatiya Natyasala Andolan Samiti in the mid-sixties.
But this soft-spoken and unassuming man, who has his feet firmly set on the ground, shies away from such lofty titles and epitaphs. Although in his eighties, he continues to pursue his passion for theatre and the arts, away from all the limelight and media-crazy crowd. You have guessed it right. We are talking about none other than Kulada Kumar Bhattacharjee – a cultural institution in himself. For over five decades now, Kulada Kumar Bhattacharjee has been silently working behind the scenes, shying away from all possible limelight, for the proper and successful propagation of histrionics in this region. Not just theatre, he has also established his name as one of Assam’s most successful directors, columnists and essayists.
Kulada Kumar Bhattacharjee’s immense contributions to the world of culture have been recognised in the form of numerous awards and citations. Prominent amongst them are the Tarun Duwarah Memorial Oil India Award, Nirode Chouhury Lifetime Achievement Award, token of appreciation by Jeewan Ram Mungi Devi Goenka Public Charitable Trust, Apsara Award, besides others.
I recently met him at his residence in Guwahati for a tete-a-tete where he talked about his life and journey in the world of theatre. Following are excerpts.
- At the beginning, please tell us about your childhood and your memories of growing up in Guwahati.
Ans: My father late Kali Prassanna Bhattacharjee was a lawyer by profession while my mother was a housewife. If he had been alive today, he would have been around 122 years old. I have two elder brothers and two younger sisters.
I have fond memories of growing up in Guwahati. The Guwahati of those days was totally different from what it is today. It was a very small town with a very small population. We stayed in Jaswanta Road of Panbazar. Although now that area has become famous for book stores, in those days there was only one book store i.e. Lawyers Book Store. On the other end of the area, there was a small school where I studied upto Class 2. But after the war broke out, we moved back to our native place in Sylhet. At that time, Sylhet was part of India and it was a district of Assam.
In 1946, we came back and matriculated from Paltan Bazar Bengali Girls High School. I did my BA from Cotton College and then took admission in Gauhati Universe for the MA course with honours in history. But frankly speaking, I took admission in GU only for the sake of it. I spent most of the time performing plays. I used to do plays in GU, for the ITPA and All India Radio. After that, I joined AIR as an English announcer.
2. You are among the very few from the State to take professional training in theatre abroad. Please tell us about your decision to go to London.
Ans: I had initially gone to Leeds to pursue a course in Business Managaement, which is called MBA nowadays. At first, my father was against my decision but I was insistent and he gave his support. But once I reached Leeds, I found that the course required high levels of proficiency in Mathematics. Since I was weak in the subject, I wrote to my father about my dilemma. He wrote back to me saying that since I have already gone, I should take up training in theatre. That was like a godsend opportunity and I immediately took admission in a theatre course for a diploma in stage technique course. After completing the course, I did a three weeks intensive training course in production design at the British Drama League.
I met some really good acquaintances during the course. At the same time, I worked as a salesman in a bookstore. During the same period, I got the opportunity to assist the professional in charge of the Bengali section of BBC. I would assist him for the Friday broadcast in Bengali and that way, I did not face any shortage of money and also gained experience.
During that period, I got the news that the Indian government was about to start television and were on the lookout for announcers. I applied for the same but did not get any response. I then decided to take training in television production so that I could get a job back home in India. A German family with whom I was close suggested I go to Hamburg where their relative worked in a television centre. So in 1960, I went to Hamburg in Germany and started my training in a television centre. During that period, I learnt a lot about television production. In January, 1961, I came back to India.
3. You worked in Delhi for a short while.
Ans: Once I was back, I found that television had limited reach. I worked with an English theatre group in Delhi. One of my friends whom I had met in London introduced me to the assistant station director of All India Radio. So I got assignments there as well. I also did the Bengali recording for the Voice of America broadcasts during that period.
By that time, I had got a job in All India Radio where I had applied. So I decided to come back. My elder brother told me to stay back in Delhi since I would get more opportunities there. But I insisted saying that whatever I do back home will be my contribution to my State and my people.
4. So when did you join All India Radio, Guwahati? You brought about a revolution in radio production during your stint.
Ans: I joined AIR as Producer-in-Charge (Drama) in December, 1962. During my tenure, I developed very close rapport with three friends – Durgeswar Borthakur, late Arun Sarma and late Bhabendranath Saikia. Since I was in charge of the plays department and they would bring in plays, we became very close with each and developed a strong sense of bonding.
In fact, it was a play written by Arun Sarma, in which I had acted and produced, that revolutionised the functioning of AIR. That particular play, Parsuram, brought in a revolution in the manner in which radio plays are produced. That new trend is still continuing today. I am happy that during my tenure I was able to rope in a lot of new playwrights and start new shows in attractive formats. In addition to plays suitable for the medium, I revived a number of classic Assamese stage plays and introduced a regular forum for world classics in their stage format called the ‘Naat Chora’. I produced the translations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Sudraka’s Mrichchhakatikam in their entirety for the Guwahati station of AIR.
I could not continue my contract with AIR as the work system interfered with my principles. After I left, I once again joined Arun Sarma and other friends to form the Asom Jatiya Natyasala Andolan Samiti. Lakshyadhar Choudhury was elected as the president while I was the general secretary. We would travel across the entire State garnering support for the cause of regional theatre.
5 You have created a special corner in the hearts of the people through some fantastic performances in television and films. Can you please recount the popular serials and films that you have been part of?
Ans: The films I have acted in include Shakuntala, Latighati, Chikmik Bijulee, Prabhati Pakhir Gaan, Bhagya, Ramdhenu, Surjasta, Dickchow Bonot Palas and Maj Rati Keteki. Some of the popular serials are Deuta, Jeevanar Batat, Aei Saharate, Papu Niku Sangbad, Tejal Ghora and Trikaal.
6. What are your views on the current trend of theatre and films in the State?
Ans: A lot of new directors have come up who holds a lot of promise. I find Reema Das to be very promising. I acted in her film, Village Rockstars, which is currently earning a lot of acclaim in film festivals. Then I would like to mention about Reema Borah. Her film, Bokul, is also very encouraging. So overall, I find the scenario to be very positive and promising.
(First published in melange on January 28, 2018)