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80 Years of IPTA – An Indian Theatre Movement Truly ‘For the People’

From the struggles of the peasant class to Afro-Asian unity, nothing was beyond IPTA, no issue too big or small.

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Something remarkable happened in a school hall in Bombay from 22-25 May 1943. The Fourth All-India Conference of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) took place in the Marwari Vidyalaya. Unlike the three previous all-India meetings of this influential literary grouping – the inaugural one being in Lucknow on 9 April 1936, followed by the second in Calcutta on 24-25 December 1938, and the third in Delhi in 1942 – this one in Bombay was a grand affair. It was important also because on its concluding day, 25 May, a remarkable institution came into being – the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) – with its motto of “People's Theatre Stars the People”.

Sri Lankan activist Anil de Silva was appointed its first General Secretary and NM Joshi, the trade union leader, its first President. While the initial impulse behind the formation of IPTA was the man-made Bengal Famine, and the Urdu poem by Wamiq Jaunpuri, Bhooka Hai Bangal (‘Bengal is Hungry’), became its rallying cry, soon almost all the big ‘isms’ of the time became grist to its mill: anti-colonialism, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, feminism, land reform, rights of industrial workers, peasants and landless labour, not to mention national unity, communal harmony, secularism, pluralism and multi-culturalism.

From the struggles of the peasant class to Afro-Asian unity, nothing was beyond IPTA, no issue too big or small.

Actor Ritwik Ghatak with other artists of the IPTA. 

(Photo: Twitter/@theritwikghatak)

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How IPTA 'Squads' Took Theatre to Every Part of the Country

Gender justice and drawing attention to the plight of women remained at the heart of its endeavours, irrespective of the medium. Virtually, since its inception, the IPTA’s influences remained astonishingly diverse – Kaifi Azmi’s long poem Aurat, a play on the life of the Soviet heroine Tanya, the Kathakali dance of Kerala, the songs of Nazrul Islam and Rabindranath Tagore from Bengal – the list is eclectic, combining traditional and modern styles and formats. Uday Shankar’s troupe of dancers and musicians, which included the sisters Zohra and Uzra, toured the country to collect donations for famine relief.

Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s film Dharti ke Lal (‘Children of the Earth’), written especially for IPTA by the progressive writer Krishan Chandar and Bijon Bhattacharya with lyrics by Sardar Jafri, Nemi Chandra Jain, Wamiq Jaunpuri and Prem Dhawan, was widely distributed in the USSR and received rave reviews.

Drawing inspiration from the strong Chinese Peoples Theatre Movement and especially the innovative Living Newspaper format (where topical events or news is told in a dramatic form), the IPTA sought to combine indigenous or folk elements in dance, drama and song from influences as diverse as Urdu poetry and Russian ballet. Groups of IPTA performers, initially called ‘squads’ (Bengal Squad, Punjab Squad, Central Squad, etc) and later called ‘troupes’, toured the length and breadth of the country, hiring several bogeys of a train, performing in small villages and hamlets before the humblest of audiences (such as women beedi workers or manual scavengers), sleeping in the train and moving on to the next venue.

From the struggles of the peasant class to Afro-Asian unity, nothing was beyond IPTA, no issue too big or small.

A stamp celebrating the 50th anniversary of IPTA.

(Photo: Instagram/@ipta.mumbai)

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The Songs of Salil Chowdhury

As the movement grew and the IPTA spawned a host of cultural squads (separate ones for dance, drama, songs), even routine PWA meetings became lively, energetic occasions with songs and dances interspersed with academic discussions and poetry readings. The progressives wrote plays and songs that were shown to peasant and working-class as well as middle-class audiences in different parts of the country. For example, Dhaani Bankein ('Green Bangles'), a play on communal riots written by the Urdu fiction writer Ismat Chughtai and Yeh Kis ka Khoon Hai ('Whose Blood is This?'), a play by Ali Sardar Jafri set in Chittagong during the first Japanese bombing, would be staged alongside films and documentaries from the Soviet Union.

While the plays, skits, ballets, shadow-plays dance dramas, and local forms such as the tamasha and pawada inspired by Marathi theatre, the jhumur from Assam and the Bengali jatra were indeed popular, it was the songs that gained the troupes instant popularity.

Salil Chowdhury, later to become a popular film music composer, had spent his childhood among the tea plantations of Assam and knew at first-hand their plight and exploitation. He joined the 'Bharotiya Ganonatya Sangha' (as the IPTA was known in Bengal) and penned many a rousing song. While many songs from Salil da’s prodigious output all through the 1940s went unrecorded, some were collected in Ganasangeet Sangraha published and compiled by Subrata Rudra.

These include, Uru taka taka taghina taghina (based on a folk song sung by Bengali peasants during sowing and harvesting), Aalor desh thekey aandhaar paar hoyee (about sacrifice and hard work for the nation), Dheu uthchhey karaa tutchhey (in support of the Naval Uprising), and later, Hindi songs such as Aagey chalo, aagey chalo.

For a compendium of all his songs written for the IPTA, see www.salilda.com.

Some Hindustani songs such as Suno Hind ke rehne walon suno suno, sung by Reba Roychoudhary, Shailendra’s Tu zinda hai to zindagi ke jeet mein yaqeen kar, or Jaane wale siphai se pucho written by Urdu poet Makdoom Mohiuddin, became extremely popular with the masses.

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How the IPTA Brought In a Certain 'Cosmopolitanism'

Apart from popular songs, some written by well-known poets, others by lesser-known ones, in Hindi, Urdu, Telugu, and Malayalam, and existing folk songs and ballads that spoke of the workers and the peasants were also added to the repertoire of the IPTA performers.

The tenure of PC Joshi as General Secretary of the CPI from 1935 to 1947 saw the fullest possible utilisation of culture, literature and the performing arts. Joshi had, by this stage, already started the practice of gathering the country’s prominent writers, journalists, artists, economists, historians, film and stage actors to rally around the party organ, the National Front, and later, People’s War and People’s Age.

He commissioned Sunil Janah to take photographs of the Bengal Famine of 1943 and document people’s movement elsewhere, such as in Telangana. Joshi understood and capitalised on the need to use culture as a living tool and believed that the revival of folk traditions was vital if people of one language group were to know the folk tradition of other language groups.

Songs on Lenin, ballads on the defence of Stalingrad, heroism of the Red Army, translations into Urdu of the revolutionary Kazakh poet Jambul Jabir, who wrote 'Stalin Calls', the centuries-old ballads from Punjab called the Heer, were refashioned to weave in motifs of communal harmony – the idea being to revive and showcase India's rich, pluralistic heritage and at the same time draw attention to the plight of the toiling classes using images and ideas from revolutions in Russia, China, Spain as well as local, or home-grown movements such as Telangana or the Malabar Uprising. Contradictory though it may sound, the IPTA and the PWA brought in a certain cosmopolitanism and a ‘localism’ or ‘nativism’, the idea being to make a common cause and to bring the different voices against oppression on the same platform.

From the struggles of the peasant class to Afro-Asian unity, nothing was beyond IPTA, no issue too big or small.

IPTA's new play 'Tere Sheher Mein'

(Photo: Instagram/@ipta.mumbai)

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IPTA Acted Like a Balm to the Trauma of Partition

All through the 1940s and 50s, the IPTA, the PWA and the Bombay film industry were like three interlinked circles, with overlapping memberships and a host of common concerns. Foremost among these common concerns was a socially transformative agenda that would fulfil the needs of a fledgling nation. For this, they sought inspiration not only from Marxist tomes and ideologues but also from a Congress-inspired version of socialism, and, in post-Independence India, an increasingly Nehruvian ‘idea of India’ that hailed schools, colleges, dams and factories as the ‘temples of modern India’.

Members of the IPTA and the PWA – some of whom worked in the film industry as actors, directors, scriptwriters, lyricists, technicians, etc. such as Prem Dhawan, Prithviraj Kapoor, Salil Chowdhury, Shailendra, AK Hangal, Balraj and Damyanti Sahni, Chetan and Uma Anand, Shaukat Azmi, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Ismat Chughtai and others – worked in tandem to produce a radically new set of images, metaphors, vocabulary, and even aesthetics that influenced several generations of film-goers. Their most visible and immediate effect was the introduction of a non-sectarian ethos, one that rose above the narrow confines of caste, creed and religion and worked like a balm on a national psyche that had been traumatised by the communal outrages before, after and during the partition.

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Nothing Was Beyond the Ken

The glory days of the IPTA also spanned the most tumultuous period of modern Indian history – Gandhi’s call to satyagraha, India’s response to the rise of fascism, Nehru’s Muslim mass contact programme, Gandhi’s second civil disobedience movement, the second World War and its impact on India, chronic food shortages, the rise of trade union movements and kisan sabhas, strikes, lockouts, communal disturbances that scarred the nation in the years leading up to independence, partition and the immediate bloody aftermath that the Communist Party of India (CPI) dubbed ‘false freedom’.

Both progressive writers and those within the IPTA faithfully reflected each of these momentous events that shaped the nation’s destiny; at the same time, they drew the nation’s attention to events outside the country such as the Rosenberg Trial, the decolonisation of Africa, the need for Afro-Asian unity, and the emergence of a new world order in which India must take its rightful place.

In short, nothing was beyond the ken, no issue was too big or too small for the PWA and the IPTA as long as art was put to the service of humanity.

(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Theatre   hindustani awaaz 

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