The formidable doyenne of the Kolkata stage, and indeed Indian theatre, Usha Ganguli has passed on, aged 75, in a year that marks five decades of her spirited engagement with the performing arts. In 1970, she debuted as the self-possessed courtesan Vasantsena in Mitti ki Gadi, an operatic Hindi adaptation of Śūdraka’s Mrichchhakatika with Kolkata’s Sangeet Kala Mandir. Her early forays left Ganguli increasingly disaffected with the state of urban theatre, prompting her to launch Rangakarmee in 1976 — a group that quickly rose to became one of Kolkata’s flagship theatre companies, despite specialising in Hindi theatre. “The [Kolkata] audience is most inspiring. If the theatre [grammar] is correct and the message is well conveyed, the audience will come and love it, whatever be the language,” she responded when asked why she had forged ahead with plays in Hindi, her mother tongue. That said, Rangakarmee’s repertoire has included Bengali productions.
Making of a director
Ganguli’s signature style of lyrical sight-and-sound dramas with an unequivocal social conscience, infused with choreographed dance and a distinct musicality, likely owes much to her training in classical Bharatanatyam. Her master’s degree in Hindi literature equipped her for a lifelong career as a lecturer at the Bhawanipur Education Society College. Rangakarmee’s early productions were helmed by ‘outside’ directors like Rudra Prasad Sengupta and Tripti Mitra. The latter directed Ganguli in Gudiya Ghar, a Hindi adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and the performance fetched her a state award.
Working with the stalwarts of her time allowed Ganguli to transition fairly smoothly into directing by the 1980s, with plays like Mahabhoj (1984), based on Mannu Bhandari’s novel on an ordinary man’s descent into bureaucratic mendacity, and Ratnakar Matkari’s Lok Katha (1987), a searing account of Dalit oppression in rural India. Directing was to prove her true calling, as she acknowledged during a tête-à-tête at Prithvi Theatre, “I love to design my own plays. Whenever I do a play [it gets] written in the making. Colours, images, blockings, simple sets, minimum use of property, use of sounds, sounds of routine life, are [what] appeal to me. I get involved.” Ganguli was awarded the coveted Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Direction in 1998.
One of a small canon of twentieth-century women theatremakers, Ganguli was understandably uncomfortable being tagged as a ‘woman’ director, “There is a place beyond masculinity or femininity where our artistic selves are. That is one place in the artistic world where we rise above gender.” Even so, many of her works reflect a commitment to powerfully delineate the struggles of women on the stage, dispassionately and objectively. These include Antaryatra (2003), a monologue penned by Ganguli herself, and the stage adaptation of Mahasweta Devi’s Rudali (1992), most famous in its film version by Kalpana Lajmi. In Theatres of Independence – Drama, Theory, and Urban Performance in India, scholar Aparna Bhargava Dharwadker writes, “Ganguli has earned the titles of ‘angry woman’ and ‘iron lady’ as well as a reputation for fashionable slogan mongering, but her engagement with feminist causes . . . presents a major alternative to the literary contract.”
In her essay, The Metamorphosis of Rudali, writer Anjum Katyal speaks of how Ganguli re-purposes a text (Rudali) that is part of the discourse of class as a ‘woman’s story’, dehistoricising its original context to suit the urban demographic she caters to. This license of sensibility can also be seen in her later works like Hum Mukhtara (2014), an adaptation of Mukhtar Mai’s autobiography, in which a chorus of masked women perform balletic interludes set to the score of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Ganguli’s acting triumphs include Rustom Bharucha’s 1986 adaptation of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Request Concert. She plays Jaya Sen, a typically middle-class Bengali woman who works as a clerk in a government office, and commits suicide at home at the end of a fairly routine day — this served as a metaphor for the “explosive energy” of the oppressed. The play was concurrently performed by Sulabha Deshpande in Mumbai, and Chandralekha in Chennai.