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Theatre's torch-bearer


Kirti Jain  |  New Delhi 

Tapas Sen, a stalwart of Indian theatre, passed away almost unnoticed last week. A lighting wizard and a versatile person who did lights for films and hundreds of plays, designed auditorium lights and special lights for exhibition pavilions, he was working on the lighting plan of till the last moment.
Sen was a pioneer in the field of theatre lighting and must have started in the late '40s designing for other stalwarts like and "" his contemporaries. He became a legend of sorts with sensational effect lighting in Utpal Dutt's productions.
I didn't see those productions but I have heard vivid descriptions, particularly of his lighting in the production of Angaar, a play depicting the plight of coal mine workers.
It is said he managed to create such a realistic effect of the water level gradually rising inside the mine, drowning the trapped miners, and the water overflowing into the auditorium, that the audience actually started feeling suffocated and crying in panic!
Similarly, in the play Setu, the audience felt that a train, under which a girl commits suicide, was coming straight onto them. All this in the early '50s! No wonder these plays drew full houses, largely because of the lighting by
As one of the theatre scholars has noted about him, "He can fill it (the stage) with a rising flood, make a train rumble past, conjure fire and earthquake, make pursuing automobiles whiz past and a hundred other things."
Sen was like a magician with the lights, as also an artist whose tools of expression were the lights. So while he created such spectacular effects, he was also concerned about the various ways in which lights could heighten the meaning of the play or even create a parallel text
Sen's poetic lighting for Shombhu Mitra's productions of Tagore's plays were, for that time, path-breaking initiatives, as they attempted to integrate with the production and acting styles of the plays. He achieved the poetic and theatrical quality required for the plays through the subtle interplay of light and shadow.
On the Indian stage, Sen set a standard of sorts and exemplified how lighting could add to the overall meaning and impact of a production. And he did all this without any sophisticated equipment at his disposal. He worked at a time when such equipment was not available, but that did not deter him.
Since the strength lay in manpower, Sen would use spot boys to move with lights, change their colour, change cutouts for different effects, and rotate different patterns with the help of a motor to create a moving image. It was sheer ingenuity and imagination that allowed for an extremely creative use of simple implements for optimum effect.
Sen has definitely been an inspiration to hundreds of theatre workers who work in the interiors without any modern lighting equipment "" to use their imagination and improvise the equipment for the effect required
Probably taking a cue from him, several young amateur groups would use tin boxes of Dalda or Amul to create a focused light to approximate the spotlights now easily available in the metros.
They would also use manually assembled water dimmers to fade in and fade out the lights instead of just switching them on and off. And of course, effects such as of a moving train, the moon in the sky, or lightning, would draw straight from the work of people like
His contribution was not just lighting design but of an indomitable spirit against all odds. This is what theatre is all about and this is what Tapas da was all about. Through this column
I would like to pay my homage to this untiring artist who retained his creativity till his last breath.

First Published: Sat, July 08 2006. 00:00 IST