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Sadanand Menon: Re-visiting the IPTA years

Sadanand Menon  |  New Delhi 

History was re-written at a rather well-organised ‘National Theatre Festival’ last fortnight, in Thrissur, Kerala. In his inaugural address, film maker and current chief of the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA), M S Sathyu, spoke a few things about the origins of IPTA that had theatre enthusiasts sit up and take notice. IPTA, which went on to become one of the most dynamic performing art movements in India in the 1940s and 1950s, is known to have had rather modest beginnings in 1942, before it became like a magnet for the young and radical artists, actors, musicians and dancers of the period.

Casually, almost, Sathyu revealed that IPTA was born in 1940 at a meeting that included personalities like Homi Bhabha, Kamaladevi and Harindranath Chattopadhyaya and a few other writers and artists, many of them already connected with the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA).

It was a moment of revelation. Perhaps, for the first time in the past few decades has someone ‘officially’ associated Harindranath Chattopadhyaya with the founding moment of IPTA. One major shortcoming of contemporary art/political history has been the sort of mysterious silence around the formation and decline of this arguably unique cultural/political movement, associated with the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI). The artists were not necessarily members of the CPI. But they had Left sympathies and asserted a kind of radical idealism that raised progressive political activism to a creative pitch.

Eventually, when IPTA broke up first in 1948 and then once again around 1954, it contributed the largest migration of talent to the newly consolidating Bombay film industry. Prithviraj Kapoor, K A Abbas, Kaifi Azmi, Shahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra, Sachin Dev Burman, Chetan Anand, Dina Pathak, Bisham Shahni, Zohra Sehgal, Salil Choudhury, Balraj Sahni, Mehboob Khan, Hrishikesh Mukherji, Ritwick Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, A K Hangal and a series of such luminaries, not to speak of Harindranath Chattopadhyaya himself, were the gift of IPTA to Indian cinema. It seems unacceptable that, but for a few scattered narratives on the movement (primarily by the actor from the Bengal Squad, Sudhi Pradhan), we really do not have any impressionistic or authorised history of the movement.

One awaits with bated breath the completion of the autobiography of Habib Tanvir, a former IPTA activist, to shed some light on the highlights of the movement. However, for me, who has long been interested in the history of the movement and the abundance of energy it released, the public mention of Harindranath Chattopadhyaya’s name by M S Sathyu was most satisfying.

Harindranath or ‘Baba’, as some of us knew him, passed away in 1990, unsung and unacknowledged for all the services he had rendered a series of cultural/political causes. He had been among the founding fathers of both PWA and IPTA. However, a difference of with S A Dange, the then powerful Secretary of the CPI in the 1950s, had left him disillusioned and he had withdrawn into ‘personal’ creativity, continuing to write, sing and act. The Party itself chose to play down his role, for example, in the 1942 Quit India Movement where it was Baba’s songs (like “Shuru hua hai jung hamaara, shuru hua hai jung / yudh karenge shuddh marenge nar-naari ek sangh”) that were on the lips of the hundreds and thousands who marched down the streets. There were any number of ‘experiments’ with raga-based music and working class rhythms that were to inspire a generation of writers and composers of the caliber of Bhupen Hazarika, Salil Chowdhury and Tanvir.

Baba’s centenary came and went without anyone paying the least attention. Neither the broad left, nor IPTA nor indeed the State paid even lip-service to one of the most prolific artists of our times, who painted, wrote and sang every day. In fact, Rabindranath Tagore had said of him, when he was barely 15, “After me, it’s Harin”.

In the second Parliamentary election, Baba had stood as an independent candidate from Vijayawada constituency and had won by a whopping margin of over a lakh-and-a-half votes. Subsequently he enlivened the Lok Sabha with point-of-order interventions, rendered in his inimitable style derived from the Bengali genre of the ‘curd-seller’ quatrains.

For example, after the Railway Budget speech, he would rise and say, “On a point-of-order, Mr Speaker:

‘The Budget on the Railways is very very fair;/O, the budget on the Railways is very very fair!/ It doesn’t touch the Ministers,/Who always go by air!’”
“Our Irrigation budget/ Keeps shooting like a rocket;/It doesn’t irrigate the fields,/It irrigates the pockets!”
Or “Our Five-Year-Plan/Is like a piece of chewing gum;/We’ll draw it out and draw it out/For fifty years to come!”

The amalgam of the political and cultural in Baba’s interventions is the kind of material one misses in today’s political milieu, sullied by intemperate speech. It is a big black hole in our national consciousness that, even 60 years later, we do not possess a honest evaluation of either the man or the movement.

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First Published: Fri, April 17 2009. 00:57 IST