When I joined my theatre group Nagorik Natya Sampradaya after Liberation, although it was 47 years ago, it was a very liberal time. It actually happened because one of my uncles who was himself a freedom fighter (colonel Nuruzzaman; a sector commander during the Liberation War) told my father that I need to know better Bangla, since I went to an English school – and his solution was that I join a theatre group and learn from the people there.
This was the sort of concern that parents had at the time. Everyone wanted their children and the younger generation to love their country and do something for it. There were plenty of young men and women at the time who were coming forward to join theatre. To us, it was almost a holy mission - we wanted to make Bangladesh known through our cultural activities.
We were very lucky to have lived through that time, and I personally feel there were very few social barriers to accessing the stage back then. It was like a community effort – because I had joined the group, many of my female friends and cousins also joined it with me.
The magic of theatre is that it is a platform that is your very own. When I am on stage, I don’t need to make any compromises. Even to this day, it is a place where you can speak your mind – there is very little censorship that comes in your way. The feeling of empowerment that comes through theatre, for men and women, is indescribable.
And it’s not just about the act of theatre, but the content as well. For example, we did a play called Shot Manusher Khoje, which is about a young female entrepreneur who struggles with her profession, and eventually she turns into a man, and becomes part of the system that used to oppress her. It’s a play with a very strong message on toxic masculinities and women’s struggles. When you put on plays like this where you really believe in the message – that is very empowering as well.
However, people’s engagement with the theatre has changed a lot since when we first started. Back then, a large section of the middle classes and upper-middle classes came to watch our plays. For a number of reasons – traffic and changed work hours being two of them – the culture of regularly watching plays has shifted.
To make theatre more accessible, one of the first things we must do is break out of our age-old idea of a play only being for the stage at certain venues like Shilpakala Academy. We need to step out of the traditional spaces and reach out through other avenues where younger people will get interested in theatre and use it as a way to express themselves. To some extent, we are stuck in time.
I think we also need to be more open about handing over direction and other responsibilities to young theatre workers. Time is not waiting for anybody, and everyone wants to learn these things from a young age. At Nagorik, we are always trying to involve the younger theatre activists more intimately in our productions.
There are now a lot more alternatives for the younger generation, but it is also heartening to see that there are still many young people becoming part of theatre groups. Not only that, they are continuing their cultural activities and acting, singing, reciting according to their own initiatives. This enthusiasm is extremely refreshing to see, and we need to come up with ways that are more accessible to this generation to ensure that they are being included in these cultural spaces.
Sara Zaker is a Bangladeshi theatre and television actor, director, business entrepreneur and social activist, and was awarded the Ekushey Padak in 2017