Ours is a strange city where middle-aged men catch half a play at the Academy of Fine Arts, before catching the bus home from work. Following are a few observations of the quirks indigenous to the theatre culture of Kolkata.
1. Curtains in theatre halls in our city are like heirlooms in old households. They are thick and heavy and impeccably grand in design even though the layer of grime accumulating on the golden thread braided on the red velvet has permanently changed its colour to light brown. Curtains are Kolkata’s lasting colonial vestige. Like flaccid bystanders, they need not change with the pace at which the world enclosed by them evolves. They are retractable fourth walls at which an audience shifts its eyes and concentration after the second bell rings. They are the essential divide in realist theatre, and the essential commodity that has to be done away with if the audience is to be robbed of an illusion. They are the keepers of the anticipations of the entire population in a theatre. In places the fabric has faded to translucence, offering the actor the feeble hope that he might be able to judge his audience through it before the play begins. The power it wields is tangible, silencing an entire audience as it rises. The older the playhouse, the stronger the smell of dust on its curtains.
2. Armrests are spaces of immense tension. But unlike disgust over ringing phones, battles between those who hog armrests in theatres and those made to keep their arms to themselves, are fought silently.
3. Curtain calls are to a play what acknowledgements are to a book. They are varied in duration, ranging from fifteen minutes (in case of first shows where the director introduces each member of the cast and talks about his play at length) to a hurried parting and closing of the curtains during which the cast and the director fit in a hasty humble namashkar before scurrying away tiredly into the wings. Sometimes the curtain never falls back down and the actors break positions to mingle among the audience who are unsure as to whether to treat this as part of the performance. At other times the curtain call too is a choreographed and rehearsed presentation, involving elaborate sequences of bowing or routines where characters portrayed as adversaries in the play reunite amidst general applause. Most actors look visibly excited during this coda to the performance but a few are noticeable in their impassiveness and tendency to get over with a curtain call as quickly as possible. As some members of the audience stand up, a few others urge them (with characteristic Bengali attention to collective appreciation of the arts) to sit still and wait till the show (which is technically ‘over’) is over. The call also serves as an opportunity to click the ensemble cast with phone cameras which had to be kept away till then. Most importantly, however, the curtain call is the time set apart for the Kolkata audience to smile at the actors on the stage as if they were very old friends.
4. An actor’s wig or a part of his costume coming apart on stage is an event of great anxiety for the spectator. While the performer is intent on seamlessly acting out his part as if nothing has happened, the audience has already decided that it is the flailing wig that is going to occupy their complete and undivided attention. When he at last reinstates or gets rid of the errant accessory, the audience heaves a collective sigh of relief, having been freed of the great discomfort of watching the actor’s distress at the unraveling of the machinery involved in creating his character.
5. The other day audiences of the play Bishorjon (‘Sacrifice’, written by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore) witnessed a rat making its way across the Academy of Fine Arts stage as the priest lay in a crumpled heap over his protégé Jaisingha’s dead body. The rat travelled deftly through the network of ramparts holding up director Suman Mukhopadhyay’s slanted wooden set, entering through the right wing and leaving through the left, having utilized the performance space like a seasoned stage veteran.