A different ardor for this Melbourne Bengali theatre group

By Indira Laisram
Pic supplied by Actomania

In 2019, five Bengali families in Victoria got together to create Actomania, a theatre group. Quite a silver lining to the pandemic that followed as it helped create a sense of connectedness. For the members, it would be a communal endeavour to bring together like-minded people in ways that other art forms do not.

Actomania, as the name suggests, means mad about drama, says Pritom Dutta, a core team member. It is the coming together of a group who cares for theatre’s posterity. Dutta says theirs is “a flat organisation” free of hierarchies and comprise professionals from different backgrounds, but he acknowledges senior member Tarun Bhattacharya as the driving force, given his 20 years of involvement with drama in Melbourne.

The group’s objective is to stage modern as well as period dramas involving the broader community. Because of COVID-19, Actomania had its first soft online launch in July 2020 with a four-part drama called Chaturanga—a journey through the pandemic. The four dramas dealt with comedy, domestic violence that arose during the pandemic, how the media played out at the time in different parts of the world, and how essential workers became the frontliners of the pandemic (this was a dance drama).

Pic supplied by Actomania

In November the same year, Actomania had its first taste of live play with Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala at Chandler Community Centre, Keysborough. Written in 1892, during Tagore’s “Sadhana” period from 1891 to 1895, the story is about a fruit seller, a Pathan from Kabul, who visits Kolkata each year to sell dry fruits and meets a little girl reminding him of his daughter back home. And despite Covid restrictions, the play was greeted by a rousing cheer of over 100 people, says Dutta.

Now, emerging out of the shadows of the lockdowns, Actomania is readying itself for its third production this June with another event based on Tagore’s creations titled Thakur Barir Angeenay. It will also feature his lesser-known yet talented elder brother Jyotirindranath Tagore’s stage play Aleek Babu (written in 1900), which highlights the sensitive issues of widow remarriage in a satirical way. This will be followed by curated segments from Tagore’s various dance dramas titled Maya o Mukti directed by Anindita Sengupta.

With Durba Banerjee and Bhattacharya as the directors, Dutta, who plays Aleek Babu, says this is a period drama for which the team began practicing in March. “It requires a lot of commitment, and all our weekends are busy in rehearsals.”

Pic supplied by Actomania

Since the play reflects a different era, the main challenge, says Dutta, is being truthful to representation. It aims to grab the dreamy classicism of the 1900 Babu culture of Bengal.

Without giving much away, Dutta elaborates, “We have a reputation of being truthful to the script and the vision of the writer. That is why the stage direction, props, costumes, etc., also need to align with the time. And the dialect is so obsolete that it is revisiting something that you don’t see anymore. Putting that extra effort to memorise that and replicate the style is hard, so it’s a lot of effort.”

Actomania has been able to make their presence on stage, thanks to the support from the government. “The Councils, especially Monash Council is giving us a lot of support with venues,” says Dutta.

Ultimately, the group wants to capitalise on the involvement of both senior and younger members of the community and believes such activities also encourage team building and other shared values. “Especially during Covid, it was instrumental in bringing people together through Zoom, which also helped in dealing with mental health,” adds Dutta.

Now as things are getting back to normal, he believes people with an inclination for the arts understand the importance and joy of performing in front of a live audience.

Actomania has expanded, with seven families in the group. “We are doing it for the love of drama and theatre. Besides, we didn’t have many specific Bengali drama groups, it’s almost a dying culture, that’s why we formed Actomania,” says Dutta, “But that having said, we also have plans to incorporate English and Hindi projects as diverse culture is something that binds us all.”

With time, Actomania hopes to provide a platform to talents in Melbourne to cultivate their theatrical skills both on stage and backstage in various production activities.

By all accounts, this group is on its path to reviving an energy from recapitulating the culture of theatre to which everyone involved is contributing their skills. It wants to stage plays, encourage community members of all ages and backgrounds with producing and staging plays for pursuing their interest and talent, collaborate with people from various community and promote multiculturalism and cultural diversity through staging of plays from different ethnic cultures.

Says Bhattacharya, “My aim is to create capacity among Melbourne youth and all other age groups to pursue their cultural and organising skills in traditional stage productions rather than be engrossed in social media alone.”

Itis a different ardor, almost like a meaningful balm—especially in a post pandemic world.

(Aleek Babu will be staged in Clayton Community Centre on 12 June and at the Drum Theatre on 18 June)

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