Sombhu Mitra is considered the pioneer of contemporary Bengali theatre. Be it the maiden staging of Rakta Karabi (adapted from Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's play) or Putul Khela (adapted from the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll's House), his works mirrored society and showcased the triumph of humanity over materialism.
The eminent thespian was born on August 22, 2015 in Kolkata, the sixth among three sons and four daughters. It was in Ballygunge Government High School that he developed interest in reading Bengali plays and became active in school dramatics. He joined St Xavier's College in 1931, and soon started attending local theatre.
Sombhu Mitra (delhievents.com)
The early days
His first appearance in a theatre was in Rangmahal Theatre in north Kolkata in 1939; thereafter he moved to the Minerva, Natyaniketan and Srirangam theatres. In 1943, he joined Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA).
In 1944, several old theatrical conventions were broken when the play Nabanna, written by Bijon Bhattacharya and co-directed by Sombhu Mitra for IPTA, was staged. This was one of the turning points in Sombhu Mitra’s theatrical career. The drama is about the Bengal famine of 1943 in which more than 2 million people died of starvation, malnutrition and disease. The main character of this play is Pradhan Samaddar, a peasant of Bengal. The play presents the intensity of famine through the starvation of Pradhan Samaddar's family.
In 1948, Sombhu Mitra and 15 other artists, many of them, including Sombhu Mitra, after disassociating from the IPTA, founded the theatre group, Bohurupee. The co-founders included theatre veterans Bijon Bhattacharya and Mitra's wife Tripti, a legend in her own right. Sombhu and Tripti’s daughter, Shaoli is also a noted actor, director and playwright.
The non-commercial dramatic troupe, Bohurupee churned out experimental plays that broke away from stereotypes and gathered a cult following. It was as the main force behind Bohurupee that the versatile genius made a mark as an actor, playwright and director.
Two stalwarts – Rudraprasad Sengupta (left) and Sombhu Mitra (anandabazar.com)
The glorious Bohurupee years
Initially, it was a struggle for Bohurupee. But it slowly came into its own. Between 1950 and 1958, it directed multiple important plays.
The theatre of the 1950s belonged entirely to Mitra and his Bohurupee, whose supremacy was presaged in the significant but forgotten production, Ulukhagra. Subsequently, Mitra's repertoire unrolled itself with magical ease.
Rabindranath Tagore's play Char Adhyay was staged in 1951. In 1954, the group staged another work of Tagore – Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders). In Putul Khela (1958), which was an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, Bohurupee touched a sensitive contemporary issue in a bold manner.
Sambhu and Tripti Mitra in Raktakarabi (left); Tripti Mitra in Putul Khela (anandabazar.com)
Among the other great plays staged during the 1950s and the early 1960s were three other productions of Tagore’s plays, Dak Ghar, Bisarjan and Raja, and an adaptation of another of Ibsen's plays, An Enemy of the People, titled Dashachakra. His last great production was Raja Oidipaus (1964), another adaption, this time of the ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles’ classic, Oedipus Rex.
In many of these productions he also acted – as Rahimuddin in Chenda Tar, as Atin in Char Adhyay, as Binod in Ulukhagra, as Tapan in Putul Khela, as Dr Purnendu Guha in Dashachakra, as Oedipus in Raja Oidipaus.
Poster of Raja Oidipaus (aviman75.blogspot.in)
From the mid-sixties, though, began a creative decline from which he only recovered intermittently. Badal Sircar's Baki Itihas (1967) and Pagla Ghora (1971), and Barbar Banshee (1969) were staged without much success. A notable bright spot was the audio play, Chand Boniker Pala (1978).
Sombhu Mitra acted in several Bengali films and two Hindi films. Among his Bengali films are Abhiyatri (1947), Dhatri Debata (1948), Bau Thakuranir Hat (1953), Pathik (1953), Manik (1961), Suryasnan (1962) and Nishachar (1971). The Hindi films he acted in are Dharti Ke Lal (1946) and Hindustan Hamara (1950).
He also wrote the story and the screenplay of the films, Ekdin Ratre and its Hindi remake, Jagte Raho (both in 1956) and co-directed them, too. He directed another Bengali film, Shubha Bibaha in 1959.
Sombhu and Tripti Mitra in Pathik (left); Raj Kapoor in Jagte Raho (bengalidownload-bd.blogspot.in; youtube.com)
Sombhu Mitra was honoured with numerous national and international awards for his theatrical and cinematic exploits (though very few). Among others, he received the Crystal Globe for Jagte Raho at the 1957 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the Desikottama from Visva-Bharati University in 1989, an honorary D Litt from both Rabindra Bharati University and Jadavpur University, the Padma Bhushan in 1970 and the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1976.
He received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 1966. For his contribution in films, he won the Grand Prix Award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The Madhya Pradesh Government honoured him with Kalidas Samman for the year 1982–83.
Sombhu Mitra died on May 19, 1997.
Influence of Sombhu Mitra
It is indeed difficult to overstate the influence of Sombhu Mitra on both the modern Bengali group theatre and the commercial theatre. If Nabannna broke new grounds in many ways, Char Adhyay, followed by Raktakarabi, Bisarjan and Raja showed the way in which Tagore plays, hitherto widely denounced as unstageable because of their abstractions, could be performed with success on stage without making any substantial departures from the source.
While through Tagore’s plays he was trying to find an expression of the complete man in all contexts of history, his adaptations, Dashachakra and Putul Khela were specimens of the earliest adaptations of western playwrights for the modern Bengali stage. They clearly contributed to efforts among playwrights to resist any tendency of cultural insularity of the Bengali stage, though suiting the themes for the dominantly middle-class Bengali audience.
His translation of Sophocles for the first time for the Bengali stage created new interest in classical drama and set the stage for many such future adaptations. Sombhu Mitra was always aware of the potential of the indigenous forms of drama: Chand Boniker Pala, which was written at a later phase of his life and was meant more for audio presentation than for the stage, takes up a well-known story from a Mangalkavya and treats it with a subliminal inter-textual link with the Orpheus theme to lend it with themes and motifs at once contemporaneous and eternal for all ages and for all times.
His film, Jagte Raho evinced his consciousness of the potential of the new wave of cinema.
Sombhu and Tripti Mitra in Dashachakra (left) and Char Adhyay (anandabazar.com)
Lead image: forum.banglalibrary.org, anandabazar.com