Kolkata is witnessing a new type of theatre. Called site-specific theatre, these are plays which are staged in the city’s grand old homes. “Site-specific theatre, a term that The Guardian says has been gaining traction since the 1980s, refers to productions that are not in the traditional theatre space but grow out of the sites where they are performed.”
This article begins with a play called 32 Ashwini Dutta Road (performed in a house with that address): “When we, the audience, knocked at 32 Ashwini Dutta Road, a handsome, 80-year-old South Kolkata residence, a young girl opened the door and welcomed us in absent-mindedly. She led the way to the baithak khana (living room), a high-ceilinged room belonging to a different Kolkata, the Calcutta of yore, which had grand houses with window sills wide enough for two to sit comfortably. The girl settled us in before getting into a heated chat with her friend and neighbour about the family pressure she was facing to get married. What we were witnessing was the play, 32 Ashwini Dutta Road, arguably the first site-specific production in Bengali…The play is conceptualised by the interdisciplinary artist Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee, who first saw such a performance in a heritage house in Toronto, which was once home to a former mayor.”
So, why bother with staging plays in old houses? “Kolkata was once packed with these family seats, described by Amartya Sen as “eccentric” and “beautiful” in his letter of support to novelist Amit Chaudhuri’s campaign for conserving these properties. The city’s centre was the business district, made up of British neo-classical buildings and Armenian and Jewish mansions. A large number of these family houses have been replaced with unlovely apartments today. The houses that remain have emptied out, many of the rooms are locked up, their residents now in distant cities.
Chatterjee’s project, running till March, wants to make use of such houses again. Not only in the older, more historic neighbourhoods of Bhawanipore and Ballygunge, but also in relatively new suburbs like Salt Lake, where too many houses are now thinly inhabited. At the end of the performance, Chatterjee invites the audience to start performances like this in their localities. Aside from reimagining these spaces, he hopes that projects like his will rekindle a sense of community in these hollowed-out neighbourhoods. When you visit someone’s home and walk through their rooms and sit on their beds, it’s hard not to start a conversation.”
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