It is hard to think of creating sustainable livelihood through theatre when artistes of popular entertainment mediums like television and cinema struggle to earn a decent living. But undeterred, Dinesh Das of Dhenkanal, who has completed 27 years in theatre, not only strives to create earning opportunities in theatre but also aims to bring changes in society through this medium.
An art form is successful when it is amalgamated with the lifestyle of a common man, says Dinesh. The 42-year-old has formed Alternative Rhythm Theatre (ART), a professional theatre group, for personality development of orphans that would stand them in good stead later in life.
Active in the field since 1991, so far Dinesh has worked in over 300 plays in various capacities such as actor, playwright, light and sound designer, makeup artist and director.
The son of Nityananda Das, a theatre personality, he had the opportunity for professional training in acting, direction, Chhau dance, puppetry, shadow theatre and other forms of theatre and folk dance. He made his debut as an actor in Chatrapati Shivaji, a play directed by his father in 1987. So far, he has written nearly 30 plays of which 14 have been published.
Dinesh started out by forming the Charlie Chaplin Cultural Club (C4), an amateur troupe to promote theatre in Dhenkanal district. He persuaded the actors who were well off to get more involved in the group’s activities. One day, he met some kids at an orphanage. He was surprised to notice their acting skills. He felt that they had a lot of promise and their skill could be polished and utilised in organised sectors. Dinesh said he was pained to note that they had no extracurricular activities, which play an important role in personality development. The orphanage authorities believed that giving the children two square meals a day and providing basic education was sufficient. These orphanages are run on the financial grants sanctioned by the government. Besides, once these orphans reach 18 years of age, they are asked to leave the orphanage.
“So, it came to my mind that if a boy/girl is sent away from the orphanage on reaching adulthood, what options are left for their sustenance,” Dinesh says. “Keeping both aspects in mind, i.e., personality development and scope for livelihood, I tried to teach them acting. If given training, I felt these kids could work in the ancillary divisions of theatre such as prop making, craft making, set designing and costume making to eke out a living. To make them comfortable with the theatre form, I started interacting with them at the orphanages starting 2013. The two orphanages are Maharshi Dayananda Service Mission School and Adruta Shishu Griha. I got the help of some resourceful persons when I tried to develop the natural talent of the kids.”
But it was easier said than done. There were nearly 170 children in these two orphanages and picking out the best of them was a daunting task.
Dinesh says, “In the beginning, I tried to build a rapport with them through storytelling. They showed a lot of interest when asked about acting in plays. They were so enthusiastic that it became difficult for me to shortlist only 25 to 30 actors from them. Some of them even cried when they were eliminated from the final list. Realising that most of them are talented, I formed another troupe Alternative Rhythm Theatre (ART) in 2015 to accommodate the orphans who had been left out. Apart from orphans, the kids of marginalised sections who are not a part of the mainstream of art, are also an integral part of ART. I call them special care children. I wanted to tap their potential and develop it. I am happy that these children have performed on many stages of the state, including in Bhadrak, Angul, Bhubaneswar, Jatni and many other places, and got appreciation. Due to some technical reasons and financial constraints, we have not held any performance outside the state.”
Every summer, ART organises a 7-day-long workshop called ‘Know Yourself’ to develop the children’s inherent talent. Apart from acting, other activities undertaken in the workshop include handicraft making, mask making, sculpture, painting and creating artefacts out of waste products. This apart, they receive training in music, dance, yoga, storytelling, story making, poetry recitation, and poem writing. One of these underprivileged kids, Suraj Biswal, stood third last year in a state level poetry recitation programme organised by Odisha Sahitya Akademi.
On how he wants to better their lives, Dinesh says, “ART has become ARTAR from the year 2019. ARTAR is Alternative Rhythm Theatre Academy and Research, the academic division of ART which is a performing division. In ARTAR, we seek to strengthen the basics of acting through theory classes. The objective of ARTAR is to reduce the gap between the mainstream students and those from the marginal classes. We try to develop their concentration level and broaden their mind using theatrical methodology. We are in touch with experts from the state as well as outside to enlighten the students.”
For example, says Dinesh, the state doesn’t have mime experts. So, they have sought help from experts like Ranen Chakraborty from West Bengal, a state with a strong mime culture. Acknowledging the role of the neighbouring state in his development, he says, “I have no hesitation in admitting that I have learnt a lot from Bengal. I consider Probir Guha and Gunakar Dev Goswami as my gurus in theatre. I have many friends in West Bengal in the field of theatre and music. Dwijen Bhattacharya, who has spent nearly 17 years in Europe popularising Hindustani classical music, is a good friend. Though I belong to Odisha, you often find the flavour of West Bengal in my plays.”
“Theatre is not just a medium of entertainment. We believe that it is a therapy to develop the personality. This apart, social change can be effected through theatre. The power of a play can be gauged from the fact that Raja Harishchandra transformed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi into Mahatma Gandhi,” says Dinesh.
Probir Guha, an internationally-known theatre personality from West Bengal, says, “Dinesh showed great promise when he worked with me. I have many students who have made a name for themselves at the national level and Dinesh is one of them.”
“He thinks differently and is a great organiser. He is now working towards developing the personality of orphan kids through theatre, a great attempt indeed. I am happy for him,” adds the maverick director of Alternative Living Theatre and Theatre Lab of Kolkata.
Famous playwright and professor Narayan Sahoo says, “Of the current lot of play directors of the state, Dinesh Das is special because he loves the medium more than his life. He belongs to an artiste family. What makes him different from others is that he remains in touch with the culture of his state and loves to deal with subjects such as human values and contemporary social system. He has tasted success in all genres of theatre. Adha Adha, a play on the lives of the third gender, is a milestone in his career. His effort to impact all sections of the audience is really praiseworthy.”
BIJAY MANDAL, OP