At a time when organising a five-day long state level drama festival is often a Herculean task for many troupes in the state, Millennium City Cuttack hosts the Indian Theatre Olympiad, one of the biggest theatre carnivals in the world that runs for weeks every year with the participation of hundreds of national and international performing artistes. For the past 25 years, the Olympiad had been single-handedly organised by Kartik Chandra Rath, the lone voice of Odia theatre at the international level. He turned Cuttack into a destination for theatre artistes of the world. Last week, Kartik passed away after a brief illness and a pall of gloom descended on the theatre community in the state with many eminent personalities mourning the loss of one of the main architects of Naba Natya Andolan (New Theatre Movement) in Odisha.
Known as Jupiter in the Odia theatre world, Kartik had more than 100 plays to his credit and directed 70 of them on national and international stages. Besides, he was well-known as a theatre organiser, critic, and observer whose writings are now part of the syllabi of Utkal, Berhampur and Sambalpur universities in Odisha and Shantiniketan in West Bengal. His one-act plays are taught in schools and colleges in Odisha. Apart from the scores of awards he was conferred with in Odisha and other states, he had the distinction of being bestowed with the Kendra Sangeeta Natak Akademi, Odisha Sangeeta Natak Akademi and Odisha Sahitya Akademi awards. More than 20 scholars have based their doctoral research on his works. He will also be remembered for scripting the screenplay of Hindi film Bheegi Palkein starring Raj Babbar and Smita Patil.
Not every economics professor can be a theatre artiste with passion, he once said. Even as he taught economics with enthusiasm, he involved himself in theatre with dedication. Kartik’s father was a mining engineer and geologist, and so he spent most of his childhood outside Odisha and had limited opportunities to read Odia publications. But he tried to read as many Odia books as possible when he got time since his family owned a publishing house. At the age of 15, his play Aie Desa, Aie Mati was adjudged the best play at a state-level children’s festival. He got a boost when his play Jeevana Yajna was selected as the best play at an All India Drama Competition held in Allahabad in his college days. After that, there was no looking back.
Born in Berhampur in 1949, he chose Cuttack as his ‘Karma Bhoomi.’ Cuttack has a glorious theatre tradition ingrained in every element of this culturally-rich city, he used to say. Earlier, there were three professional theatres – Annapurna B group, Janata Rangmanch and Kalashri Theatre. Kartik’s dream of a Theatre Olympiad took root towards the end of 1960 when these theatres were shut for various reasons. Since then, he had been on a mission to popularise Odia theatre and transform Cuttack into a throbbing theatre stage.
The Indian Theatre Olympiad, an international theatre event that started in 1993 was one of its kind in the country with over 3,500 performing artistes participating in nearly 70 plays and 50 national classical and folk dances. It was a one-man show till last year. Artistes from countries like Iran, Canada, Peru, Brazil, Malaysia, Pakistan and Russia used to take part with great enthusiasm. Kartik’s demise has not only clouded the fate of the festival, it has shaken the theatre fraternity of the state.
Eminent theatre director and an alumnus of the National School of Drama Dolgovind Rath, mourning the demise of Kartik, said, “Kartik Chandra Rath stands out as a theatre activist in the amateur theatre movement of Odisha. His work would continue to inspire us all. We are saddened by his demise.”
Renowned dramatist Bijay Mishra who had a long association with Kartik said, “Kartik Rath was a frontline playwright of our time. Plays penned by him were appreciated at the national level. The feat of organising the Theatre Olympiad in Cuttack for the last 25 years will make him immortal in the memory of theatre lovers of the state. It was amazing to see so many troupes from India and abroad participating in this Theatre Mahakumbh. I had known him since he was in school. He even acted in two of my radio plays.”
Bijay said he was highly impressed by Kartik’s play Swargadwar. That play stood out among his works because it captured the hearts of audience and critics when absurd plays were getting acceptance in society, he said.
Kartik was a legend in his own right and committed to the growth of Odia theatre across the globe. ‘Drama breathes life into me,’ he once tweeted.
Apart from the completion of his autobiography, setting up a theatre village with residential facilities and an open-air theatre in Cuttack remain among his unfulfilled dreams.
BIJAY MANDAL, OP