News of Usha Ganguli’s untimely demise on Thursday at her South Kolkata residence has left the stage empty. Death is always painful but for many, what is more painful in this case is the sheer timing of her demise. Barely a few months before turning 75, Ganguli passed away silently at a time when the entire country is under lockdown. Even for her well-wishers, saying the last goodbye was a challenge during the pandemic.
Thespian Soumitra Chatterjee, who lives quite close to Ganguli’s residence, was “shocked” with the “unexpected” news. He is 11 years her senior and has had a long association. His daughter, Poulami Bose, had broken the news to him in the morning. That Chatterjee regarded Ganguli in high esteem is evident from the fact that he had once offered her a role in his play titled ‘Phera’. That was some 30 years ago. The play was adapted by Chatterjee from Friedrich Durrenmatt’s ‘The Visit’. On the surface, it is a story of a girl wronged, who returns to seek vengeance. Beyond that, it actually highlights the socio-economic situation of the state/country where money can buy almost everything. “I had wanted her to act in ‘Phera’. But for some reason, she couldn’t do it. Later, that role was played by Madhabi (Mukherjee) in the shows that I directed,” he said.
Praising Ganguli’s production, Chatterjee specially mentioned ‘Court Martial’ and ‘Rudaali’. “Her experiments on stage were interesting. When she started work, there were very few women directors around. Even today, the number isn’t flattering though it has increased from the time when she had started doing theatre,” said the thespian, adding how it has been quite an achievement of sorts for Ganguli to simultaneously act, direct, write as well as manage her theatre group called Rangakarmee.
Though directing her for stage never materialized, Ganguli did get the opportunity of being directed by Chatterjee. “It was for a telefilm on the 125th birth anniversary of Tagore. I had directed a Hindi telefilm titled ‘Streer Patra’ with her,” he remembered. The cast also included Roopa Ganguly, and Chatterjee’s daughter, Poulami Bose. “That was perhaps the second work in Roopa’s career. She had played Mrinal while I had played Bindu. Ushadi had acted in the role of Mrinal’s sister-in-law. It was an amazing experience to work with her. She was very friendly and it was one of my early works. This telefilm was for national television and I remember, she had guided me too,” said Bose, still coming to terms with the news. “I really can’t believe that Ushadi is no more. She was so active. What saddens me more is that she died all alone at home. In her death, I kind of feel reminded that at the end of the day we all are very lonely,” she said.
Ganguli’s contribution to the Bengali stage will continue to inspire Bose. What was even more inspiring is that she consistently did theatre while pursuing her academic career. After doing her schooling from Adarsh Hindi High School in Kolkata, she studied at Shri Shikshayatan College and did her master’s degree in Hindi literature from Calcutta University. That was before starting to work as a lecturer in Hindi at the Bhawanipur Education Society College. Along with her teaching assignment, Ganguli came up with so many important Hindi productions including ‘Mahabhoj’, ‘Rudaali’, ‘Court Martial’, ‘Holi’, ‘Antaryatra’, ‘Lok Katha’, ‘Himmat Mai’, ‘Shobhayatra’, ‘Kashinama’ and ‘Sarhad Par Manto’. Among her Bengali productions were ‘Mukti’ and ‘Manasi’. In 2005, Rangkarmee was the only Indian theatre group to perform at the Theatre der Welt Festival in Stuttgart. Only recently in 2017, she even created Rangakarmee’s studio space and named it ‘Binodini Keya Mancha’.
Awards have followed including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for direction in 1998, the West Bengal government’s Girish Purashkar for the year 2016 and the DLit from Bhopal’s Rabindranath Tagore University in 2019. But amidst all this what made her stand out was her guts to hold on to her own while working within the patriarchal dictates of the stage. “It is one thing to be an actress. But for a female director or someone who runs a group of her own, the challenges are manifold. Half the time, a woman is not even taken seriously. Now, I understand this challenge even more. In my case, most people think my father does everything for me. To be able to consistently deliver in an environment that doesn’t want to recognize the leadership qualities of women is a big achievement. In that sense, I would say her contribution remains almost unparalleled in Bengal,” Bose signed off.
Source: Times of India