Culture & Society

Language of Protest in Theatre: An Analysis of Badal Sircar’s ‘Michhil’

[Badal Sircar (Sudhindra Sarkar), was a Indian dramatist and theatre director from Kolkata. He was known for his anti-establishment plays during the Naxalite movement in the 1970s. –Editor ]

Soumyajit Majumdar for BeyondHeadlines

The term ‘protest’ in the form of theatre has intrigued me a lot and one of the pioneers of protest in Indian theatre was Badal Sircar.

I think he is the first “rockstar” of Indian theatre and personally the greatest inspiration for my theatre .

So here is a story I would like to share. Rather a part of a story whose name was Badal Sircar. I would like to take you all through a part of his “ Voyages in Theatre” through his play “Micchil /Juloos/”

Voyages in the theatre…

To go out there – perform the politics within, share the politics with the spect-actor.

Theatre of Calcutta has gone through a roller coaster ride of being political, not too political and simultaneously too political in the past four decades.

Language of Protest in TheatreIn the early seventies, a rebellious time in Calcutta, Badal Sircar had the idea of making a play on Calcutta in the form of a collage. As Calcutta is known as a city of processions , ‘Michhil,’( juloos) he says, “Seemed to be an appropriate name as well as a suitable name of making the play. In the immediately preceding years many young people, many adolescents were killed by the police brutally and cruelly, openly and secretly that the image of a young man being killed daily was very strong in the mind of the playwright-director Badal Sircar. Thus, was born ‘Khoka’ and the playwright became the clownish old man in the play visualizing himself in the role.

To talk about Michhil, to talk about its protest needs the larger picture of Sircar and his group Shatabdi’s theatre ideologies to be brought into notice. His play Michhil was a protest indeed but his outlook towards theatre – Yes, therein, lay his politics, lies his protest.

He pondered, how do we compete with Cinema? Take the route of the commercial group theatre of Calcutta and depend on lavish sets? Elaborate lighting? Expensive costumes? Stars?


He came up with the answer- Reduce the cost of theatre, make theatre a form of art which gives something to audience that cinema can never hope to. Thus, he realized, something he had always known but as he said, he had never understood the full import of: the fact that theatre is a live show.

The event of theatre does not take place unless two parties of human beings, the performers and the spectators gather at the same place on the same day at the same time and stay together for some time.

“So can we?” – He asks himself, “Afford to put the spectators at a distance? At a different level? In darkness? Have they not come to meet us? Are they not an integral part of theatre?”

In the light of these questions he said, “Architecture of proscenium theatre appears to be all wrong.” And he added, “That all spectators on one side means pushing the last row too far. Why not put them on all sides?

The higher level of the stage makes the performer superior and detached. Why not come down to same level? The spectators hiding in the dark render it impossible for the performers to get any direct feedback from them, or for the spectators to get feedback from one another.

Why not put them in the light so that we can see them and they can see one another. Theatre is live. Direct communication is the strength of theatre- Meeting place of two sets of human beings. Theatre is a human event, cinema is not.” Thus, in a turbulent early 1970’s – in those years of political upsurges, of hideous communal riots and of refugee camps, a hand full of people embarked on a voyage with Badal Sircar definitively enlisting them in the small band of mad people.

They shunned proscenium performance, introduced the concept of Anganmanch, Third Theatre and brought radical changes in theatre- stripping theatre of its illusion and doing reality based performances in close proximity of the audience.

In a system in which all the basic necessities of life can be obtained only at a price, they tried to find out if at least one art medium, one as important as theatre could be made free for all people. Michhil was born in this phase and is deeply political in space, time, character and is a voice of dissent.

Michhil and its protest then…

The young man ‘Khoka’ went on being killed every day on the streets and the old man lost his way. Michhil (processions) political, funeral, festive, star studded, for flood relief, for protest, for revolutions. Khoka has left home long back in search of new road and he is moving with the procession.

Yes, Khoka- somewhat naïve, somewhat impudent, somewhat mad- lost, missing, Assassinated? Abducted? Lost. He tried to look a little further beyond the bend. He took the new road, the road vanished again at the next vent and a new one again and…

Khoka, back to the same road again.

“Khoka come back!” – Badal Sircar’s chorus echoed the voices of thousands of parents in Bengal.

Khoka meets the old man who has lost his way, seeking a road through roads after roads seeking the truly true procession. The old man has by now resorted to local liquor. He thinks the Khoka in him is lost long ago- searching through roads and roads – processions through processions. Yet he searches still because he thinks, if you are lost you can search, if you can search then you can find. Young Khoka’s hope are re-instilled as they decide to search together because its coming.


“The procession to show us a way. The way home.”

“Really coming? A real procession? Who are in it?”

“Seems to be a real procession. Seems to be…real men.”

Michhil was first performed in a village Ramchandrapur and went on being performed in alternative spaces for more than two hundred shows. The subtle protest of Michhil thus, struck a chord not only with the city youth but also with the bare bodied, bare footed ‘Santhals’ (a tribe) of West Bengal. The success of Micchil also lies in the fact that it portrayed the real image of processions, even making the audience sit within the performance area.

The protest could not be bought or sold; it was free theatre after all and only generous contributions by the audience became the working capital for future productions for the play. At the end of the play the group sang a word less melody holding hands, inviting the audience to join the performers. Herein, Badal Sircar succeeds in communicating on a political issue with the audience and connecting with them emotionally – for e.g. During the end sequence of Michhil in one show a Santhal came up with tears in his eyes and instead of holding hands he embraced one of the performers. Ideologically, shunning expensive sets, props, costumes and make-up, Sircar used the human body as his weapon. He believed that the human body is the most important tool in theatre. The use of physicality of the human body through movements, use of human voices as the chorus, use of junkyard items like empty coconut shells, tree branches and small bamboo sticks for the music and the rhythm formed an important feature of this play which was by the people and for the people. This language of theatre used by Sircar highlighted that without the human body, without the active presence of the human being theatre shall deem to exist.

Sircar said, “For this theatre does not only involve a change in the inter relationship of the spaces occupied by the performers and the spectators, it involves a basic change in the relation between the performer and the spectator as two human beings that leads to a change in the language of performance. In the conventional naturalistic theatre, the performer changes his identity to that of the character in the play. It is done through costume, make-up, movement, gesture, expression, mannerism- everything copied and applied, in short, faking. This is generally known as ‘acting’ but now the performer comes down, comes close, appears as the human being he is, to the human being that the spectator is. Now he can no longer fake, he has to take of his own mask and be himself.”

Thus, there was no question of pretence in Michhil. Also, the coherent group performance underlined the common bonding of ideologies between the performers. Their unmasked, exuberant energy transcended the feeling of resistance to the ruptured audience. They believed theatre by itself will never change the world for the better but we should allow theatre to stake a modest claim in the process of that change, that language of theatre, they hoped will change every where accordingly.

(Soumyajt Majumdar is an independent  young communication, theatre and film professional- artistic director of national  creative  arts  collective  LOK  based in kolkata. Acted in internationally acclaimed film “GANDU” and  Mahesh Bhatt’s “AASHIQUE 2”.)


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