Cash-strapped Dhaka theatres struggle to return from pandemic blues

  • Meherun Naher Meghla, Staff Correspondent, bdnews24.com
    Published: 2020-11-15 02:01:01 BdST

Lights flicker back on the stage. Small and big theatre teams are slowly returning to regular rehearsals. Now they face a new crisis: the fund crunch.

After about six months of the shutdown, the theatre halls reopened on a limited scale, but it was next to impossible to raise enough funds to meet the costs by leaving the auditoriums half-empty amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The economic impact of the pandemic has also affected many artists, forcing them to form new teams or go back home to their villages. to overcome the long-running economic crisis.

Theatre troupes are putting health protocols first as they are returning to the stage amid the pandemic, but a shortage of visitors and government help has deepened the crisis in performing art.

In the midst of financial troubles, Prachyanaut lifted the curtain on a month-long festival ‘Mahala Magan’, the first theatre festival in Bangladesh since March.

Theatre groups returned to Shilpakala Academy after the state-run cultural centre reopened, ending a seven-month hiatus amid the pandemic. The groups are struggling to bear daily production costs as the number of visitors decreased sharply.

The theatre in Bangladesh is a difficult path devoid of patrons. Despite the free allocation of halls, the recovery from the financial losses seems far off, according to the artists. Many performers left the groups after losing their jobs. 

"The companies are hardly interested in contributing to our own culture,” Kamal Bayazid, secretary-general of the Bangladesh Group Theatre Federation, said expressing concerns over the adverse situation facing the theatre activists.

Bayazid, who is also a director at Dhaka Theatre, expressed his gratitude to the government for the donation granted to Bangladesh Mahila Samity, and for the free allocation of halls.

Hall rents at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy and Mahila Samity have been waived for six months from October to April. At least 8,000 artists also received a donation of Tk 5,000 each from the federation, he said.

PLAYS IN THE DAYS OF PANDEMIC

The government shut theatres and cinema halls following a surge in coronavirus cases in March. The cultural centres in Dhaka reopened in August. The stage performances resumed in Dhaka with a Shunnon Repertory production, 'Lal Jamin', at Bangladesh Mahila Samity on Aug 28. Shilpakala Academy reopened at the end of October.

Despite the pandemic, the practices of the theatre activists were not completely stopped. The rehearsals took place online. Dhaka Theatre, Onushwar, Padatik and Anurag are coming with new productions, Bayazid said.

“Theatre activists were online not only for rehearsals, but for discussions as well,” said actor Mamunur Rashid.

Ananta Hira, director of Prangane Mor, said: “Performers were long away from practices. Many of them lost their jobs and returned to their villages.”

Now, the performers pin hopes on the reopening of the theatre halls as they are trying to turn around and groups have started to form again.

Prangane Mor, which sheds light on Rabindranath Tagore's plays, staged “Aurangzeb” at Bangladesh Mahila Samity on Sep 30.

"Stage plays hardly see a massive crowd in Dhaka. In addition to that, the audience is not fully accustomed to this new normal. It is not yet possible to recoup the production costs. It will take some time to bring back those old days," Hira said.

"It is impossible to recoup the costs just from selling tickets as the government limited the audience to half the seats. Plus, ticket sales depend on the merit of a play. Only 20-25 percent of theatre groups have returned to the stage over the last two months. The truth is that the theatres are still dependent on their own funds.”

LACK OF GOVT HELP

Federation chief Bayazid blamed the lack of government initiatives for the sorry state of the theatre in Bangladesh.

"Everyone involved in theatre receives a monthly donation from the government in India. There is a budget for every production and the development of stages. No such facilities are available in Bangladesh."

The government allocated Tk 5.26 billion for the cultural sector in fiscal 2020-21, which means the allocation for the cultural sector is 0.11 percent of the entire budget, with 0.07 percent going into infrastructural development under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

"The allocation for the key staff is so inadequate that it can no longer be used for theatre and other activities. We have to spend our own money to implement them,” Bayazid said.

EYES ON THE AUDIENCE

Many people who used to attend stage dramas have stopped visiting halls due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The shows are back, but most visitors are not aware of that. Many also feared COVID-19 infections," actor Safwan Mahmud, also a former student of Dhaka University's Theatre and Performance Studies Department, told bdnews24.com.

Mahmud emphasised promotional campaigns and the strict enforcement of COVOD-19 protocols to bring people back to the theatre halls.

"People are worried about the resurgence of COVID-19 as winter is approaching. It is not possible to bring them back without addressing safety concerns."