Born in a family of active left wing political workers, Joyraj Bhattacharjee had his initiation to political and cultural ideals quite early. He joined Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) at a very tender age and performed in several street plays and proscenium theatre productions as a child actor for nearly ten years. In 1998, he joined the leading Bengali theatre group Chetana performing in several of their repertory productions. Besides theatre, he had also undergone rigorous training in several Indian and western dance and martial art forms. In 2000, Joyraj performed in Suman Mukherjee’s widely acclaimed ‘Tista Parer Brittanto’, followed by Mukherjee’s ‘Samay Asamayer Brittanto’ where he played the lead role of Kelu, a performance which brought him widespread recognition and acclaim. In 2006, he joined a British theatre company to work with the director, Tim Supple in Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, where Joyraj played Francis Flute. The production was a major success and toured several prestigious venues in USA, UK, London, Italy, Sydney along with the Indian metropolitan cities. He had also lent his acting skills to a number of critically acclaimed films such as Herbert (Suman Mukhopadhyay, 2005), Gandu (Q, 2010), and Kalkimanthankatha (Ashish Avikunthak, 2015) among others. He has also designed and directed several proscenium and street plays each generating polarized response in terms of critical acclaim and harsh criticism from the audiences.
Talking about Group Theatre practices in Bengal, Joyraj traces the origin of the term and the history of the practice, which originated in America as a direct response to the mainstream model of Broadway theatre, driven by a political conviction that was largely leftist and anti-state. The same model was adapted in Bengal but failed to address the contradictions inherent and thereby evolve, especially after the Left Front came to power in the 1970s and the whole thing became a sham, a strange model of a pro-state group theatre. The advent of globalization and the prevailing consumerist culture caused irreparable damage turning the model into an obsolete entity, historically and politically irrelevant. Over the years, a misplaced sense of pride and vested interest have deliberately destroyed the spirit and political and historical awareness of Bengali group theatre turning it into an inert object of mindless entertainment.
Among the various ills plaguing Bengali Group Theatre, Joyraj speaks most vehemently against the feudal mind-set, which drives the entire process. In fact, the entire history of what is termed as ‘Group Theatre’ is in fact written in terms of the directors enjoying a hierarchical upper hand. And while every other task is overlooked and neglected, what is completely disregarded is the due respect for tasks involving physical labour. And being historically ignored over time, these tasks have literally turned into disciplines and practices where there is no expectation of skill, harming Bengali theatre in the longer run. Equally damaging has been the economic mapping surrounding theatre where a ticket price has gone from five rupees to two hundred rupees within a decade or so thereby limiting the theatre within an upwardly mobile bourgeoisie class.
The conversation turns to the compromised and corrupt practices prevalent in Bengali theatre, which raises the issue of professionalism claimed by a set of actors who are seen to be performing in multiple productions by different groups and directors. Joyraj directly challenges the very idea of this professionalism and its financial basis. He alleges every group to be involved in corrupt practices, embezzling money from the salary grants from Ministry of Culture, Government of India and the following unequal distribution whereby majority are denied their basic rights while a privileged few enjoy their ‘professional’ status. And due to the monetary privilege, these so-called professionals are turning themselves into slaves of a system working endless hours, thereby straying away from essential life experiences and undoing the significant achievements of a prolonged labour struggle.
As Joyraj speaks on his last production titled Praatohkritya, he elucidates the detailed historical and political nuances of the Dance Theatre form popularized by the legendary Pina Bausch in Europe during the 60s. The essential idea is to create a direct response using the body against the verbose theatre form propagated by the bourgeoisie, the patriarchy and the regressive ideals associated with them. In the context of contemporary India, in the wake of the religious right wing’s rise to power, the dance theatre form has become essential. Countering the Brahmanical patriarchal structure, which has made its way into every aspect of social and cultural domain, Dance Theatre and its celebration of the female body and sexuality is a direct attack on the dominant ideology. He locates his work both within and against a discursive network where the two extremes are neo-globalization and a nationalist aggression.