Shiv Shankar Prasad Verma ekes out an existence by selling incense sticks in Kolkata’s Shyambazar area. He quickly approaches a car that halts at the traffic signal and displays his wares to those sitting inside.

Verma gets barely a few seconds to convince a customer to buy his perfumed sticks before the signal turns green, returning intermittently to a street corner to wait for the next red light. The 40-year-old stays at Jagatdal in North 24-Parganas and journeys 30 km every day by train before reaching his work place. His routine so far has remained unchanged for the last two decades. Despite the hard labour, he manages to scrape together Rs 3,000 every month.

Till now, nothing seems to be unusual about Verma as he is one among countless hawkers who daily rush hotfoot across the city to earn a livelihood. The similarity, however, ends here and what begins is a tale that would surely put to shame those who curse their fate even for little failures.

Apart from being a vendor, Verma is a part of a theatre group in the city that comprises blind persons. He says that he has never taken his disability as a hurdle when it comes to living his dream of a theatre artist. His passion for theatre, he says, has brought him respect, “I cannot see but it has failed to dent my passion for the theatre. People look at me with respect after coming to know that I am an artist.”

Verma is one of the members of Shyambazar Anyadesh, a blind theatre group in Kolkata that has 30 artists, of which five are women. The group is a breakaway from the Blind Opera — the first theatre troupe of its kind in Kolkata. The members of Shyambazar Anyadesh mostly belong to the lower strata of society where arranging two square meals a day is a challenge. The task becomes even more difficult when a disability is associated with them.

Most artists were not born into darkness but got to it at some stage in their life. 34-year-old Rinku Burman who has been working as a theatre artist for the last two decades, was in Class VII when her eyesight began to fade. She went to a doctor to get it checked but was administered wrong treatment. At first she thought that it was night blindness but within no time, her life plunged into complete darkness. Theatre, however, came as a ray of light for her. “My life was torn apart after I became blind. My parents were shattered as they were worried about my future and I cursed my fate for landing me in such a predicament. Suicidal thoughts began to cross my mind,” she says while sounding upbeat for her show coming up. 

For Rinku and her husband, 34-year-old Nepo who is also blind and an actor, theatre is a medium to prove that they are in no way inferior to others. “We want to show the world that there is no need to pity us or show compassion. We can do everything like a person with eyesight,” says Nepo in a confident tone. He runs a small shop in Salt Lake to look after his family of four that includes two little daughters, who can see the world. The couple’s only regret is that they cannot see their children.

The group is not all about actors as there are singers and musicians too. Bachan Sahu, in his late 40s, plays harmonium during shows and also sings hymns in his mellifluous voice during leisure times. “It gives me solace and a sense of belief that God had different plans for me. I can sing classical and devotional songs and can play the tabla and harmonium too,” he says while crooning a bhajan of Lord Krishna.

Subhasish Gangopadhyay, who played a pivotal role in establishing Blind Opera in 1996 and later Shyambazar Anyadesh, says that it was his chance visit to Calcutta Blind Theatre way back in the early 90s that inspired him to form a theatre group comprising blind persons. “We had gone there to perform when we discovered that the students were talented but only needed proper guidance. Some people suggested starting a theatre group with them. To be honest, I wasn’t too sure of its success but fortunately things turned out well.” In 2005, he broke away from Blind Opera and started his own group Shyambazar Anyadesh.

Raja Faiz Alam, who is also blind and the group’s secretary says that they do 30-40 shows every year mostly in West Bengal but also across the country, “We have gained recognition and people respect us wherever we perform. They look at our performance with awe and often give a standing ovation. It really makes us feel proud.”

Alam says that it takes a lot of practice before doing the shows. “We have to practice at least ten times more than others because it is necessary for the artists to have proper knowledge about the stage. A rope that is laid on stage serves as a boundary wall for us — stepping out could result in tripping off the raised platform and getting injured. The proper movement of hands is learnt in its minutest details to prevent hitting the other artists. It takes at least five months of practice before the final performance. Our shows are so authentic that sometimes members from the audience check to see if we are actually blind,” he chuckles.

Veteran theatre artists also point out the technicalities that go into the stage shows and appreciate the meticulous work done by them. “It is not a small task to perform on stage as several factors are involved. The work becomes more challenging when artists cannot see. For instance, microphone positions have to be kept in mind to ensure that the voice is audible to the audience,” says Sabyasachi Dasgupta, a theatre artist for the last three decades.

“We read the scripts numerous times before playing the character but they don’t have the luxury to do so. Even while doing historical plays, we draw some idea about the character by looking at the drawn image but the blind rely on the description of others. Even artists with eyesight commit a mistake but I have rarely seen the blind doing so,” he says. Dasgupta further adds that the theatre serves as therapy for these artists and helps them get rid of inferiority and suicidal thoughts.

The favorable response has encouraged more people to experiments with blind theatre. 38-year-old Saurav Basu, a blind artist, is now gearing up with his own group called Dumdum Bihan. “We are coming up with an inclusive theatre where performing artists would comprise both people with eyesight and those without it. It would help people understand more about the blind and the problems faced by them in their daily lives. Blind people are looked at with pity and often people offer them financial help but we want to drive home the point that we can be as successful as anybody,” says Basu who expects to perform his first show early next year.

Amitava Bhattacharya, the founder of Banglanatak dot com, a social enterprise working for the development of art, is in full of praise for the artists. He says, “It’s amazing how these people measure the stage and restrict movement and how sound is used before everything including dialogue sharing. I salute their creative efforts.”

Still everything doesn’t seem hunky-dory for such artists as many of them complain of indifference. Ashok Pramanik, the present director of Blind Opera, points to a grimmer picture where blind artists face discrimination in the hands of the authorities. “We are really thankful to the audience that have accepted and appreciated our plays from time to time. But the indifferent attitude of authorities dampens our enthusiasm,” Pramanik says.

“We are not allowed to stage our shows in theatre halls on weekends when more people are expected. The authorities grant us permission to perform only on weekdays when there are fewer crowds. The big theatre groups who have lots of cash ensure that the weekends are reserved for them. They deflate our spirits instead of providing encouragement,” he rues.

None of the blind theatre groups in the city have performed on foreign shores despite the fact that they have been in existence for more than two decades. “We have often received proposals from the Central government for performing in other countries but we have turned them down because they don’t allow more than 12 artists in the group. They fail to understand that the artists are blind and need more support as they cannot do all the work themselves,” says Pramanik visibly disgusted over the state of affairs.

“I cannot travel with just some people of the group while leaving back others. The state government too has not come to our aid despite making tall claims of trying to bring out a radical change in the art landscape of Bengal.”

Raja says that the number of shows is going down because of the advent of DJs. “People these days prefer to dance to the tunes of DJs than see some blind people perform on stage. The stiff competition among groups has also damaged our market. We need at least Rs 30,000-40,000 to perform in a show as there are a lot of expenses to be met but people bargain and often pay half the amount. We end up making losses. Apart from call shows, we do our own shows where the entire production cost is borne by us and the income mostly depends on the sale of tickets. Most of the time, tickets don’t sell.”

They also say that the Central government has ignored their plight. “We are entitled to two kinds of grants from the government — one, the Cultural Function Production Grant Scheme and second, the Performing Artists Grant Scheme. But the Centre often delays paying them.”

Interestingly, cupid struck for most of the artists while working in the groups and that later transformed into marriages. For instance, Subhas Halder and Sunita met at a theatre workshop and soon realised that they were made for each other. When asked how they chose a partner irrespective of the fact that none can see, Halder says that it’s the behaviour of others that actually plays a role. “We don’t judge people on their face value but try to understand the person’s likes and dislikes.”

His wife Sunita chips in and adds that a blind person can easily understand the problems faced by his or her partner. “We understand each other better as both us cannot see”, she says.

Martin Luther King Jr, the American civil rights activist, had once famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Let’s throw some light in the world of these people who don’t need our pity but only crave words of appreciation and support.

By Gurvinder Singh