Audity Falguni

Divisional Editor, nari.news

“Still, only a few women are able to make their way to the stage in small-towns” -Ruma Modak

NARI, English section, is going to publish a number of series interviews of reputed women from a range of different fields in Bangladesh that includes journalism, literature, music, theatre, government service, education, police, development service or activism. The pre-requisite of being interviewed is that the interviewee must have at least 10 years of relentless work and contribution in the relevant sector. The condition may be a little relaxed if anybody produces too much with quality even in seven or eight years. We have the plan to publish interviews of senior most and distinguished celebrities like Selina Hossain as well as a comparatively younger one. But it may be that we are not necessarily beginning it with some very senior one but gradually we will publish everyone worthy of this honor. NARI, however, may also go on for broadcasting some live interviews from September. Till then stay tuned with our published interviews! Today our guest is Ms. Ruma Modak who had been working in theatre very passionately over around 20 years or more and she has begun penning some short stories too in the recent years. Her interview here is taken by Audity Falguni, writer and English section Editor of NARI.

Ruma Modak. Born in the picturesque mofussil town of Hobiganj in 7th May of 1970. After completion of her master degree from Bengali Literature dept. in Dhaka University, Ruma joined govt. service as a college teacher. She is a passionate theater activist and recently has begun writing short stories. Total number of her books is 05.

Audity Falguni: Ruma di, I got first introduced to you on social network by 2012 and came to know you as a theatre activist. I recall watching “Jyoti Sanghita,” an eminent production of your theatre group JIBAN SANGKET in Shilpakola Academy during 2013 or 2014. So how long had been your journey with group theatre?

Ruma Modak: Technically speaking, I have been engaged with theater since the higher secondary level. However, it was nothing near to a true, dedicated, and fulltime involvement. My contributions were limited to activities like program-presentation or reciting a poem, at least until the end of the 20th Century. As a matter of fact, my intense and meaningful march with theater-movement kicked off in 1999 with 'Jiban Sanket' while I performed my first ever written drama 'Kamalabatir Pala' on stage. The number of my written dramas, which have already been performed, reaches to 18 so far.

Audity Falguni: “Jyoti Sanghita’ revolves around life and supreme sacrifice of martyr Jagat Jyoti Das of broader Sylher region in the war of 1971 and he is yet to get his due recognition at state level. What inspired you to write the script of this drama?

Ruma Modak: Jagatjyoti Das, a martyr freedom-fighter of Bangladesh's liberation war in 1971, formed a militia force famously known as 'Das-Party', which was operating in 'Tekerghat' sub-sector under Sector-Five. Das-Party could able to keep Habiganj, Sunamganj, Netrokona and extensive low-lying area of Kishoreganj district free from the Pakistani occupying force. Mr. Das and his militia force were so terrifying for the aggressor Pakistani Army that they declared a BDT 100,000 bounty for Jagatjyoti Das, either alive or dead! While Mr. Das died fighting in the frontline, it was promised through 'Shadhin Bangla Betar' and 'Akashbani' that he would be honored with the highest title of the land. Unfortunately, that promise had been never translated into action.

I got to know about him from a book of human rights activist Anjali Lahiri in around 2000 and devoted myself to gather more information gradually. I was literally stunned by the fact that how little we knew about one of our most fascinating, influential, and fearless war heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for providing us with the identity of an independent nation!

This 'Play' focusing on the life and struggle of Jagatjyoti Das emanates from my core sense of liability to the history, the ignorant present generation, and most importantly to the upcoming generations. This Play has been written in accordance with the Bengali form of drama and Prof. Sudip Chakroborthy (Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, Dhaka University) directed this one on stage. 

Audity Falguni: Honestly speaking, I have not seen any other production of JIBAN SANGKET, a theatre group led by you and your life partner Anirudhdha Das Shantanu. How many productions you have in total? How challenging and equally interesting it is to work for theatre in a small township like Hobiganj and when you are particularly involved in theatre as an entire family…(you, your husband and even children take part in acting sometimes)?

Ruma Modak: Jiban Sanket was formed by a group of young students during the martial law era to protest the military dictatorship equipped with 'theatre' as their sole weapon. This organization never ever had compromised its stand in regards to our liberation war, the trial of war criminals, anti-extremism, and the dream of a secular country. All of our more than 40 productions are inspired from and fall in line with the ancient Bengali form of theatre. We were invited to perform almost in every region of the country including several theatre-fests in the states of West Bengal, Tripura, and Asam of India. Jiban Sanket performs 6 of my plays regularly. 

As I mentioned earlier, I had been involved with theatre since the mid-80s. But as a child of a conservative Hindu family, I used to be allowed only to recite a poem or present a program. Even those permissions were rare and I needed to fight for every single one! Performing on stage was a far-reaching dream then! Theatre performance was not regarded as respectful from a social perspective as well. Families, including mine, had a common perception - if you let your girl perform, she might get ineligible for marriage!  

Ironically enough that I, however, got the opportunity to be a fulltime theatre activist after my marriage! I am married to Aniruddha Kumar Dhar Shantanu, whom I got to know deeply and personally engaged with while working in theatre. In fact, he encouraged me to perform after I had given birth to our two children! He is a passionate theatre activist, so, there is no barrier for me or our children to be involved in theatre. Rather as a small-town housewife, mother, and teacher, I could attract a handful of girls including my students to work in theatre. 

But while I am privileged, this is not the story of most small-town girls. Still, only a few women are able to make their way to the stage in small-towns. And most of them are forced to give up after one or two performances because of the pressure imposed by their family and the so-called society. It is one of our greatest regrets. It is especially painful when we see someone extremely talented forced to drop out due to an unwanted sort of influence. 

Audity Falguni: Suppose, I too was very interested to join theatre (not as an actress obviously as because I am neither that much pretty nor that much smart…ha…ha…) but as a script writer and director at my late teens. But all those were in vain as I was a girl from a very conservative family. So you had never any problem in joining group theatre as an actress, taking part in rehearsals with male actors after evening till mid night or that to evade all these problems you married a man in theatre?

Ruma Modak: o.no. you got it wrong! Theatre is not a glamour-type world. You only need merit, dedication, creativity, and hard work to proceed here. You don't need to be so-called pretty or handsome to sustain here. If you are committed and have self-confidence, then you are pretty much ready for the job! I must say that our theatre needs and also deserves women like you. And you are most welcome! 

The stage is to us is like a place of worship to a person of faith. The most sacred place filled with our collective love. We don't want anything in return for our time, hard work, devotion, dedication, and even money except for a bunch of good feelings. And I think you have got the answers to your other queries already. Um, honestly speaking, I cannot say definitively whether I could be able to be a theatre activist if Aniruddha was not there (laughing)! 

Audity Falguni: You have begun writing short stories from 2014, I guess?

Ruma Modak: No, my story was first published in the 'independence day issue' of a local weekly newspaper (Shadhikar) in 1985 at the age of 14 or so. The 2nd and the 3rd were published in the college magazine respectively in 1986 and 1987. There was a long gap then. As I was actively involved with politics in my University life, I couldn't actually make time for writing. But to be a writer was my lifelong dream that was preserved within my heart. 

At the very beginning of my professional career, I joined a National Newspaper, so I could continue writing. But for some unwanted experience, I was forced to leave the capital city. And then I joined this ‘government college’ as a teacher. If you want to judge my decision to return to this small-town, you need to consider the socioeconomic perspectives. An unmarried Bangladeshi woman got a government job and could work in her hometown! What else she could choose then? There were a lot of other factors as well, which I may share in a later sitting. I returned to writing in 1999 by the pay 'Kamalabatir Pala'.

I used to write some stories at the same time and a local little-mag (Songjojon) published those regularly. From 2000 to 2006 I didn't have any connection with Dhaka. I didn't try to send any writing to National newspapers from the belief that they were not going to publish the writings of an unknown author. Even I was not informed about the fact that some of my former colleagues were the literatute-editors in leading newspapers! For example, Alim Aziz (Prothom Alo) and Mahbub Aziz (Samakal). 'Notun Diganta' of Sirajul Islam was contemporary and we got to subscribe that in our hometown. Most probably, in 2004 I sent a story to 'Notun Diganta' and it was published in the same year. Another story was also published in 'Subarnarekha' of 'Ajker Kagaj' in 2004. Then in 2010 Ittefaq published my story. A book published in 2014 consists of the stories I had written in the span of 2000 to 2014. As of now, there are five published storybooks of mine consisting of 50 stories. 

Audity Falguni: At our teen age years, group theatre movement was very strong in Bangladesh. Plays written or translated by Syed Shamsul Haque like “Nurul Din er Sara Jiban,” “Payer Awaz Pawa Jai,” “Macbeth” or plays by Selim Al Din (Hat Hadai, Bana Pangshul, Jaibati Kanyar Mon) or renowned theatre actors and actresses like Ali Zaker, Sara Zaker, Tariq Anam, Ferdousi Majumder, Asaduzzaman Noor were just our everyday dream icons. They used to appear in TV plays too. Sara Zaker in character of Lisbeth, Ali Zaker as Nurul Din or Asaduzzaman Noor as Abbas in “Nurul Din er Sara Jiban” cannot be just forgotten. Also there had been personalities like Liaqut Ali Lucky and others. Do you think that somehow group theatre activities in today’s Bangladesh had somehow lost some of its earlier pomp, talent, glamour and grandeur? Why? Is it because somehow the media attention a young poet or story teller gets is not received by a young director or actor in theatre?

Ruma Modak: Media attention may be significant to a certain degree. We are discussing a time when there was only one TV channel and that was obviously the center of attraction for all. You just needed to walk in a BTV Drama scene to be a star! Now, the scenario has been changed drastically. It is easier in some cases and also difficult in other instances to be a media celebrity. There are people working hard for a long period of time but failed to draw sufficient public attention to be a celebrity. On the other hand, there are persons like 'Tiktok Apu' who enjoy huge fanfare in social media investing nothing but some stupid video clips! 

As a matter of fact, theatre is a totally different medium. Nowadays, very few theatre workers migrate (temporarily or permanently) to the traditional media. My experience says those guys are not dying for media fame. Well, those who migrate to TV or other media, exclusively do that for their living. I must admit that theatre is not yet able to provide you with your livelihood. If you ask why then there would be a different explanation.

Let us get back to the past. On those days, same group of people worked on Stage and TV. So, naturally, a star-image got embedded with them. All celebrities used to be born from the theatre then.

You can easily notice that most of the contemporary media stars do not have any sort of theatre experience. I found some of them are really interested to work in theatre. But when it comes to the day to day practices of theatre like hard work, dedication, devotion, they just backtrack! It is much easier in TV/Digital media to be a celebrity and earn your living. This is as simple as that! 

Theater workers are literally out of the focus of all sorts of publicity machines. Media determines the value for everything while theatre is free from those value additions. Media can spend hours discussing the 'Corona report' of a former minister. So, we, as theatre workers, don't have any expectations from those media. However, media has the power (unutilized though!) to take theatre within the reach of general people. 

I know from my extensive involvement, many diverse, multi-dimensional, and world-class works are being done in theatre within a competitive environment. Guys who are involved are truly genius. But nobody knows as there is no publicity for their tremendous works. I can tell you confidently about them as I know from inside.


Audity Falguni: Now to which medium you feel more inclined: theatre or story telling?

Ruma Modak: Stories, novels, and plays are three different forms of literature. I think, the most difficult thing to accomplish is writing a play for the stage. When it comes to visualization, you cannot show everything on stage. As you know, unlike TV media, there are thousands of limitations on stage.

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নারী'তে প্রকাশিত প্রতিটি লেখার বিষয়বস্তু, ক্রিয়া-প্রতিক্রিয়া ও মন্তব্যসমুহ সম্পূর্ণ লেখকের নিজস্ব। প্রকাশিত সকল লেখার বিষয়বস্তু ও মতামত নারী'র সম্পাদকীয় নীতির সাথে সম্পুর্নভাবে মিলে যাবে এমন নয়। লেখকের কোনো লেখার বিষয়বস্তু বা বক্তব্যের যথার্থতার আইনগত বা অন্যকোনো দায় নারী কর্তৃপক্ষ বহন করতে বাধ্য নয়। নারীতে প্রকাশিত কোনো লেখা বিনা অনুমতিতে অন্য কোথাও প্রকাশ কপিরাইট আইনের লংঘন বলে গণ্য হবে।