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The Indian People’s Theatre Association

Mumbai City, Maharashtra

October 11, 2023 to October 11, 2024

Stamp Commemorating the Golden Jubilee of the IPTA

The Indian People’s Theatre Association or IPTA was set up in 1942 as an organization that integrated and popularised the cultural movement alongside the struggle for Freedom. It was the coming together of cultural troupes, cultural activists, theatre groups that led to the formation of the IPTA. Precursors to this establishment were the Progressive Writer’s Association (1939), the Youth Cultural Institute (1940) and the People’s Theatre of Bangalore in 1941. The organization was known by many names after its formation. In the north it was called the Bhartiya Jan Natya Sangh, in the East and North-East it was referred to as Bhartiya Gana Natya Sangh and in the South it was called the Praja Natya Mandali. The main aim of the organization was to inculcate national pride in the people, raise awareness of the issues faced by the people and encourage citizens to participate in the Independence Movement. It gained a national character in May 1943 in Bombay (Mumbai). Reminiscent of older communication mediums, the renowned artist Chittaprosad designed IPTA’s logo – a drummer or nagara vadak.

1942 was also the time of the devasting Bengal Famine that caused the death of many. The famine drew great criticism as it was a man-made disaster that could have been prevented if not for the arbitrary laws of the British administration. The famine led to a lot of anger in the people who heard of what their countrymen were facing. It became the inspiration for many writers and artists of the time. One such writer was Binoy Roy who in an effort to sensitize people about the impacts of the famine and raise funds to support the victims organised the Bengal Cultural Squad. The travelling squad went from place to place, across the nation presenting their production, ‘Bhookha Hai Bengal’ by Vamik Jaunpuri among many other patriotic songs and plays. Musicians such as Prem Dhawan, Reva Roy, Dashrath Lal and actress Usha Dutt were part of this squad.  Several regional cultural groups were formed to carry out similar activities. Seeing their success, a need to form an organisation at the national level was felt. Alongside Sajjad Zaheer of the Progressive Writer’s Association, P. C. Joshi, of the Communist Party of India was instrumental in bringing together these regional groups.

It was in this backdrop that the IPTA was established at the National Conference in Bombay (Mumbai) on the 25th of May 1943. This conference was attended by actors and artists from across the country. Professor Hiren Mukherjee presided over the session and in his speech welcomed all writers, artists, actors to come together and dedicate themselves to the task of nation building through culture. The First National Committee had as its President, N.M Joshi, as General Secretary Anil De’ Silva, as Treasurer, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas and as Joint Secretaries Binoy Roy and K.D. Chandi. They were assisted by various regional committees made up of artists and writers. Over a period of time influential leaders like Anna Bhau Sathe, M Nagabhushanam, Dina Pathak, Salil Chaudhary, Venkat Rao Kandilkar joined the conferences, providing IPTA with a varied administration.

By 1944, IPTA initiated a modern singing choir. The aim of the choir was to lead the ‘janasangeet’ or the people’s music to new heights, unifying the masses through culture. The Central Cultural Troupe choir performed ‘Saare Jahan Se Achha’ written by Iqbal and composed by Pt. Ravi Shankar. Many others like Salil Chaudhary, Bhupen Hazarika, Jyoti Prasad Agrawal, Sahir Ludhianvi composed songs in different languages for the choir to popularise. The Central troupe also performed dance dramas like Bharat ki Atma (The Spirit of India) and Amar Bharat (Eternal India). With Shantivardhan and Nagesh as choreographers and dancers alongside musicians like Aboni Das Gupta and Pt. Ravi Shankar, they were able to evoke feelings of national pride in the viewers. The troupes also integrated within their performances traditional and folk forms in their current context. Examples of this could be seen in productions such as Navjeevaner Gaan, Burra Katha, and Veethi Natak. The folk dances of the Malabar region and North India often found place in these productions. Shadow plays, folk songs and instrumental renditions too became part of IPTA’s repertoire, bringing in larger audiences leading to an increased intensity of the cultural nationalist movement.

IPTA did not follow one political ideology, it welcomed many members who were mildly political but believed that culture could aid the independence movement. Prithviraj Kapoor was one such member who contributed greatly. In 1945, he produced Deewar, which was the story of how two brothers were separated due to the wiles of a foreigner and built a wall in the middle of the property. But the wall is torn down by the women and peasants, and the brothers realise that they should live in harmony and allow the foreigner to live as a distant friend. The dialogues of the play were exact translations of the speeches of Mahatma Gandhi, Jinnah and T.B. Macaulay. The play tried to instill in the masses the idea that while foreign rule could create differences between them, they must rise above it. However, this play came under censorship laws even before it was released. The British refused to grant permission for the performance. Kapoor was relentless, he continued to try and convince those that opposed the play to allow its performance. Interestingly, when he went to collect the rejected application, he found that the rejection notice had only been stapled to the application. He removed the notice and took the application to the authorities who assumed the play had received clearance and finally allowed its performance. The show was even attended by Sardar Patel, who was moved to tears. 

The cultural movement led by IPTA depicted the hash realities of life under British rule through the visual and performing arts. By creating awareness of the socio-economic conditions, IPTA was able to encourage actions towards a change. A new relationship between art, audience and aesthetics was established. IPTA took in elements of Indian culture, of global cultures and formed relationships with progressive assets of the creative world. The nationalist activities of IPTA brough them under ire of the British administration. Members were often oppressed for their views and expression. Plays such as Nabanna, Maa Bhumi and the works of Khwaja Ahmed Abbas established realistic theatre in the country.

Among the Indian People’s Associations productions was a film. Produced by the IPTA in 1946, Dharti Ke Lal (Children of the Earth) was based on plays by Bijon Bhattacharya such as Nabanna and Antim Abhilasha. The film was a realistic portrayal of the socio-economic conditions of the people of India in the after of the World War. It portrayed the plight of a single family affected by the famine, the devastation around them and the struggle for survival. Directed by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas this was written especially for the Indian People’s Theatre Association by Krishan Chander. The lyrics were written by Sardar Jafri, Wamiq Jaunpuri, Nemi Chandra Jain and Prem Dhawan while the music was directed by Pt. Ravi Shankar. The roles were performed by actors Usha Dutt, Balraj Sahni, Ritwik Ghatak, Damayanti Sahni, Zohra Sehgal, Tripti Mitra, Shambhu Mitra and many farmers, labourers and students. They were choreographed by Shanti Vardhan. The film gained international attention, which led to an increase in the global awareness of the plight of the people in India under foreign rule. Plays like Nabanna by Bijon Bhattacharya which depicted the Bengal Famine and Naba Jiboner Gaan by Jyotindra Moitra were progressive in nature, but Dharti Ke Lal was one of the first few realistic films that was able to articulate the feelings of the dispossessed. The film brought about a change in Indian cinema which went on to then focus on social themes.

The Annual charter of IPTA in 1946 acknowledged that, “art and literature can have a future only if they become the authentic expressions and inspirations of the peoples’ struggles for freedom and culture.” The members of the association firmly believed that art should flourish as a means of reviving faith in oneself and in the past culture that will inspire people to live well and free. IPTA became a collective where ideas were exchanged leading to many collaborations and productions.

Due to its content, the plays of IPTA often came under censorship laws and the artists faced harassment from the government. However, that did not deter them, and charged with nationalism and a creative spirit they continued to use culture as a mode of protest. In 1947, when members of the troupes were threatened with arrests, Zohra Sehgal, the then Vice-President of IPTA wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the Vice President of the Interim Government a letter with the lines, “I am writing to you one Vice President to another…” where she described the harassment the actors and members of IPTA were facing. Measures were taken and the interim government was able to curb the harassment against members of IPTA.

IPTA’s influence was diverse. Combining traditional and modern formats of performance, the troupes of the association drew attention to the gender equality through poetry such as Aurat by Kaifi Azmi, to the patriotic songs of freedom fighters such as Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam and brought them to the audiences across the nation, in small hamlets and big cities. Many patriotic songs became popular with the people through these travelling troupes, including Salil Chowdhury’s Aalor desh thekey aandhaar paar hoyee which was about sacrifice for the nation and songs about the Naval Uprising such as Dheu uthchhey karaa tutchhey. The songs recorded the events of the freedom movement, created awareness about them and encouraged many others to participate in activities that were part of the independence movement.

The productions by IPTA, in some way or the other depicted the stark realities of life, stories of the masses, gaining a larger audience by the day. A non-profit voluntary organisation, the Indian People’s Theatre Association aimed at raising a voice against the injustices meted out to the Indian people. Almost every artist of significance became part of the movement and through poems, plays and ballads, sought to raise awareness and increase participation in the struggle for freedom.

The Indian People’s Theatre Association remained active both during the partition and after. In collaboration with other organisations, the association regained its regional character, carrying forward the legacy of cultural awakening. Chapters of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) continue to flourish even today.

Kwaja Ahmed Abbas, Joint Secretary of IPTA & Director of the film, Dharti Ke Lal. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Scene From the play Nabanna. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Usha Dutt and Shambhu Mitra in Dharti Ke Lal. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Indian Culture Portal