Thought Box

Usha Ganguly: A Curtain-Call

Usha Ganguly: A Curtain-Call

by Aparajita Krishna June 7 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 6 secs

Aparajita Krishna walks you through the rich life of theatre stalwart Usha Ganguly, through Om Pareek’s experience of having worked with her and her theatre company Rangkarmee for many years.   

She bid adieu to her performances in life at the age of 75 on 23rd April 2020, but Usha Ganguly’s theatre legacy has to be apprised again and again in an encore! Shabana Azmi’s tribute said in her tweet, “Deeply saddened to learn that the theater doyen Usha Ganguly passed away in her sleep this morning. I had worked with her in Paar and seen many of her productions in which she was unparalleled. My deepest condolences to the family.” 

Among her admirers was actor-director Aparna Sen. filmmaker Gautam Ghosh was also an ardent admirer of the theatre thespian. His tribute said, “Usha Ganguly was one of the most socially committed theatre personalities of our time. We were neighbours for many years. I have fond memories of Usha as a committed cultural worker, an affectionate mother and a wonderful friend. I offered her a small, but a significant role in my film Paar. Initially she was a little hesitant to do a character in cinema. But finally she did very well in the scenes with Shabana and Naseer. She did another short film with me based on a Tagore story and some more for other directors. Usha’s creative space was the theatre where she immersed herself till the end of her last breath. We miss her a lot.”   

Actor-director Usha Ganguly’s theatre and the choice of theatre reflected a deep feminism. She was a theatre activist who contributed immensely to the cultural growth of Hindi theatre in Kolkata.  

True to its name, Rangkarmee added strength to the rangmanch. She is credited for introducing a new form of alternative Hindi theatre in West Bengal. It gave a distinct idiom, a vocabulary to theatre and created its own audience. Rangkarmee helped Hindi theatre spread its wings amidst a culture more familiar with Bengali and English theatre. Among the many felicitations and awards she was conferred with was the Sangeet Natak Akademi for direction in 1998. She was also honoured by the West Bengal Government as the best actress for the play Gudia Ghar. In 2016 the state government conferred her with the Girish Samman.

Born in Jodhpur Rajasthan, into a family from the village of Nerva in Uttar Pradesh, Usha Ganguly later moved to Calcutta and did her master’s in Hindi literature. It was in 1970 that she began her career as a lecturer at Bhowanipur Education Society College in Calcutta and in the same year started acting with Sangit Kala Mandir.  She was a trained dancer. Her first play was the classical Mitti Ki Gadi (based on Shudrak’s Mrichchakatikam) in 1970. She played the role of the protagonist Vasantsena. Her teaching and acting continued. She formed her theatre group Rangkarmee in 1976 and invited reputed directors to direct plays. M K Raina directed Mother, Tripti Mitra directed Gudia Ghar as did Rudra Prasad Sengupta and Bibhash Chakravorty.

Usha Ganguly took on the directorial baton and created her own style with a large ensemble cast. She has also translated and adapted plays. Her noted productions include Mahabhoj in 1984, based on Mannu Bhandari’s novel, Lokkatha in 1987 written by Ratnakar Matkari, Holi in 1989 written by Mahesh Elkunchwar, Rudali in 1992, a dramatised version of a story by Mahashweta Devi, Himmat Mai, an adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Court Martial written by Swadesh Deepak. She also wrote a play Kashinama (2003) based on Kashinath Singh’s Kashi Ka Assi as also an original play Khoj. She worked on the script of the film Raincoat (2004) directed by Rituparno Ghosh.

As a cultural activist Usha Ganguly’s Rangkarmee started its education wing in the 1990s by undertaking tours across India with a thrust upon education in theatre with underprivileged people. In 2005 Rangkarmee was the only theatre group to perform at the Theatre der Welt Festival in Stuttgart, Germany. It also staged Rudali at the Punj Pani Festival  at Lahore in 2006. In August 2010 the group took to stage its multilingual production, Bhor, about the minds of inmates of a drug rehabilitation centre. Among her other plays feature Mukti, Shobhayatra, Chandalika, Sarhad Pe Manto and Manasi in Bengali. Usha Ganguly’s contribution to Indian theatre got more consolidated and assured for her uncompromising artistic vision.  Her work was aesthetic, individualistic, choreographed and combined a powerful socio-political message that was Left leaning.

Who better to help reprise her theatre legacy than Rangkarmee’s veteran actor Om Pareek who has been one of the closest colleagues and witnesses of the theatre group’s foundation and creative journey.  Om Pareek recalls his theatre journey in his tribute to thespian Usha Ganguly - Me, Theatre and Ushaji:

I was born in an orthodox, conservative family and was first educated in a village and then in a city in Rajasthan. Until almost the completion of my graduation, I did not know the meaning of theatre or any form of cultural platform. I came to Kolkata for a job in 1973. I joined a jute company. Here I started to take part in the office’s club activities. I also did some plays under the direction of Krishna Kumar and Mani Madhukar. But deep inside I knew that I was yet to get introduced to real theatre. Then one day the first secretary of Rangkarmee, Mr Atmanand Singh, introduced me to Usha Gangulyji. At that point Rangkarmee was not formed. I was awestruck meeting theatre stalwarts like Shambhu Mitra, Rudraprasad Sengupta, Keya Chakraborthy, Chittaranjan Ghosh, Kamlendu Ganguly (husband of Usha Ganguly), Prutul Lahiri among others. Shaumitra Mitra, Subrato Paul, Achintya Dutta were the ready hands in helping with the formation  of the group. Till date I take advice from Sahumitra Mitra Da and he continues to act as a Sankat Mochak (solver of all problems). Back then I was a greenhorn, but Ushaji persuaded me to join in. I recall wearing a red and black T-shirt and Shambhu Da remarking ‘Om lal, kalo, khoob bhalo na.’ Rudra Da made me understand the relevance of the remark. It denotes to a sense of colour. I then started to consciously learn colour aesthetics, costume, set, acting, light, organisational activity. My real education now started with theatre. Ushaji’s contribution to my understanding of life through theatre had begun. She and Rangkarmee educated me. Ushaji now persuaded me to bring my family to Calcutta. Eventually they too became part of our theatre. Later on in the play Mahabhoj my entire family was on stage.   

Back then in the formation of the group Kamlendu Ganguly, Usha Ganguly, Madhuri Dixit, Atmanand Singh, Srikant Mondal and myself were the core figures. Many artists and workers became our colleagues. Rangkarmee got registered and Calcutta got its new Hindi theatre group on the 26th January 1976. This birthday was celebrated at Kalmandir Basement at 6.30 pm. It was decided that we inaugurate our activities with 3 one-act plays: Prastav (directed by Usha Ganguly), Andher Nagri (directed by Srikant Mondal) and Bechara Bhagwan (directed by Atmanand Singh). This got staged on 26th January 1977 at Netaji Manch, Sealdah.

Rangakarmee’s main objective was to reach a wider mass audience with more meaningful and non-conformist plays. Till then Hindi theatre in Calcutta was restricted to an elite audience. Through Parichay a new chapter was started for Rangakarmee. It was a successful play and the city came to know that a new group has emerged in Kolkata. Parichay attempted to achieve the target of reaching out to a wider audience. The play was staged among students, mill workers, rickshaw-walas, slum-dwellers apart from the regular theatre audience. It had more than 200 shows. It is to be noted that Joy Sen, son of the legendary Tapas Sen, for the first time did the light design in theatre in Parichay.  


Rangkarmee then invited Sharad Seth to direct Vijay Tendulkar’s Jaat Hi Puchho Sadhu Ki in 1979 and in 1981 invited Tripti Mitra to direct Guria-Ghar, an adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Guria-Ghar production had Khaled Chaudhary design the sets, Tapas Sen the lights and Ushaji herself played the protagonist Nora. Tripti Di imparted a wonderful training in voice and modulation. Ushaji was awarded the best actress for this play by the government of West Bengal. Guria-Ghar was a grand success. Following this the noted director M K Raina was invited in 1983 to direct Maa, an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother and Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Her Children. His workshop style of directing the play was unique and wonderful. He is a genius and trained the actors very well. I was among one of them. Rainaji stayed with me at my place for two months. Maa was an outstanding production with Ushaji in the lead. M K Raina was awarded the best director by the government of West Bengal.  It held more than 150 shows. In 1998 Usha Ganguly went on to stage Mother Courage and Her Children as Himmat Mai.

The present veteran actor-director M K Raina recalls, “When I worked on the production of Mother with her, the group Rangkarmee was just one production old and I was doing their second production. This production was like an ensemble and the team became a solid unit under her leadership. She had the capacity to keep a large group together and built it as a counterpoint to Bangla theatre in West Bengal. She then gradually made a place for Hindi theatre in the midst of Bangla group theatre movement in Kolkata. She was a tough and a hard worker and made every member a committed theatre worker who would work for theatre for years. She was an amazing taskmaster who travelled with her productions all over South Asia. As an actor she was very versatile and took challenges with very difficult plays. She had to work hard. Lately she became a very active gender advocate and this also reflected in her work.”

Om Pareek’s conversation about the thespian conveyed the following:

At Rangkarmee we realised the need to have our own resident director. After much persuasion from Rudra Da and Kamlendu Ganguli, Ushaji was convinced to take over the responsibility. I was given the charge of the whole organisation which I tried my best to deliver till 2007. Then due to unavoidable circumstances I had to leave Calcutta and theatre to shift to Tamil Nadu. Ushaji, a very talented personality, was an able organiser who worked diligently day and night to direct Mahabhoj, written by Mannu Bhandari. Mahabhoj was a milestone production in Rangkarmee’s repertoire. It became very popular with the audience and was a big theatrical success. By now Rangkarmee was getting not only the Hindi speaking audience but also the native Bengali audience to come watch the plays. Our theatre was in momentum.  Great hits directed by Ushaji got rolled out. The theatre catalogue boasted of Lokkatha, Holi, Court Martial, Rudali, Khoj, Beti Aayee, Maiyyat, Himmat Mai, Mukti (in Bangla), Shobhayatra, Antaryatra, Kashinama, Manto Series, Khela Gari, Bhor, Chandalika, Manasi among others.

In 2006 Habib Tanvir Saheb came to direct Bisarjan by Rabindranath Tagore. Our navigator Ushaji had steered the group to attain a remarkable identity on an all India level. The West Bengal Government under the Left government allotted a big rehearsal space in 2008. This later got converted into a small studio theatre. Now it stands as the famous Rangkarmee Studio Theatre at Prince Anwar Shah Road.

On the completion of Rangkarmee’s 25 years of theatre there was a celebration function. The great writer Mahashweta Devi was present. In admiration of Ushaji, Mahashweta Devi said that Ushaji had performed in the play Rudali far better than what was performed in the film.

Ushaji’s passion for theatre had many more plans up her sleeves, but the year 2020 took her away from us as she made her exit from the stage of life on the 23rd April. Keyadi said in her fitting tribute “Tumi kaaj korte korte chole gele/Aamra kaaj korte korte tumake mone raakhbo. (You went away while working, amidst work. We shall while continuing your work keep you in our midst)”.

Though I am no longer actively associated with Rangkarmee I wish that her mission like work is carried forward by the members and artists of Rangakarmee. I am afraid as of now I am not seeing anyone take on that onerous responsibility. My homage to Ushaji says “Tumi chhile, acho aar thakbe (You were with us, you will remain with us)”.

I must conclude by stating two points. Theatre has educated me and whatever I am today is due to theatre, which is an educational institution. I also appeal to all the theatre practitioners to please prepare for the sake of continuity a ready in-line person, people, to substitute and fill the space that the passing away of a stalwart, the pillar of the theatre’s passing away creates. It is so that the show goes on!   

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.