19 Bijon Bhattacharya: Nabanna

Dr. Dibyakusum Ray

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This chapter is about the brilliant dramatist and theatre personality Bijon Bhattacharya and his epoch making play Nabanna (The Harvest Festival). You would be looking at a brief account of Bhattacharya’s life and work and his career which earned him critical accolades and then would concentrate on the play itself, exploring the different themes and concerns that revolve around it. This module would also contain occasional interesting facts about the playwright and the play, with some self-assessment questions to test your understanding of the play.


Portraying the grim reality of hunger and misery of the common people during the 1943 Bengal famine, Nabanna was staged by Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) on October 24, 1944 in Shrirangam Theatre under the direction of Sombhu Mitra and later in 1948, by Bohurupee under the direction of Kumar Roy. IPTA took initiative and staged the play throughout India as a part of its festival, ‘Voice of Bengal’. The intense realism of Nabanna attracted hundreds of audience and was a major success, collecting lakhs for famine relief in rural Bengal.




Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) was an association of leftist theatre-artists under the Left parties. Its goal was to bring cultural awakening among the people of India. It was the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI). The group was formed in 1942, in the background of the Second World War, with Bengal famine of 1943 and starvation deaths in India on the one hand and repression by the colonial masters in the wake of the Quit India Movement and the aggression by the fascist powers on the Soviet Union on the other. In order to sensitize the people about the impact of Bengal famine and also to provide financial assistance to its victims, the cultural squad of Binoy Roy travelled across the country presenting their choir ‘Bhookha Hai Bengal’. Several other groups shared Roy’s work. Seeing the success of these groups in their respective regions, P.C. Joshi, the then General Secretary of Communist Party of India took the initiative to bring all these groups on a common forum and to give them a national identity. All India People’s Theatre Conference was held in Mumbai in 1943 where the group presented its idea and objective of representing the crisis of the time through the medium of theatre and to help people understand their rights and duties. This conference led to the formation of committees of IPTA across India. The movement hit not only theatres, but also cinema and music in Indian languages. Prithviraj Kapoor, Bijon Bhattacharya, Ritwik Ghatak, Utpal Dutt, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Salil Chowdhury, Pandit Ravi Shankar were some of their initial members. The group was dispersed in 1947. However, the main members continued to carry the legacy of IPTA by forming several groups with similar ideology.


2. Life of Bijon Bhattacharya


It is often said that dramatists in Bengal were often poor and luckless. Bijon Bhattacharya was not an exception. In spite of all his critical acclaim and his almost single-handed reversal of the fate of Indian theatre, Bijon Bhattacharya died unsung and unhonored without even the basic last minute medical care.


Bhattacharya was born on the July 17, 1915 in a Hindu Brahmin family in Faridpur. He spent a major part of his childhood and youth in the outskirts of the town of Faridpur, having a deep insight in the lives of the villagers. He migrated from Faridpur to Calcutta in 1930 and joined the undivided Communist Party of India. Being a driving force of the party’s cultural activities, he was one of the founding members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). However, after working with the IPTA for a few years, Bhattacharya decided to leave in 1948. He formed his own group, Calcutta Theatre, a couple of years later and continued to portray the sufferings of the people of villages, the refugees and the urban poor. Bhattacharya had always used his theatrical art as a weapon against class oppression. Bhattacharya married renowned writer Mahashweta Devi, a comrade in his early days. However, they got estranged and later divorced following the latter’s abandonment of Bhattacharya and their young son Nabarun. Nabarun Bhattacharya took on his father’s helm of rebellious writing and produced a formidable oeuvre before his death in 2014.


Bijon Bhattacharya also wrote critically acclaimed plays like Agun (Fire), Jabanbandi (Confession), Mara Chand (Dead Moon), Krishnopaksha (New Moon),Debi Gorjon (Shout of the Goddess), Aj Basanta (Today is the Spring), Garbhabati Janani (Pregnant Mother), Gotrantar (Change of Lineage) etc. He acted in several films like Chhinnamul, Meghey Dhaka Tara, Komal Gandhar, Subarnarekha directed by his IPTA comrade Ritwik Ghatak. He has also acted in other films and plays by other directors like the famous film by Mrinal Sen Padatik. He died in 1978.


  • Nabanna was an inspiration for the 1946 film Dharti Ke Lal directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas.
  • Bhattacharya co-wrote the script with Abbas a fellow IPTA member.
  • Jabanbandi by Bhattacharya and Annadata by Krishan Chander also influenced the film.
  • The film marked, another chapter in the influential new wave in Indian cinema which focused on socially relevant themes as in Neecha Nagar (1946), made by Chetan Anand, also scripted by Abbas, and which continued with Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953).
  • It was the first and perhaps the only film produced by IPTA (Indian People’s Theater Association) and remains one of the important Hindi films of that decade. The film marked the screen debut of Zohra Sehgal and also gave actor Balraj Sahni his first important on screen role.

3.  Setting and Stage Direction of Nabanna


The play has detailed setting and stage directions. Bhattacharya describes the setting and the background score minutely as the grim reality becomes real. From the very first scene to the last, the backdrop intensifies the sub-human condition of the hungry masses, as they are forced to live in dark and rotting conditions. The degree of horror is emphasized through a constant cacophony of pained moaning, screams, crying, funereal chants and cawing of vultures. The position of the characters and costumes are also detailed to increase the scope of impact.

4. Major Characters in Nabanna


Pradhan Samaddar— Pradhan is an elderly and once influential farmer in the village of Aminpur. This character was played by the playwright himself in the initial productions. He has gone insane after years of famine and the death of his two sons Sripati and Bhupati. He survives by contributing in the mad rush for survival. He does not react normally to anything, but tries to lay low to suffer this out. As he returns to Aminpur after the famine he remembers his past life as the protesting farmers surround him in gleeful welcome. He stands with Dayal as they resolve to survive with their dignity intact.


Panchanani— Pradhan’s wife. This character was played by prominent IPTA activist Manikuntala Sen. Panchanani is only shown in the first scene as she attempts to follow the torch bearing protesters, egging them on and abusing them as they hesitate. She falls silent as the protesters fall gradually. It is implied that she is lost in the protest and the subsequent flood.


Kunja Samaddar— Pradhan’s nephew. He is stubborn and tries to be the man in the family, but fails miserably as he helplessly witnesses his son dying and family falling apart during the famine. He is repeatedly humiliated by Dutta, Dhara and others. He is subjected to utter dehumanization as he tries to survive the heartless machinations in the city. He returns to his village after the famine and tries to get his family together.


Radhika— Kunja’s wife. The perpetual sufferer and quintessential home-maker, Radhika, tries to arrange for food for the family, going hungry herself. She attempts to nurse her ailing son and to protect the insane Pradhan and clueless Binodini in the city, but fails miserably in both.


Makhan— Kunja’s son. A feisty, healthy boy, Makhan warns the family of the impending flood.


He dies of starvation induced disease, while trying to protect his father from Dutta’s hired goons.


Niranjan Samaddar— Kunja’s younger brother, Niranjan, abandons his family and escapes looking for work. He works for Dhara, and gives the necessary information to the police sergeant about the thousands of bales of grain, when they come investigating. He leaves Dhara’s employ when he finds his own wife amongst Dhara’s human trafficking victims. In the first act of the play, he has a fight with Kunja, where Kunja breaks his head. But the two estranged brothers make up in the end as they celebrate their survival.


Binodini— Niranjan’s wife. This character was played by famous theatre personality Tripti Mitra. She is attractive and often thoughtless. She is teased by Dutta before they leave for the city. In the city, she is estranged from the rest of her family and is picked up by a tout. She meets her husband Niranjan in Dhara’s shop and escape with him.


Dayal Mandal— A poor neighbor of the Samaddars. It was played by the first and the most famous director of Nabanna, Shombhu Mitra. A hapless old farmer, he begs rice from his neighbors to feed his ailing wife, who he loses in the flood. He is the very image of privation. But he is the one who survives the famine with some of his dignity intact, and swears in front of Pradhan and the group of rebellious farmers that he will never give up to the oppressors. He announces his resolve that he will never allow fate to take away his humanity and his precious ones, that he will never be decimated. He is the final image of rebellion and humanity as he prepares to endure.


Haru Datta— the local moneylender, who systematically oppresses and beggars the villagers. He tries to appropriate the last bit of farmland from the Samaddars and gets his goons to beat up Kunja when he fails to do that. He lusts after Binodini and tries to proposition her. He also organizes with Dhara to sell the hoarded food grain to the highest bidder, thereby intensifying the famine. He is one of Dhara’s partners in the human trafficking racket. He is imprisoned by the sergeant along with Dhara and Rajib.


Kalidhan Dhara— the rice dealer, and partner of Dutta. He hoards rice grain, multiplies the price many times and deprives the villagers from affording any food grain.


Rajib— Kalidhan’s steward. Extremely canny and ruthless, Rajib sadistically oppresses the hungry mob, denying them food.


Yudhistir— a protesting individual who tries to incite Kunja in a rebellion, but failing it, leaves alone.


The other characters of the play include the two photographers, beggars, the undertaker, the police sergeant, starving farmers, the fakir, Bengal’s Madonna and several other uncredited characters.


5. Plot Overview of Nabanna


Nabanna is based on the Bengal Famine of 1943, in which over a million people died of starvation, malnutrition and the resultant diseases. The play represents the horrific reality of hunger, dehumanization and death.


Act I, Scene i, starts with the burning of three bales of grain, the last possession of the Samaddars, as Pradhan mutters of his dead son showing the first signs of his impending insanity. Kunja tries to take him home, as Pradhan talks of sacrificing his life for a lost cause. They crouch down from an invisible hungry mob. Binodini and Niranjan enter mourning the misfortune, as Panchanani hobbles along muttering about the loss of feminine dignity. They are troubled seeing Pradhan hurt and bleeding, but Pradhan brushes off their concern saying that their blood is cheap and nobody should be concerned about their animal existence now. Panchanani abuses the men in the family for their lack of self esteem and inability to provide for the womenfolk. While Pradhan berates her to be quiet as is the fate of women, Panchanani protests saying that she has been starving for three days, but is worried about the loss of her honor. Kunja bitterly says that there is no honor left in the subhuman existence, but Pradhan attacks him trying to strangle his words. Pradhan realizes his actions and bemoans his helplessness. Yudhistir enters and tries to enthuse Kunja to help their cause, but comments that Kunja escapes any confrontation and leaves alone. Panchanani screams in support of the marching torch bearing mobs and joins them shortly, as they fall one by one.


Scene ii focuses on the Samaddar family as Kunja and Radhika bicker about the loss of food grain. Niranjan announces his intention to leave looking for a work, upsetting Binodini.


Misunderstanding the reason for her tears, Kunja attacks Niranjan accusing him of beating Binodini and breaks his head.


Scene iii opens as Kunja and Pradhan discuss selling their last bit of farmland. Dayal enters requesting some rice to feed his ailing wife. He bitterly admits his incompetence in providing for his family. He regrets his selling of farmland and the last of his seeds for ready money. Kunja lends him a fistful of rice, which Dayal gratefully accepts. They discuss leaving for the city where rich people are organizing free communal kitchens. They discuss the humiliation of begging, when Makhan enters warning them about a cyclone and flood. They fend for each other during the cyclone, while Binodini is injured and their house is demolished. Dayal comes back in a trance trying to return the borrowed rice, dazedly asking whether he ever had anybody or anything. As the Samaddars stand around him Dayal screams that his house is lost in the flood along with his wife.


Scene iv shows the ruined house of the Samaddars, where Binodini attempts to cook weeds and jungle greens for food. Makhan whines about food, while Pradhan enters with some crabs pilfered from the flood silts. While they prepare to eat them desperately amidst much fighting, Kunja stops Makhan from eating, citing his disease. Pradhan argues for Makhan hinting that his own son died of starvation Kunja persists hinting that Makhan is sicker than they think.


In Scene v, the first act ends with a conflict and the first sign of oppression. The house looks grimier as Makhan lies dying and the background is full of a cacophony of groans, screams and funeral chants. The local moneylender Haru Dutta lecherously approaches Binodini and also attempts to buy the last of the Samaddar’s farmland, which Kunja and Pradhan refuse to sell. On protesting Dutta’s abuses, Kunja gets beaten up. Makhan attempts to leave his deathbed to come in his father’s aid, but dies before he can.


Act II, scene i, depicts the extent of Dutta, Kalidhan and Rajib’s misdoing as they hoard food grain, multiply their price off market and sell them to the highest bidder, thereby depriving the commoners. As a local citizen attempt to buy rice for his family, Kalidhan’s steward Rajib quotes an outrageous sum, pushing him out of the store when he protests. Their motive is clear as they try to smuggle out the rice to the city.


Scene ii displays an urban park, full of homeless villagers who have moved their family and belongings to the city. The entire setting shows the extent of suffering, as the men are shown sitting helplessly amidst the mass of hungry, poor people. Two reporters attempt to photograph the hungry villagers, finding them aesthetically interesting. They do not show any sympathy and even tries to make a hungry and dazed beggar woman to smile so that they can sell the photograph under the caption of “Bengal’s Madonna.” They ask Pradhan to pose for them asking him questions without having any interest in the answers. In spite of knowing that nobody cares about their condition, Pradhan cooperates with them and poses in his beggarly splendor, contributing in the tragic absurdity of their situation. As they leave, Pradhan mockingly congratulates them in having a skeleton’s photograph. Pradhan, Kunja and Radhika leave seeking free food, abandoning Binodini, who is taken up by a human trafficking tout.


Scene iii displays the insensitivity of the urban bourgeois, as they celebrate a lavish wedding discussing the good of black market and how they are having trouble getting their expensive whims satisfied. Pradhan, Kunja and Radhika try to scavenge for food in the garbage, where Kunja gets attacked by dogs.


Scene iv brings us back to Dutta’s store where people try to flatter him into giving them some food or sell their children to buy some food grain. An old farmer Chander moans selling his only daughter, as Dutta calmly looks on.


Scene v shows the reunion of Niranjan and Binodini in a help camp, where Binodini explains her predicament to Niranjan. They realize that the help camp is actually a halfway house for human trafficking. As they prepare to escape, Rajib and Kalidhan discuss the uncouthness of the hungry mob. Suddenly, a police sergeant arrives with some men and questions them on grain hoarding and black marketeering. As Niranjan provides them with the necessary information about the thousands of bushels full of rice, the miscreants are finally arrested.


The two scenes of the third act show the degree of dehumanization of the homeless. In the first act, it is hinted by an elderly dying beggar woman that the authority has taken her young daughter away from her, abandoning her on their way. She also claims that they are being killed by the authority to avoid unnecessary mouths to feed. She urges the Samaddars to return to their village and to die with dignity. The second scene shows the miserable health condition in a relief camp as a single doctor attempts to treat hundreds, as they die. Pradhan tries to get some medicine vaguely describing a non-existent illness. The doctor absently asks him to forget his disease, which urges Pradhan to face the reality.

Act IV, scene I, brings us back to the village, where Niranjan and Binodini have repaired their house and organized for the survivors to work together farming the remaining lands. As people from different religion and caste stand together in easy harmony, they discuss organized representations for farmers asking farming loans, fertilizers and seeds from the government. They also agree that they should be working together farming and harvesting the remaining farmland, to survive. Kunja and Radhika return in the arms of their family, as the two estranged brothers reunite.


The second scene shows the Samaddar house bustling with harvested grains, as all the family members work together happily and discuss the impending harvest festival (Nabanna).


The last scene of the play is staged with the festival in the background, as the previously starving farmers celebrate. As the farmers immerse themselves in the pastoral merrymaking, Pradhan walks in to join a proud Dayal dressed as a skilled stick fighter. As the family and neighbors celebrate his return, Pradhan is gradually cured of his insanity, as he recognizes his family and friends. He joins the celebration as he announces the end of suffering. Dayal holds him up, announcing that he would never surrender to deprivation again, but would protest against the loss of his dignity and his loved ones. Pradhan embraces him in proud happiness.


  • Thoppil Bhasi’s Malyalam play ‘Ningal Endai Communist Akki’ (You Made Me a Communist) was a renowned IPTA play. The play mainly focuses on the activities carried out by the patriots of Kerala for the attainment of India’s independence.
  • The IPTA members Binoy Roy, Salil Chaudhary, Hemang Vishwas, Prem Dhawan, Narendra Sharma, Sahil Ludhianvi, Shankar Shailendra, Bhupen

6. Predominant Characteristics of Nabanna


6.1. Changing the face of Bengali theatre


The stark realism in Nabanna was unlike any in the contemporary Bengali, or even Indian theatre. The thrust of the play was less on tightly knit narrative and more on projecting the grit of survival and darkness of misery. It was a shock unlike the entertaining comfort of earlier plays, to nudge the somnolent audience. Instead of the pretty pastoral scenes of the village or the impressive urban modernity, Bhattacharya brought out the hunger and drying crops of the village and the festering misery of the slums and back alleys, where the urban populace was more interested in capturing the photograph of hungry people instead of extending any help. It has often been alleged that the last scene of the play does not gel well with the rest of it, but it also has been acknowledged as one of the most powerful scenes in Indian theatre. Bhattacharya’s work changed the essence of theatre from pristine beauty to dark and gritty reality.


6.2. The Portrayal of Family in Nabanna


The theatricality of Nabanna slips continuously between the universal to the particular. The play starts with the portrayal of the doom of famine and destruction that occupies the entire stage, giving it an almost universal condition. Latter, it narrows down to a single family, helpless and starving during the famine. The members of the family represent everything that hunger pushes people into—brothers attacking each other, children starving to death, abandonment, insanity, uprooting, human trafficking, oppression etc. It is not difficult to imagine that this family is just a unit amongst thousands.


Pradhan and his family try to stick to the innocent rustic values of kinship, but it is sorely tested amidst hunger and privation. When Kunja sees his sister-in-law Binodini crying, he protests thinking that his brother Niranjan has abused her. During this protest, he loses his cool and breaks Niranjan’s head. Niranjan abandons his family and goes looking for work. In Calcutta, Pradhan and Kunja’s wife Radhika goes to find free food, without thinking of Binodini.


6.3. Melodramatic Reality


It has been a standing accusation against most of the IPTA theatrical and film productions, that they are melodramatic. It has been said that Nabanna intensifies reactions beyond reality. But, it has also been reasoned that those who survived 43’ and 44’ famine, cannot look objectively while recollecting the privation. The memories of rotting corpses of starved children, of parents selling their children into prostitution, of mothers fighting their children for rotting garbage, do not fit with any reality we are familiar with. Thus the intensity of reaction is probably the correct portrayal of reality, according to scholars like Hirankumar Sanyal. The cyclone which demolishes Pradhan’s village is, therefore, not a melodramatic excess but the final suffering of being homeless.


6.4. Historicity in Nabanna


Bhattacharya captures not only the suffering of the masses but also the corruption of food grain hoarders, which was later, found out to be the true reason for the famine. He depicts the avarice of the moneylender Haru Dutta, the grain hoarder Kalidhan Dhara and the manager Rajib, who systematically hoard thousands of barrels full of food grain and sell them to the highest bidder. They also arrange for human trafficking, tricking the helpless rustic women into forced prostitution or oppressing families till they are forced to sell their daughters to them.


Bhattacharya, in a rather controlled scope represents the parallel industry of oppression which developed in Bengal during this era.


Bhattacharya also makes a serio-comic but realistic episode where reporters are photographing the starving masses looking for vestiges of aesthetics in them. Instead of empathizing with a severely malnourished sick woman, they try to make her smile so that they can publish the photograph under the caption of “Bengal’s Madonna.” Pradhan cooperates with them as he poses just the way they want him to, uttering insane mutterings about hunger, humiliation and helplessness which would have shamed any conscientious being. This was a very recognizable dig at reporters who sold photographs like these to American magazines for a fat fee.


6.5. Representation of Protest


Nabanna displays occasional attempts of the downtrodden to voice out against the oppressors. There are flashes of brilliance and spirit as the suffering masses scream out slogans refusing to accept their fate without fight. In Act I, Scene I, Pradhan’s wife Panchanani incites a faceless procession of protesters carting torches and urges them to walk on. She screams abuses at them, when they show signs of stepping back and finally falls silent as one by one the torches fall implying the fall of the protesters, but as the curtain closes we can see a few burning torches tethering in the horizon.


When Kunja attempts to protest lecherous Haru Dutta’s attempts at appropriating their farmland, Dutta gets him beaten up by his hired goons. Kunja finally can do nothing but bite the dust and weep. As the ailing Makhan, his young son tries to come to Kunja’s aid, he falls down and dies of starvation and disease.


However, Bhattacharya perpetuates the sense of rebellion and protest as the lowest of the low farmers survive the famine and try to organize a life for them. Pradhan gets back his reasons as the long forgotten faces of his friends, family and neighbors surround him and he gradually remembers all. The submissive Dayal ends the play as he announces that never again will famine and evil be able to take away his dignity and all that is precious from him. He announces that he will stand strong in its way and prevent any further dehumanization. Pradhan supports his spirit as he embraces him emotionally uttering his name.


7. Revolutionary plays after Nabanna


In 1948, Pannu Pal wrote a play ‘Chargesheet’ when Communist Party of India was banned by the government. The play portrays about the communists of India who were detained in jails without any trial. Hurt by the partition of India, Balraj Sahni penned a play for IPTA in 1948 ‘Jadoo Ki Kursi’ which satirizes on Jawaharlal Nehru and his policies.


In 1952, Ritwik Ghatak’s play ‘Dalil’ became the mouthpiece for the refugees who were shifted to India after Partition. The play describes the trauma and the disturbed psychology of the displaced refugees. Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena through his play ‘Bakri’ in 1978 unfolded the hollowness and hypocrisy of contemporary politics. This play became a highly popular play and was a silver jubilee hit. In 1989, the master dramatists Safdar Hashmi and Habib Tanvir adapted Munshi Premchand’s story ‘Pandit Moteram Shastri ka Satyagraha’. It was directed by M. S. Sathyu. The play focuses on the issues of casteism, nationalism, corruption and communalism. Hashmi and Tanvir truly portrayed how the British policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ is used by contemporary politicians for their vested interests. The play is a dramatic farce on contemporary politics depicting the stark realities of the politico-religious nexus.


Another noted play speaking of national fiber is Debasis Majumdar’s ‘Kashmakash’ which was directed by Ramesh Talwar. Staged in 2004, the play speaks about the hollowness of today’s politics diminishing the pride of the nation which our freedom fighters have earned by sacrificing their lives for the nation. The veteran writer Sagar Sarhadi in his play ‘Hum Deewane Hum Parwane’, staged in 2007, also exhibits nationalism. The play pays a tribute to the leaders of Indian freedom struggle. Under the direction of Ramesh Talwar, the play very well explains the contribution of the revolutionists Ashfaqullah Khan and Ram Prasad Bismil.


In October, 2012, Indian People’s Theatre Association, Jaipur presented a play ‘Rishton Ko Kya Naam Diya Jaye’ based on Saadat Hasan Manto’s popular story ‘Toba-Tek Singh’ . The play revives the wounds of partition. It received wide recognition from the connoisseurs of literature and theatre. To mark the 64th martyrdom day of Mahatma Gandhi , IPTA, Patna, began a two-day programme entitled ‘Hey Ram … Bapu ko Bihari Jan kaa Salam’. Recently IPTA performed a drama ‘Mylara Mahadeva’ at Mysore Tumakur District on 25th May, 2013. It describes the story of a freedom fighter who sacrificed his life during ‘Quit India Movement’.

you can view video on Bijon Bhattacharya: Nabanna


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