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True to his own light


Remembering Tapas Sen's contributions in developing a contemporary understanding of lighting in Indian theatre.


Study of light: Tapas Sen's work represents the triumph of craft over technology.

TAPAS SEN always argued the human body was a composite of carbons and amino acids irradiated by a quantum of photons. The body, he explained, was an aspect of light and it was pointless lighting the body on stage. "Body is self-lit; light the space," he would chide his handful of disciples, including this writer, at any sign of extravagance with lights.

Being alive, for Sen, was akin to being charged with photons from a remote light source, and death, like photolysis, a chemical decomposition due to action of light and merging in the magic of darkness.

No tributes

For all Sen did towards developing a contemporary understanding of stage lights in this country, when he quietly stepped into his own black-out on June 28, in Kolkata, the national media, shamefully, shed no tears — and no light — on the historic contributions he made to sixty years of performance and stage culture in India. He was 82 and ailing.

From Alkazi to Utpal Dutt, Shambhu Mitra to Vijay Tendulkar, Sadhana Bose to Chandralekha, Birju Maharaj to Kelucharan Mahapatra — he was integrally connected with the growth of modern Indian performance art as well as the progressive and radical streams within it.

Tapas-da described his career to me once as "years spent studying the behaviour and misbehaviour of light". Like the god of Genesis, you imagine him standing at the edge of the stage, exclaiming: "Fiat Lux, let there be light!" And, hey presto, you enter a magically illumined universe of highlights and shadows, umbras and penumbras, optical illusions and retinal retentions, torch-lit tones and flamboyant follow-spots.

Best on-stage facilities

Tapas-da was tireless in his pursuit of installing the best on-stage facilities at performance venues as varied as Kolkata's Birla Theatre, Delhi's Siri Fort and Kamani, or Mumbai's Rabindra Natya Manch.

His contributions to outdoor lighting practices too were exemplary at venues like Khajuraho, Konarak, Elephanta and Ujjain. Of course, his son-et-lumiere installations at Red Fort, Purana Quila and at the Qutb Minar in Delhi are works of art in themselves. And his crowning moment was the spectacular work for the inaugural functions of the Festivals of India in Paris and Moscow, under the direction of designer Dashrath Patel.

In the early 1940s, he started working with the Delhi unit of the radical Indian Peoples' Theatre Association (IPTA). Barely 19, Sen was already lighting the productions of firebrand Sadhana Bose. His real apprenticeship began in 1945, when he worked in puppet theatre with Pratap Sen, a drawing teacher in Delhi, whom he considered his mentor.

Ironically, this man of light who could create on stage sunrises and eclipses, fires and floods, moonbeams and rainforests with almost elementary paraphernalia, got his first real inspiration and conceptual clue to stage lighting when, in 1946, he read the legendary Harindranath Chattopadhyaya's article "Black, The Colour of Magic", in Free Press Journal, Bombay. In turn, he taught us to "pay respect to darkness".

Intelligent inventiveness

Essentially, Tapas Sen represents the triumph of craft and intelligent inventiveness over technology. In the primitive conditions of Indian theatre, to have produced the effects that Sen did with lights, can only be interpreted as a cheeky thumbing of nose at the pervading fetish for equipment and technology that subverts theatre practice the world over with increasing demands on investment and funding.

Sen's pioneering work in the early 1960s for Utpal Dutt ("Angar", "Kallol", "Setu") or for Bohurupee ("Char Adhyay", "Rakta Korabi", "Raja Oedipus") were done with a fascinating array of improvised devices. One of his ingenious inventions during the days when rheostats were not available was the "matka dimmer", a modification of the European "water dimmers", to regulate light.

Dalda-ka-dabba effect

His other famous contribution was the dalda-ka-dabba effect in the production "Setu". For the sequence where a woman tries to commit suicide by jumping off a running train, a car headlight was beamed directly into the audience and a Dalda can with cut windows housing an ordinary bulb was rotated at great speed to successfully create the illusion of a moving train.

In "Angar", the sensational climax of the drowning of trapped miners was created by fixing dim lights in dalda cans in the footlight pit and spreading a long polythene sheet forestage held by two persons. Slowly raising the level of the polythene sheet created the illusion of rising water level and the miners drowning. Those who saw the production still feel suffocated remembering that scene. In "Kallol", Sen used a simple light trick to create the famous scene of the interior of a ship's boiler.

All this is part of theatre lore now and what Sen did in those early years is destined to remain an oft-remembered saga. Perhaps, when his autobiography Fifty Light Years is published posthumously, there will be a better appreciation of Indian theatre's first technical genius, who ever remained true to his own light.

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