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The mermaid of the Bay of Bengal, Shaoli Mitra, turns silent
- Dr. S D Desai

January 27, 2022

We call it a stage presence when we cannot for a moment move our eyes or ears away from the actor on stage. Shaoli Mitra (1948-16 Jan 2022) had that commanding presence. Every move she made and every syllable she uttered, combined with the social purpose of her being in theatre, distinguished her as a performing artist. Having had the love for theatre in her genes, this daughter of Shombhu and Tripti Mitra developed a rare passion for it. Her end came a decade or two early.

Shaoli Mitra

Thirty years ago, the mermaid of the Bay of Bengal took the art world of Ahmedabad by storm with impactful solo performances of Nathabati Anathabat and Katha Amritasaman. Her voice glided from undertones to six tones above and back for the whole gamut of emotions from the greatest joy to the depths of despair. In action, resourcefully using her face, feet, eyes and hands, even hair, heels and tongue, she activated the whole body.

In one, with subtle nuances, she portrayed Draupadi as an individual in conflict with her inner self and with society and gave flitting glimpses of characters like a haughty Duryodhana, a crafty Shakuni, a king bloated with pride. She demolished the fašade of respectability surrounding the Pandavas. She questioned Yudhishthira's sense of dharma, felt disillusioned about Arjun's heroism grew skeptical about Pandavas' sense of fair play.

Action was subdued in the other play. Characters got portrayed with artistic economy, with suggestion. Her Arjun, his head held high, had the palav of her 6 yard long sari flowing down her right hand in a majestic horizontal line. Kunti had her hair covered with the same palav, Gandhari had her fingers on her eyes. The play presented an epic struggle in which incompatible forces were at work leading to a near extinction of society, of people, of their value system.

"I want to serve theatre," she later observed in an interview, "only if I felt I was serving society in some form." She used to be in 'intellectual communication' with her audience and did not hesitate to convey her indebtedness to Iravati Karve, author of Yuganta: The End of an Epoch. The engaging narrative interspersed with occasional bursts of music and lyrics, like the text written by her, gave her presentation a continuity that never broke.

During her stay in Ahmedabad, a good rapport developed with her and after her return to Kolkata we exchanged long letters for many years. It helped remain familiar with her activities and creative work. She sent audio cassettes of the two highly successful plays and kept sharing information of performances in Hindi and publications, her nomination to the Central Academy, of national and international tours, also for conferences and poetry recitation, a published collection of her articles, Shombhuda's health, mother Tripti Mitra's permanent exhibition being set up and so on.

Shaoli MitraShaoli Mitra

True to the family tradition, Shaoli Mitra's contribution has been phenomenal. The national art world has lost a versatile performing artist of a great calibre. In theatre, beginning as Amal in teenage years in Bahurupee's Dakghar written by Tagore, she went on to become a playwright and director besides being an outstanding actor of Pancham Vaidic, the theatre group that produced many plays. Ritwik Ghatak cast her as Banga Bala in his masterpiece Jukti Takko Aar Gappo along with Tripti Mitra as Durga and the likes of Utpal Dutt, Bijon Bhattacharya, Sugata Burman and others. In Bengal's cultural arena, she was a force to reckon with. At one time, she was President of Bangla Academy.

She is reported to have died at her residence in the city she loved following a long illness. The news was broken to the world after cremation as per her desire.

Dr. S.D. Desai
Dr. S.D. Desai, an author and a contributor to dance, drama and literary journals, is a freelance art writer.

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