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This IIT-ian uses theatre to promote jobs, leadership

Last updated on: April 22, 2010 22:01 IST

This IIT-ian uses theatre to promote jobs, leadership

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Indrani Roy Mitra in Kolkata

He could have enjoyed a cushy job at the Tata Consultancy Services or could have minted money as a Silicon Valley software professional (he worked for Techna Incorporated in California).

But for Kharagpur IITian Amitava Bhattacharya, entrepreneurship was an irresistible dream that he thought of chasing hard.

Out-of-box thinking has always been Bhattacharya's way of life and hence instead of launching a software consultancy firm or something similar, he launched Banglanatak.com, a social communication firm that uses theatre and other folk art as the medium of promoting leadership and a culture for employment and growth..

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Image: Amitava Bhattacharya.
Photographs: Dipak Chakraborty
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How does Banglanatak.com work?

The company is guided by the sole ambition of reaching the unreachables, said Bhattacharya.

The team is involved in a thorough day-to-day-research to assess the need of the rural communities across India and sends out proposals to the central and state government and social welfare organisations.

It starts working on the projects as soon as the approvals and assistance arrive.

Banglanatak believes that community education and participation are the keys to sustainable development.

It has innovated unique theatre-based models for empowering backward and marginal sections of India with knowledge, skills and resources so that they can counter their vulnerabilities to diseases and crimes like trafficking.

The company has worked with diverse linguistic, cultural, religious and demographic groups across 21 states of India. Its strategy is to physically reach out to the people in rural areas and urban slums where conventional approaches fail because of illiteracy, poverty, absence of electricity and lack of infrastructure.

The company uses interactive theatre, forum theatre etc to promote community participation and involvement.  It trains grassroots-level service providers and community-based resource groups in workshops.

The company has so far built about 3,200 theatre group networks across India through which it sends out social messages to further a social cause.

For instance, to build HIV/AIDS or reproductive child health awareness in any Indian state, the company gets in touch with the regional theatre groups or folk artistes of that state and trains them to put forth the relevant messages.

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Image: A Chau performer.
Photographs: Dipak Chakraborty
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How it helps rural artistes make a living out of their art

Banglanatak has worked in tandem with the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre to revive Bengal's performing folk art forms like Chau, Domni and Jhumur as means of sustainable livelihood.

Under these programmes, 1,200 Chau artistes of West Bengal's Purulia district have formed 74 self-help groups, 134 Domni artistes of Malda have formed 10 self-help groups whereas 31 SHGs have been formed with 468 Jhumur artistes of Bankura district.

For instance, Banglanatak dot com has been a facilitator for skill development workshops for the Chau artistes, it has tutored the Domni artistes to use their art form as a means for livelihood and also as a tool for community education.

Under Banglanatak's guidance, the Jhumur naachnis, traditionally treated as outcasts by villagers, have been empowered and encouraged to seek their rights.

They have also been taught to earn their breads through their performances.

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Image: Some folk art designs.
Photographs: Dipak Chakraborty
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Objectives of the organisation

  • Preserving performing arts, folk traditions and rituals
  • Facilitating inter-regional exchange, collaboration and partnerships
  • Raising awareness about the role of theatre and other cultural media in social inclusion and economic empowerment

Its main activities:

  • Fostering pro-poor growth
  • Protecting rights of women, children and indigenous workers
  • Promoting culture for employment and growth
  • Safeguarding intangible cultural heritage

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Image: Jhumur performers.
Photographs: Dipak Chakraborty
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Initial years had been tough

Neither the TCS job nor the Silicon Valley stint as a software consultant could satisfy Bhattacharya's zeal to achieve something new. He often dreamt of doing something with theatre, a medium that he harboured a deep passion for.

He was itching all over to do something on his own, to create and launch a new concept back home in India.

What's the point in working in a foreign country when my own is a treasure trove of opportunities, he asked himself.

In the late 1990s, Bhattacharya quit the Silicon Valley job and launched Banglanatak.com in his hometown of Kolkata in 2000.

Helped by friends (all of whom are project managers now) -- Sayantani Roychowdhury, Ananya Bhattacharya, Ranjan Sen, Nilay Basu and Madhura Dutta -- founder director Bhattacharya embarked on a unique journey across India.

His first task was to travel widely, interact with the people, and communicate with folk artistes and theatre groups and analyse the social needs of the rural communities of India.

Bhattacharya and his friends polished off their personal savings to set up their 'dream venture' with an initial investment of Rs 30-35 lakh (Rs 3-3.5 million).

As expected, for 11 long months, the company did not get any order. The first assignment (worth Rs 100,000) came from Malda Zilla Parishad, which sought Banglanatak's assistance for an educational enrolment programme through local folk dance Gambhira as the medium.

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Image: Banglanatak dot com team.
Photographs: Dipak Chakraborty
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This IIT-ian uses theatre to promote jobs, leadership

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Present status of the company

The company now has 65 employees, 10 of whom have done their masters in theatre and four are members of National School of Drama.

The company also boasts of having three Commonwealth scholars among its employees.

According to Bhattacharya, the company pays its staff competitive salary and gives them complete freedom of operation.

Working here is fun, which is why almost 90 per cent of the staff have been here since its inception, claimed the founder director.

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Image: Bnaglanatak dot com brochures.
Photographs: Dipak Chakraborty
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Putting forth social messages is a rewarding task

Though the salaries that the Banglanatak.com staff get do not match corporate standards, they stick on because of the tremendous satisfaction that their jobs offer, said Bhattacharya.

For them, each new project is a new experience, an eye opener. "It gives us a great pleasure in making a rural woman understand that abortion is legal or that HIV is not spread through touch or through sharing the same roof," he said.

"We were shocked to discover that Aurangabad records 24-25 per cent abortion deaths; for Bihar, it is 13-19 per cent; whereas for Lohardanga in Jharkhand, it is 19 per cent," said Bhattacharya.

Recently, Banglanatak launched an alternative livelihood initiative for bidi workers in Purulia.

During that project, the company explored if Chau dance, a popular form of entertainment in the state, can be a profession.

The experiment, said Bhattacharya, met with a huge success so much so that a Chau dancer who earned Rs 400 a month in 2004 could now make anything between Rs 1,900 to Rs 15,000 per month.

In this venture, Banglanatak got the necessary assistance from the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre.

Empowered by Banglanatak's training, 700 Chau and Baul artistes earned as much as Rs 21 lakh (Rs 2.1 million) through their performances in and around Kolkata during Durga Puja last year.

This year, Banglanatak won a major project from European Union and with that bought health insurance for 10,858 rural people of West Bengal, including 3,200 folk artistes and their family members.

As part of the EU-Banglanatak exchange programme, four Baul artistes took part in a cultural programme in London this March, whereas six Jhumur and Chau folk dancers are also scheduled to take part in a festival in China in May.

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Image: A Chau performance.
Photographs: Dipak Chakraborty
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Who are its clients:

In the last 10 years, the company has been able to build a widespread clients' base.

It includes ministries of social welfare, petroleum, rural development, Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre, Panchayati Raj, West Bengal departments of health and family welfare, primary education, labour, consumer affairs, Sundarban Biosphere Reserve, Sundarban Development Authority, Kolkata Police, West Bengal Police, etc.

The company has also worked with the state governments of Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Bihar and corporates like NALCO, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India.

It has worked with international bodies like Unifem, Undoc, UNFPA, Unicef and social welfare organisations like Population Services International, Catholic Relief Services, Care, HIV Alliance, Abt Associates, PA Consulting, Heart Care Foundation, etc.

Awards and accolades

The hard work put in by the Banglanatak bore fruit over the years and award and accolades started pouring in.

In 2006, it won Civil Society Award for outstanding contribution in HIV/AIDS Communication from UNAIDS and National AIDS Control Organisation

In 2007, it won UNFPA-LAADLI Media Award 2007 for gender sensitivity for best community theatre project in Eastern India.

In 2008, London School of Economics conferred on Bhattacharya fellowship on leadership and excellence.

In 2009, the company won UNESCO recommendation for Accreditation to provide Advisory Services to the Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee.


Image: A cultural programme organised by Banglanatak dot com.
Photographs: Dipak Chakraborty
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