Government patronage and ticketed shows can change the status of theatre in Odisha: Anant Mahapatra

Eminent thespian and the Renaissance man of Odia theatre, Anant Mahapatra, who has written, directed, and acted in more than 100 plays, worked in radio, television, and films, is currently enjoying his latest stint with story reading on YouTube. He spoke about his experiments on stage and beyond and the future of Odia theatre during an interview with Minati Singha. Mahapatra, 89, has been selected for the prestigious Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra Award 2023.
What are your feelings about receiving the Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra award?
I was the first chairman of the Jury for the selection of the award. I have been returning it for the last ten years, but this time Ratikanta Mohapatra insisted, and I agreed. His mother had worked with me in films in the 1950s and 60s. I don’t like receiving awards and have refused mostly. I believe awards cannot be an incentive for a creative person. Secondly, one might think you have achieved a lot, and you stop. By not accepting the award, I think the pursuit is still on. I received the last award in 1972 given by Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi by Chief Minister Biju Patnaik, and the second one was Kabi Samrat Upendra Bhanja Samman- the highest award by Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi. The central Sangeet Natak Akademi has selected me for the ‘Amrit Award’, which will be given on September 16.
You worked in various mediums of art starting from radio, theatre, film, television, and now the latest web media. Tell us about your latest experiment of story-reading on YouTube.
When the covid pandemic forced me to stay indoors for two years, four months, and 12 days, sitting in my study, I started reading stories. It transcended geographical boundaries as audiences from different generations across the globe are watching the show. Starting with reading the text, now I have added visual and sound effects to the story reading. So far, I have read 20 stories of different authors and presented 12 of my plays on YouTube.
What are your latest productions?
My latest feature film ‘Bhabantara’ – an 80-minute long feature film on man-woman relationships is all set to premiere at some film festivals in Houston, Madrid, and Mumbai in competitive categories. Besides, another film ‘Smruti’ is ready to go to the floors and expected to be completed by February 2025.
You had started Utkal Rangamanch Trust to revive professional theatre in Odisha in 2000. Why did it fail?
I did about 20 plays, and each play continued for 30 days. I had taken Bhanjakala Mandap on lease and run shows from 2000 to 2005. But it was closed when the government did not renew the lease after my last play ‘Sei Tini Jana,’ which was based on a judge, a bureaucrat, and a minister, how these three people now rule our lives.
Over the past few years, theatre in Odisha did not change much. What can help in reviving it?
Unless people buy tickets to watch plays, theatre cannot be sustainable. Odisha had a unique professional theatre in the 1960s and 70s. If audiences are paying for reading the newspaper, watching a film, for television, and for Jatra, then why not for drama or theatre? Mouse Trap is the world’s longest-running play ran continuously for 70 years; then why cannot our plays.
Can government patronage make a difference?
Of course, it can. Long back in the 1970s, the Odisha government had proposed to come up with a cultural policy, but it could not see the light of the day.
How do you see the future of Odia theatre?
I am hopeful. I believe that young people shall take over sooner or later. Opportunities are more, so is competition. There are 2734 professions and counting. Creativity must go up and not down.
What would you like to tell the young dramatists?
Exposure helped me to think differently. I did play with one character, I did play on Ramakanta Rath’s poem Sri Radha, I did a silent play. I take two months to prepare the script and two months to rehearse a play. Punctuality, sincerity, and discipline I followed strictly and found people in tune with me.

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