Selim Al-Deen interviewed by Mahfuz Sadique
‘The tales of my farmers,’ he says as he takes a long drag from the tightly-held cigarette between his fingers, ‘is no less heroic than the Herculean feats of Achilles or Prometheus.’ Dying rays of a winter afternoon get caught up in the ensuing smoke, and as Greek tragedies fade away behind the veil, from behind his desk at his second-floor office in the dramatics department of Jahangirnagar University in Savar, Selim Al-Deen tells me a quintessentially Bengali tale. It is the tale of fighting against nature’s wrath, of fighting with tigers, of clearing dense forests for cultivation, and it is the tale of one man’s search to bring the soil and soul of a race to the pages of literature and the stage of drama.
Firoza Khatun was worried about his eldest son. Her third child, Selim, just couldn’t stop reading. This son of hers — born on August 18, 1949 — had taken to reading as if there were no tomorrow. As Firoza’s husband, Mofizuddin Ahmed, a deputy superintendent of customs, moved from one town to the next due to his job postings, she had to shuffle along with her seven children. Ever since Selim learned to read while they were at Anwara, Chittagong, he had read everything he got his hands onto. Comilla, their home district Feni, Moulvibazar, Kurigram, Rangpur, Lalmonirhat — the list of places Selim has attended schools at reads like a route crisscrossing Bangladesh. Perhaps as he stayed at one place for such short a span, books became his best friend. And by the time it was time for Selim to head out to university in 1966, he had made his choice: he would be a writer.
Selim recalls: ‘I read everything. By the time I entered university I had read most major works. My mother was so worried with my frenzied reading that she beat me once for reading all day.’
The classrooms of Dhaka University’s Bangla department were to be the breeding ground of minds which were to shape the coming decades. ‘It was my teacher Munier Chowdhury who spurred me to put my attention to drama. If I had to point out a catalyst for my first inclinations into a particular stream of literature, it would be Munier sir,’ recalls Selim.
And as Selim forayed into the realm of theatrics and looked deeper into original literature written for the stage, he started to have a grave realisation: ‘I almost felt insulted that starting from Roman literature to Shakespeare, all major languages of literature had great tragedies. Whereas Bangla utterly lacked any.’
It was with this realisation that drama as an established form within the scope of Bangla literature lagged behind most other languages that urged Selim to take up writing drama. But Selim admits that it would not be another decade till he would finally be able to create a unique Bengali ‘narrative’ stream in his acclaimed play Kittonkhola.
Selim Al-Deen’s fundamental contribution to the field of drama, and the literary form of Bangla drama, are many. But his crowning achievement has to be his success in giving Bangla drama a unique voice. ‘Techniques cannot be art. It is the realisation that it brings out. But to bring out that realisation depends a lot on the technique used.’
While Selim started out with his first play Libriam as early as in 1968, while still a university student, his early works were, in his words, ‘more centred on European themes at the time’. ‘Sartre or Camus came into my early work. But I realised that Western dilemmas could not be the basis of Bangla drama,’ says Selim.
Till 1977, Selim’s works such as Sharpa Bishawak Galpo, Jwandis o Bibidho Baloon, Explosive o Mul Shomoshya, Karim Bawali’r Shatru o Mul Mukh Dekha, Charkakrar Documentary were mostly based on the European school of thought.
‘Between 1978 and 1979, I spent considerable amount of time observing our folk forms of theatre, such as jatras. It was at this juncture that I sat down to write my first fundamental work on the new format,’ recalls Selim.
The result was Kittankhola, considered as the first major play based on the new format. Selim never looked back. Through plays such as Bashon, Atotai, Saifulmulk Badiuzzaman, Keramat Mangal, Hat Hodai, Chaka (later made into a film), Selim kept up his experimentation with formats such as ‘epic realism’, which he brought into Bangla plays single-handedly.
The early nineties saw Selim focusing on a new style derived from the folk traditions. In Jaiboti Konya’r Mon, the ‘kathya-natya’ style was used. ‘This was another tradition that had been ignored for long. This format was again used in Hargaaz.’
Selim Al-Deen has played a pivotal role in the theatre movement of Bangladesh with his involvement with one of the leading theatre groups in the country — Dhaka Theatre. One of its founding members, almost all of Selim’s plays have been staged by Dhaka Theatre. Selim has also been one of the key organisers of Bangladesh’s village theatre movement. He took the monumental task of creating the only dictionary on dramatics available in Bangla.
Having been awarded with almost all national recognitions possible in the field of theatre, Selim Al-Deen’s work is studied at many universities across the world. Several of his plays have been translated into other languages, and staged too. In fact, he is one of few Bangladeshi writers to have his plays staged by West Bengal troupes.
‘But my life actually comprises of another component that I take pride in. In front of my eyes, I have seen the dramatics department of Jahangirnagar University grow. If I were to sum up my life’s work, then 30 per cent of it would be related to the university,’ Selim points out.
Pressed to mention his greatest achievement in his own mind, he finishes, ‘I guess, I would consider my life’s work most relevant when considering Bangla drama’s search for its roots and a place in the firmament of world literature.’
Published: Heroes/ The New Age/January, 2006