For Stage Actress & Director Sujata Priyambada, Theatre Is Medium Of Social Service

Even after a 25-year intimate involvement with theatre, as an accomplished actress and promising director who has performed across India and several other countries, the humble Sujata Priyambada prefers to introduce herself as a “full-time theatre worker”.

Born and brought up in Rourkela, Bhubaneswar-based Sujata has carved a distinct identity as one of the few female theatre directors of Odisha.

It was her drive “to do something for the society” that pushed her to explore dance, music, theatre, radio, television and cinema. She finally found theatre to be her right choice.

Following are excerpts from an interview with Odisha Bytes:

What was your career plan as a young girl?

I never dreamt of being in a particular profession, unlike my classmates who wished to get good jobs. When I was in primary school, I had read about the life of Mother Teresa. Her story had moved me the most – how she had started social service even without having any money. I secretly wished to do something for the society like her.

As I grew up and entered college, I started sharing my idea of doing social service with my friends and well-wishers. Many of them made me believe that one must be rich or famous to be a successful social worker. I did not come from a rich family and thus thought of becoming famous. By then, I was already into dancing, singing, acting and anchoring. I was a great fan of famous Odia film actresses Sujata Anand and Anita Das, who were seen as ideal mothers in the films I watched. I thought I must be in cinema and be famous and ideal like them.

Did you try a career in cinema?

Yes, I did. And I was disillusioned after I faced the casting couch. I was told that I was not beautiful and hence not so suitable for cinema. I was also asked to expose my body in order to get into films. I realised then that I won’t fit into the film industry. I preferred to go back to theatre in which I had already gained some experience at Rourkela.

Why did you prefer theatre over music, dance or anchoring for radio and television?

It was my mother who had got me admitted to music class at Ispat Kala Parishad in Rourkela when I was a kid. But it was dance that attracted me more there. So I started learning Odissi instead. When I was in college, I started acting in drama that we used to stage during annual functions. I enjoyed acting more than dancing, and thought of theatre and cinema as a career. I was also anchoring programmes for All India Radio and a local cable television channel after my graduation. But acting fascinated me more.

How did you prepare to take up theatre as a profession?

My initiation in theatre began in Rourkela as an actress with Rangamancha theatre group in 1992. I was just 20 then. Since I started getting awards in some theatre competitions as a budding actor of the group, my interest was enhanced to explore this career further. Two years later, Bhubaneswar-based well-known theatre organization Natya Chetana invited applications for a special workshop for aspiring women theatre directors and writers. I joined it. That was the turning point in my life and career.

How did the workshop benefit you?

Natya Chetana’s founder and director Subodh Patnaik, who became my mentor later on, had conceptualized the workshop. His objective was to encourage girls to get into theatre direction. He recruited 15 of us from all over Odisha for the workshop. Apart from direction, we were exposed to puppetry, design of posters for plays and play-writing. But what mattered most was the encouragement for young girls like me to be leaders in the theatre movement. Subodh bhai had promised us that he would host an exclusive theatre festival featuring female directors after we get ready as directors.

Theatre Sujata Priyambada
Picture courtesy Natya Chetana, Bhubaneswar

Did the women theatre directors’ festival materialise?

No, it could not as most of the workshop participants couldn’t continue in theatre for various factors — marriage in particular — that robbed them of their freedom and prevented them from carrying on. However, I was determined to continue with theatre and thus was prepared to skip marriage, if required.

So you skipped marriage…

I had to, as I had decided to continue with theatre as my career. But it was not really easy. My mother stopped talking to me for four years when I decided to be a stage actress. Though she was in favour of music as a career, she feared that it would be difficult to find a match for me in our conservative society if I get into acting. I knew the goal of my life, and hence decided to shift to Bhubaneswar as a full-timer with Natya Chetana. It has been 21 years since then and I have never looked back.

From an apprentice to the lead actor of globetrotters Natya Chetana, how has the experience been over two decades?

There has been a total transformation of my life and profession. As soon as I joined Natya Chetana, I got instant exposure to the international theatre scene by touring France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Italy as a troupe member. Apart from my mentor and director Subodh bhai, I got rare opportunities of working under great masters like Partick Navattee of France and B V Karanth in India. Participation in major events and projects like World Congress of Drama in Hong Kong, Indo-French production at Theatre du Fil, Indo-Bangladesh production at Dhaka, Belgium’s Theatre du la communatie and Belfast in United Kingdom enriched my vision.

Natya Chetana’s approach to theatre is unconventional. It is people’s theatre and theatre for change. Often our actors would be from communities in villages for whom we would be presenting our plays. So, as part of its productions, I worked with the common people at the grassroots that helped me to experience and understand social realities. The two decades of experience has been my continued education, both at the global and local levels. If I am an independent female theatre director today, it was due to the education, exposure, encouragement, guidance and support that I got from Natya Chetana. I could not have asked for more.

At the beginning of your life and career, you dreamt of doing social service like Mother Teresa, your idol. Could you?

Theatre has been my medium of social service. As an actor and theatre director, I am striving to give my best to sensitize the marginalized people about social realities. Ours has never been the theatre of entertainment but of education and change. As a woman, woman’s empowerment matters the most to me. The characters I portray and the plays I direct are meant for social change.

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