Whenever you are stranded in a conversation with someone who doesn’t speak your language, you would find yourself resorting to dumb gesticulations to convey what’s on your mind. Indeed, this is the very basis of every form of sign language ever invented – be it the internationally recognised American Sign Language (ASL) or even the Morse code system used to send messages by means of light flashes. But what many people forget is that these systems are not practised solely for the sake of their functionality. The system of visually transmitting messages and ideas also has a place in performing arts. However, it is better known in this context as the art of miming. Being predominantly a part of Europe’s cultural heritage, mime does not incite a similar level of interest in Asian mindsets as would, for example, dance or theatre. Yet, if you stop to consider it, you won’t necessarily be able to differentiate between the inextricable roots of these performative models – all three of them primarily rely on the human body and expressions to formulate a mode of story-telling.
So, why is it that we don’t count mime as a practicable option when we design performance-oriented curricula or aspire for a potential career in performing arts?
The same question is being asked by Partha Pratim Majumder– a Bangladeshi settled in the alien and exclusively francophone metropolis of Paris. Despite this, any potential cultural or linguistic barrier between him and his adoptive country are the least of his worries. Not because he speaks French like a native or even because he has been a citizen of the country for no less than 35 years.This confidence comes from the fact that he is the foremost mime artiste from Bangladesh to have earned worldwide recognition. Born in 1954 at Pabna, Bangladesh, he was blessed with a family who were also learned connoisseurs of art – in fact, from a very early age, he was encouraged to pursue artistic avenues such as music and theater with all seriousness.
His father – Himangshu Kumar Biswas – was a press photographer who often travelled to Germany, Belgium and Italy to offer courses in colour photography. Having remained surrounded by myriad cultural activities from the jatra (the popular indigenous form of theatre) to historical and mythological pieces staged by the local theatre troupes, Partha– born as Premangshu Kumar Biswas – developed a profound understanding about the power and magnetism involved in an immediate public medium.
After spending his formative years in Kolkata, Partha moved to Chandan Nagar to live with his paternal aunt which, incidentally, triggered his journey towards becoming a world-renowned mime artiste. As fortune or destiny would have it, his neighbour was none other than the much acclaimed Indian mime artist Jogesh Dutta. After days of witnessing his silent play-acting, he succeeded in persuading him to become his mentor and began his training at the Jogesh Dutta Mime Academy – the only institution dedicated to mime in India.
This incident also marked his acquaintance with the work of the legendary Marcel Marceau – a pioneer in the art of pantomime and often dubbed as the Father of French Mime. Later, in a fortuitous turn of events, Partha came to be a pupil of Marceau himself after he went to France by virtue of a scholarship granted by the fine art academy maintained by the government of Bangladesh. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came about after his solo performance at the Shilpakala Academy in 1979 where he profoundly impressed the then French Ambassador to Dhaka, Loic Moreau and the director of Alliance Française, Gerard Grousse. The scholarship also granted him a chance to train professionally under the French mime virtuoso – Etienne Decroux who is known throughout as the architect of modern mime including the specialised form of corporal mime.
After apprenticing under Decroux and Marceau, Majumder’s career gathered huge momentum with individual performances spanning Europe and the United States. His shows were also televised by French, Canadian and American channels, not to mention BBC Four itself. His burgeoning popularity within and without the immediate industry stemmed from two major factors – one was his undeniable talent and craftsmanship, the other was the uniqueness of his position in the profession owing to his ethnicity and his penchant for researching ways to blend the Western and Eastern conventions of mime and live drama.
While explaining the particular nature of his craft, Partha draws on the holistic corpus of Bharata’s Natya Shastra where Indian theatre and drama take into account all other concurrent disciplines such as dance, music, mime, movement, sculpture, painting and architecture. He reiterates the antiquity of his chosen branch of performing art with a reference to the ancient human civilizations where men communicated not by means of speech but physical expressions. In fact, one of the chief motivators towards Partha receiving the citizenship of France and later in 2011, the highest cultural award of the country – Knight in the Order of Fine Arts and Letters, was the fact that he had built a bridge between Eastern and Western forms of mime, while successfully representing Bangladesh in France and vice-versa.
After spearheading the art of mime in his native country, Partha now intends to revive this elusive art in Bangladesh by founding a mime institute of international standards. Being a highly celebrated artiste in his own right, he has won several accolades from around the world – including the Ekushey award in Bangladesh, the Moliere award in France and the Master of Mime title in India. Incidentally, he is also a prolific actor across platforms like theatre, television and the silver screen. Despite being an inordinately busy personality, he regularly conducts classes and workshops to promote his craft and impart his expertise. He understands that since mime has its roots in theatrics, it can serve as an efficient tool to effect learning and reform. To that end, he works with students who are hearing and speech impaired to inculcate in them better cognition, perception and avenues of self-expression.
Before garnering worldwide fame, Partha experienced the exceptional benefit of being adopted within the family by the classical music maestro Ustad Barin Majumdar and his wife (hence, the change of name). As a result, his life had been quite unconventionally full from the very beginning.
The effects of his impeccable upbringing can be seen in his present humility and ingenuousness. One small example is the way he carried around his laptop to show us his Parisian apartment from room to room, the time we had called on him for an interview via Skype. With walls adorned with paintings by Marceau, myriad personal photographs and the image of the Goddess Durga, his kitchen sill housing hibiscus and chilli plants, and a little prayer room tucked in a corner, the beautiful home lovingly celebrates the distinctive spirit of his faraway homeland which he left 35 years ago. Presently residing with his family, Partha is happily flourishing both in his professional and personal lives. Though he already has his own school in Bretange, France, this “Poet of Silence” yearns to establish the traditions of mime and mimodrama in Bangladesh in order to, as MARCEAU would have said, show his birth-country how to stand.
Written byMayurakshi Sen
Mayurakshi completed her Masters in English from Jadavpur University, Kolkata in 2015 after receiving her Bachelor’s degree from the same institution. She has been extensively involved in the study and practice of theatre and performance since 2011. She received the British Council Scotland Scholarship which facilitated her participation in the Theatre and Performance course conducted by the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School in 2015. She loves to write about art, theatre and culture, and reads an unhealthy amount of fanfiction. She intends to pursue research on women playwrights and practitioners in India. Mayurakshi resides in Kolkata, India.