Prof Dr Prafulla Kumar Pany

‘I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!’

This famous line of Italo Calvino is mostly appropriated when we read Padmashri Gopal Chhotray. He is a pioneer in the history of Odia Theatre. His contribution to theatre, radio play, and cinema has been immense. Many intellectuals of Odia culture might contest the view that curtains fell on the golden era of Odia Drama after the prominent dramatists Aswini Kumar and Natyacharya Kalicharan. But Gopal Chhotray picked up the field of Drama as a keen observer and witness of all special features of Odia society and tradition.

He brought in drastic changes in the theme and structure of Odia plays. He was closely associated with all the possible platforms where a play could be performed. It may be a stage, radio, cinema, and even television. He experimented with all kinds of themes- social, political, family, historical or mythological. He is a rare personality having a recipient of both the Kendriya Sahitya Akademi and Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards.

Chhotray’s career can be roughly divided into three phases. The first is 1940-1960 when he wrote for the stage. Second is the period between 1960- 1975 when he joined All India Radio Cuttack, during which period he composed over six hundred pieces of radio plays and Geetinatyas. The third one is between 1975-2003 when he wrote hardly any new plays and short stories. His first full-length play was “Pheria”(Come Back) in 1946, which won acclaim for its powerful dialogue, and plot construction with lucid humor.

Odisha’s famous theatre group “Annapurna Theatre” staged “Pheria” in a packed house. He continued to write and adopt plays regularly from that time. And then his masterpiece play “Para Kalama”(1953) is the first political play in Odia shows the changes in socio-intellectual awareness in rural Odisha apart, the fight for food security stymied by bureaucratic corruption tacitly supported by the political masters is tremendously dramatized. He composed the scenes like the stringing of a pearl necklace. Bharasa (1952), Shankha Sindura (1954), Pathika Bandhu, Nasta Urbashi, Padmalaya, Andhanagari, and Nua Bou (All in 1955) are some of his plays.

The dramatization of the two novels Jhanja and Janasatru into Amadabata (1958) and Malajanha (1960) met a grand success. In his plays, one is impressed by the familiar stage representation and colloquial, easy-to-identify characters with a punch of spoken Idiom. The audience used to gather in large numbers just to have a glance at his work. Most of his stage plays were huge successes in the long run and placed his name among the architects of modern Odia theatre. “Hasyarasara Natak” is one of his notable works.

In Chhotray’s play, one finds a live wire, charging up every moment to innovate the plays in Odisha. His exceptional life intertwined with the life curve of Odisha Theatre. He wrote nearly six hundred radio plays. “Purapuri Paribarika” (Entirely a family matter) is a milestone in the radio play. It was broadcasted in 1957. It had gained a load of popularity. It ran uninterrupted for three years. Perhaps it was the earliest chain play the AIR produced. He had another landmark in his career: LP Record of ” Srimati Samarjani” which he prepared for the radio based on Fakir Mohan Senapati’s ‘Patient Medicine’ with the great Odia singer Akshaya Mohanty.

Gopal Chhotray was honored with the “Padmashri” Award in 2002. He received the prestigious Odisha Sahitya Akademi Award (1973), Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award (1982), Bisuba Award (1993), and Sarala Puraskar (2000).

The Theatre personality had an incredible contribution to the Odia Theatre in the 20th century. He played a magnificent role in the establishment of Odia Theatre by creating a style of its own that is quite different from Bengali Theatre. Truly, his works saved the Odia Theatre from Bengali art and theatre. His plays are windows to society. His autobiography titled “Pathik” (The Traveller) is a unique piece that is not about his journey alone. It is at the same time a testament to the history and culture of his times. He refuses to call it an autobiography as it was a lesson in self-effacement. It might be called a memoir.

No doubt he was a one-man genre. He shaped Odia drama as a genre warding off some mindless external influence that Odia theatre was beginning to pick up in the post-Kalicharan phase, and he rightfully carried it on his shoulder. The legendary playwright was born in Purunagarh village of Jagatsingpur Dist of Odisha in the year 1916 and breathed his last on 22nd Jan 2003 in Bhubaneswar. The doyen of Odia theatre dedicated his entire life to writing focusing Odishan Society and tradition.

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