When silence speaks

March 4, 2009

Master of theatrical illusion, the internationally recognised mime artist Partha Pratim Mazumder speaks of his childhood, three decades of career and the ability to make differences through the art of silent gestures, in a rare interview with Tahmina Shafique

photo by Andrew Biraj

In the winter morning, as he walked through the narrow roads of Baghdhuli village, memories of his father flashed before his eyes, time and again. Having lived more than twenty-seven years abroad, these roads still look familiar and the air that he breathes remind him, that he is home.

‘My friend and I went to the interior village near Pansha and walked a great deal. At one point, we stopped by a tea stall where a man covered with a muffler looked on at me,’ he tells me, as his eyes twinkle with a hint of pride. ‘“You are the famous artist aren’t you? You are Partho Pratim” he uttered ecstatically and I hold that moment close to my heart. This is my achievement in more than three decades of career, that people remember me, even when I have been away from home for so long,’ he says silently.

He has been the laureate of silence- his white face, striped jumper and unique and real-life expressions changed modern theatre and the concept of mime in Bangladesh and with passage of time, inspired a generation of performers across the world. Indeed, when we speak of the legendary artist Partha Pratim Muzumder, we can say with certainty that there has been no one like him across South Asia and he remains to be irreplaceable.

Having lived twenty-seven years in Paris, and moving on to become an internationally lauded mime artist, this past week, as Partha sits by the window of his friend’s apartment in Dhaka, he tells me about his regrets, about his life as a mime artist and his wish to make a difference.

In a career that began at the age of 15, Partha has performed in Europe, America, Asia and beyond. In France, the birthplace of mime, he has performed solo in more than hundred shows. The winner of titles such as ‘Master of Mime’ (by the Jogesh Mime Academy in India) and ‘Master of the World’ (awarded by Malaysia) and many more, Partha feels his struggles and achievements are yet to end. ‘I continue to struggle and learn more each day,’ he tells me.

There is an unmistakable hint of energy and enthusiasm in his eyes, his gestures and the way he talks. He seems to live each moment to the fullest and strikes up a great conversation with almost anyone. And I was no exception, in this case.

It’s around 11.30 in the morning and he is in a rush to go to the workshop where he is taking classes for the next twenty days. In the middle of all this, he does not fail to smile and greet me.

He tells me his childhood was full of colours and festivities. Born on January 18, 1954 in Pabna, Partha had indeed spent a lively childhood- in festivities and events, where his father Himangshu Kumar Biswas, a photojournalist, used to take him.

‘Some of the best memories of my childhood were spent watching cinemas, sitting on a chair by the projector. I loved the screen as it seemed to portray dreams and so much more,’ he says. ‘Moreover dances in different festivals fascinated me beyond words and I use to try to capture their moves.’

While he indulged himself in music, his sense in rhythm and physical movements only sharpened through keen observations. ‘I would imitate little things I would see- an old man, a clown and the films I watched. So soon, the table in our house would become the stage and we siblings would perform these random plays,’ he laughs.

Later, besides being enrolled in Dhaka Music College, a prestigious institute of that time, he also learnt mime craft from Jogesh Dutta of Calcutta. ‘It was during that time that I was adopted by Ustad Barin Majumder, who was a relative and who had recently lost his daughter.’ While being with a new family, Partha was further introduced to the world of art. ‘My passion only increased and I would practice in the indoor stage of the Music school for hours.’

And so started mime, he tells me. By 1974, Partha was known was all across the country through the various shows he performed. In 1975, his first solo performance was seen in LalKuthhi auditorium. Later he performed a number of times at the Shilpakala Academy. His gestures and smooth movements and ability to convey social messages touched hearts of many.

Partha’s stories of struggle remain to be awe-inspiring. ‘I had chosen the less travelled road after all,’ he tells me. ‘It was a challenge throughout my career to keep the audience to an art that is so limited and fast dying. It was certainly not a profession everyone else wanted me to pursue. Moreover, there was little scope and little financial support in this area.’

As Partha appeared on Bangladesh Television through adverts and programs, he became a celebrated artist. ‘I performed countless dramas in Dhaka University, medical colleges and many other institutes, most often conveying social issues and messages that remain unspoken.’

Finally after his production in Alliance Francaise, the French Ambassador invited him to hold workshops there and he began to grow a French connection- a nation where mime has lived through for the longest period.

His turning point came, when the French Ambassador asked offered him a three-year scholarship in Paris to pursue his career through training at a mime school. ‘Right when a huge door of opportunity opened up for me, I realised that I was not being supported by the government of my own home, my country. All that I required was a certificate that needed to be signed that I am allowed go abroad and it took me two years to have that. Those were perhaps my most difficult times,’ he says ruefully.

‘I continued mime nonetheless, as by then it had not only become a part of me but a part of my life and existence,’ he says.

‘Paris was an experience,’ he tells me. He attended the school of Etienne Decroux, the founder of corporal mime

and later he worked with world’s greatest mime Marcel Marceau. ‘Marcel was a legend and he inspired me greatly. It’s still hard to believe that a man like him considered me to be like his son and there were so many nights in Paris that he would come by at my hostel and have dinner with me,’ he says, the pangs of nostalgia only too visible in his eyes.

After Partha completed his course, Marcel asked him to stay back and work on a project that incorporated elements of Indian dancing and culture into modern mime and enrich it further. They co-authored the thesis ‘Oriental and Occidental Mime’ which now occupies a prominent place in mime literature. In the process of this research, Partho went on to perform in great stages in England, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and many other countries across the globe.

By 1990, Partha started his own mime school in Bretagne, and taught deaf and dumb children. In the process of his work, he added new dimensions to this art and learnt the beauty of being able to make a difference through silence. ‘When words cannot do justice, it is this art that can hold strong,’ he says proudly.

Partha wrote and choreographed a mimodrama, in a record time of two months, which was staged in Bangladesh in 1994. This was achieved with the collaboration of different group theatres and professional dancers from Dhaka. The mimodrama concerning child abuse was the first of its kind to be shown on South East Asian stages.

Back in Paris, Partho is also a proud father of two children who are involved in art and music greatly. ‘They love Bangladesh and they know, back here, it’s always home.’

When Marcel died in 2007, the mime world was threatened by the risk of not being able to survive, and in that difficult time, Partha was one of the artists who refused to give up. ‘Marcel had instilled within me so much inspiration and determination that I could never let him down,’ he says silently.

As Partha rushes to the workshop, he tells me enthusiastically about the young men and women he has come across here. ‘There are so many talents back home. There is so much potential to bring back mime to life. Children here do not have any form of entertainment and many are introverted. This art is not just for entertainment, but also for being able to open up, ’he explains.

When I ask him about his future plans, he tells me that the journey has not ended yet and as long as he breathes, the art will live through.

Currently Partha is in the process of creating a new episode on the theme of environmental pollution. The mime maestro is currently in town upon an invitation of Bangladesh Lung Foundation to perform at the 1st International Conference on Lung Health (to be held from February 20 to 22 at the Bangladesh China Friendship Conference Centre). Moreover, Partha will conduct several workshops on mime for theatre actors and models through out the weeks.


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