On And Off The Stage

Ekushey Padak laureate Ramendu Majumdar shares some insights into his storied life and career

By MWB Desk

It is difficult – nay, impossible – to talk about arts and culture in Bangladesh without the name Ramendu Majumdar cropping up in the conversation. As one of the figures who shaped the theatre scene in a newly-liberated Bangladesh, he co-founded the Bangladesh Center of the ITI (International Theatre Institute). In 2008, the ITI elected him as the Worldwide President and in 2011, he was elected again for the same position. He was the second Asian to be elected to this position since ITI’s establishment in 1948 as an initiative of UNESCO. In 2009, he was awarded the precious Ekushey Padak by the Government of Bangladesh.

Taking into account decades of performances onstage and onscreen, his contribution to the arena of performing arts is impressive enough, but it is only part of the picture. With many years of service to the advertising industry, and some thirty publications to his name, Ramendu Da, as he is known to his legions of fans and admirers, has been a gentle but solid fixture in the cultural landscape of Bengal, and even if you are not particularly into the arts, there is so much more to this man.

When the MW team dropped in at the Expressions headquarters in Banani to approach him for the cover story, we were amazed anew by the quiet force and energy of the man. At the ripe old age of eighty-two, he maintains the posture and vigor of one many years younger. Breezily taking the stairs, he shows us around the labyrinthine office space, showing us where the magic of advertising happens.

Shoot day is a treat for the crew, as they witness this living icon in his element. Switching between multiple wardrobe changes on an unseasonably hot and humid October day, he seamlessly slips into character as the cameras begin to click, never complaining about the multiple hikes up and down the arduous stairs, and even suggests location changes. As the five-hour shoot wraps up, one of our crew members points out: “Dada has more energy than all of us.” 

A Man of Goodwill, Theatre, And Peace

Interview by Ayman Anika

In the realm of Bangladeshi theatre, where the spotlight weaves stories with emotions, one name shines as a guiding star – Ramendu Majumdar. He is not just a mere individual, but a living testament to the power of the performing arts. His presence, unmistakable and revered, has transcended the curtains of the theatre and endured the test of time.

With an illustrious career that spans decades, he has captivated audiences not only in his homeland but across international stages. The year 2008 marked a pinnacle in his journey when he ascended to the role of President of the International Theatre Institute (ITI), a position that testifies to his influence on the global stage.

As MWB engaged in a conversation with him, the multi-talented personality Ramendu Majumdar delved deep into his thoughts, experiences, and the profound impact he has made on Bangladeshi theatre, youth, and the overall cultural arena which he has enriched over the decades. 

Your autobiography begins with a reference to being born two days after the death of Rabindranath Tagore. Were the arts a big part of your childhood growing up?

The theatre has been a part of my life since my childhood as my father was already involved with it and back then, we didn’t have a theatre stage or platform. We would make our stage using the betel nut tree in the middle of a field. I first performed in a theatre production when I was in class 6. These experiences laid the foundation for my deep appreciation of the arts and truly, it has been a long journey.

I still find it difficult to believe how a boy who used to perform in a village was elected as the President of the International Theatre Institute (ITI). It was through these early experiences that I embarked on a journey into the world of theatre.

After the Liberation War, we started a new theatre movement and many young theatre artists joined this movement with zeal and dedication. Through our drama, performances, and sincerity we were able to uphold the arts and culture of Bangladesh on the international stage. 

“A theatrical production relies heavily on its director, and there is no limit to Ramendu Majumdar’s creative talents when it comes to putting forward a live performance on the stage.” – Tanvin Sweety, popular actress

Above all, I have never been a selfish person and growing up, I have always been dedicated to cultural performances and helping other people. As Tagore once said: “Manusher opor biswas harano pap” (It is a sin to lose faith in humans) – I never lost faith in humanity and have lived an honest life. 

The arts were not just a part of my childhood; they were the very essence of my upbringing – setting the stage for a lifelong love affair with creativity and expression.

“One feels like using two other expressions, made immortal since Mathew Arnold used them together, ‘sweetness and light’ about Ramendu Da. We rarely come across a thoroughbred gentleman whose appearance at one end of the corridor or at a lecture podium makes one feel comfortable” – Anshuman Bhowmick, critic and playwright

You would have been very young when the Noakhali riots and the Bengal Partition happened, and of course, witnessed the Liberation War. As someone known for your quiet grace and resilience, would you have some words of advice for a younger generation overwhelmed by all the chaos happening in the world right now?

I was very young when the unfortunate Noakhali riots took place; so, I don’t remember much. However, I have heard stories from my mother. The riots I encountered were in 1946 as well as in 1964 when I was a student at Dhaka University. We all feared for our lives after hearing the news about the massacre that took place near Tejgaon Rail Station.

Luckily, one of our relatives knew Bangabandhu and informed him about this incident. He came to our rescue and we took shelter along with a few Hindu families at his house at Dhanmondi 32. The resilience and courage of these people – Mahatma Gandhi in 1946 and Bangabandhu in 1964 – are rare and have influenced me greatly.

Ramendu Majumdar is definitely “un homme de bonne volonté” – a man of goodwill. His love for the performing arts in Bangladesh is not based on an egocentric viewpoint, but on a belief that it is for the best of the performing arts, the artists, and the culture of Bangladesh. ~ Tobias Biancone, Director General,  International Theatre Institute 

However, I believe that today’s generation is largely influenced by the notion of communalism and politics is largely responsible for this. The land of our country has nurtured people of every religion. Bangabandhu himself has supported secularism and communal harmony, so our youths should learn to love and respect everyone – irrespective of their religion. 

Young people should show respect towards different opinions; they should learn about how to practice tolerance as we rarely see this attribute in our society nowadays. 

Moral decay and unethical practices are also prevalent and I find it to be very concerning. I believe religion should always be kept separated from politics and the youths of our country should learn about our Liberation War, history, and culture. 

The arts have the capacity to heal, inspire, and unite. Engage with literature, music, theatre, and other forms of creativity, as they provide solace and offer new perspectives.   

I have read somewhere that you once wanted to become a journalist, and you have indeed been a news presenter. And you started out as a teacher, before switching to advertising. Do you ever wonder about the paths not taken?

I don’t have any regrets. Nevertheless, I wanted to be a journalist soon after graduating from my university. Munier Chowdhury introduced me to the news editor of The Pakistan Observer, ABM Musa, and he told me that there was a position vacant for a cultural reporter. Consequently, I was introduced to Abdus Salam, the editor of The Pakistan Observer. He asked me a question: “What is the difference between culture and agriculture?” I don’t remember how I answered the question, but I got the job. I eventually decided not to take it up [as a career].

I had been a teacher for three years and moved to Karachi after my marriage. I joined an advertising company as a copywriter. After the Liberation War, I came to Bangladesh and joined Bitopi Advertising Limited and subsequently, started my own advertising company. 

What are your thoughts on the state of advertising today?

The advising industry has gone through colossal changes. The future of advertising lies in the fusion of creativity and technology. We should attempt to strike a balance between innovative strategies and responsible practices.  

There is an imbalance in the competition that exists in the field today. For this, it is difficult for the agencies to survive – especially, for medium-sized agencies like ours. Still, after all the ups and downs, we try to take care of our employees. 

One good aspect I noticed is that people have become more professional and the quality of advertisements has improved.   

“The final judgement is for the audience to make. If they don’t like something, it will fade away. If they do, then it will be talked about for years. We need responsibility from the makers of the productions. We cannot work with the pressure of censorship. It is the age of technology, and there will be a wide body of work. But one needs to be responsible in making each project.” – Ramendu Majumdar

Let’s talk about theatre. Alongside your lengthy stage career, you’ve led ITI as President, and the Dhaka Arts Centre as Chairman. Could you share with us your perspective on how the culture of theatre has changed over the years?

After the Liberation War, we tried to bring about a new theatre movement by arranging regular performances on stage. But back then, it was very challenging to do so. Our biggest challenge was to maintain regularity. 

But the scenario has changed a lot. We now see regular theatre productions and people are getting habituated with this positive change. 

“One has to keep up with the changing realities. Looking back at when we used to work, I realize that we felt a lot of joy in working, despite the obstacles. The technologies have changed, and so has many things around us. There are still good work going on, and we need to adapt to the changes.” – Ramendu Majumdar

As conscious citizens, we need to raise our voices and send messages to the audience. Nowadays, many young people are doing this by getting involved in theatre. It feels good to see this change.

One regret I have is that artists don’t get paid, or paid enough for stage performances. We are motivated by the passion for the craft, and bring a lot of time and effort and professionalism into these productions, but there isn’t a commensurate compensation for the labour that goes into it.

Your troupe Theatre has produced numerous plays on such profound themes as secularism and communal harmony. Is there a production that stands out in your mind as a favorite, or one that you are the proudest of? 

Payer Awaj Pawa Jai by Syed Shamsul Haque and Meraj Fakirer Maa by Abdul Al Mamun are two theatre productions that our troupe regularly performs.

However, The Kokilas,  a one-woman play by Abdullah Al-Mamun is also quite memorable as it depicts the struggles that women go through in the name of religion and culture.

You’re also one of the rare senior theatre veterans who has expressed in other interviews, an enthusiasm for contemporary theatre – could you tell us about some recent productions that inspired or impressed you?

Among the recent theatre productions, Andhokare Methane staged by Agontuk and Achalayatan by Prachyanat have impressed me. Moreover, Open Space Theatre arranges well-crafted theatre productions and I liked Twelve Angry Men staged by them.

We’re excited about the latest production of Love Letters, a play directed by your daughter (Tropa Majumdar), where you’ll be sharing the stage with your wife. For readers unfamiliar with the play, could you tell us a little bit about what to expect?

The audience can expect a poignant and emotionally charged production, exploring the themes of love, unrequited passion, and the complexities of human relationships through love letters in a one-hour play. The production design is interesting and the usage of music should captivate everyone. Overall, I hope the play will be enjoyable for theatre enthusiasts.

What happens when two unlikely individuals forge a bond so strong that it stands the test of time; when two hearts, despite the distance between them, carefully nurture their shared connection — all through penning their thoughts in letters? Can two people walking on parallel paths truly unite?

Perhaps the answer lies in Love Letters, a two-person play, adapted from Pulitzer nominee A R Gurney’s original play, by Professor Abdus Selim and directed by Tropa Majumdar. Starring renowned acting couple Ferdousi Majumdar and Ramendu Majumdar, the epistolary play revolves around two polar opposite individuals —Maisha Islam and Ananta Shahed Chowdhury, or rather, the letters they have sent to each other throughout the years.

We have to talk about Ferdousi Majumdar. The two of you are iconic as a duo both in the arts and in life. Could you share some thoughts as to what makes a good partnership last – be it in marriage or at work?

Mutual trust and friendship are pillars of any lasting relationship. Trust forms the foundation of any partnership and partnerships thrive when both parties share core values and have aligned goals. Today’s young generation should keep this in mind.

“The Majumdars, together ever since their eyes met at the University of Dhaka, wear happiness so effortlessly that one craves for more. Seeing them together – never reminded of their different religious identities – is among the most alluring romantic escapes in a time fast grappling with the ferocious intensity of communal politics.” –Anshuman Bhowmick

You have some 30 publications to your name, including your autobiographies. What part of the writing process do you most enjoy?

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a writer, rather I show tardiness when it comes to writing. Yet, I somehow managed to compose 30 publications. 

One particular book I enjoyed the most writing is Theatre Worldwide: My ITI Years. I wrote this during the pandemic and frankly, I was relieved in that time thinking I had something to write.

As a regular at literary events such as the Kolkata Book Fair or the Dhaka Lit Fest, and an avowed fan of Rabindranath Tagore, Nirmalendu Goon, and Syed Shamsul Haque, you’re known for your love of reading. What are some recent books you’ve read and enjoyed?

I buy many books and I have a library full of books. Unfortunately, I don’t get the time to read them. Nevertheless, I recently read the English translation of Ajeet Cour’s autobiography and found it quite moving.

What music are you currently listening to?

I love listening to the songs of Pancha Kabi (five poets) – Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Atul Prasad Sen, Rajanikanta Sen, and Dwijendralal Roy. It has become a habit of mine and sometimes I listen to classical music.

While I was researching for this interview, one thing that kept coming up in the interviews I’ve read, and the feedback from people is a genuine sense of admiration for your energy. What are your tips for remaining fit and active?

In reality, I do nothing to maintain my fitness. At this point in my life, I am merely trying to enjoy and pass my days peacefully. I have to mention here that my wife Ferdausi contributes significantly to my wellbeing.

“There’s a philosophy I’ve always followed in life, that is we should live for others, not for ourselves. We shouldn’t live by ourselves; we should live together. I also believe work is integral to our lives, I’ve never sat idle, always doing something. However, at this age, my biggest want is to be healthy. Want to remain healthy as long as I am alive, don’t want to become dependent on others” ~ Ramendu Majumdar

Biographical post-script

Ramendu Majumdar’s life and career so far have been rich, long, and varied, and it looks as though he is nowhere near ready to retire. He was born on August 9, 1941 in the district of Lakshmipur, Bangladesh. His father was the Late Kuntal Krishna Majumdar, and his mother was the Late Leela Majumdar. He obtained his MA degree in English from Dhaka University in 1965, but has turned his career to various directions, though mostly grounded in the cultural scene. He is married to legendary actress Ferdausi Majumdar, and the pair have one daughter, Tropa Majumdar, who is also involved in theatre, which might be called the “family business.” His son-in-law Syed Apon Ahsan, who serves as Director and Chief Belief Officer at Expressions Ltd, is also a theatre aficionado.  His professional career started as a lecturer in English at Noakhali, but after that he quickly entered the world of advertising, starting out as a copywriter. He had a 21-year stint at Bitopi (where was client service director) and in April of 1993 he founded his own agency, Expressions Ltd, where he is still managing director, and routinely shows up to work to this day. The Theatre group, is, of course, a passion project and a labor of love, and he still performs on stage – not for profit or recognition, but for the love of the craft. For his unrelenting work in the arts, in the year 2009, Ramendu Majumdar was awarded the prestigious Ekushey Padak – the second highest honor in Bangladeshi that can be awarded to a civilian. He has won a slew of other awards as well over the years, and has held positions in various institutions including the International Theatre Institute, Bangla Academy, Shilpakala Academy, Theatre Drama Group, and Theatre School. Though writing is not his primary vocation, he has edited or authored various publications, including his original memoirs. He has been the editor of Quarterly Theatre for the past 72 years.

Ramendu Majumdar has represented his country as delegate member and has even led delegations during international conferences and has visited some 40 countries in this capacity.

+ posts

Come Back to Me

Bowling Over Barriers

Blossoms of Existence

A Regal Rendezvous