In conversation with a journalist a few years before his death, Selim Al-Deen took positive pride in the way the farmers in his tales reached heights as sublime or as heroic as the characters in the old Greek plays. And that about sums up Selim Al-Deen's attitude to the world of drama, indeed of all creativity. By the time he died more than six years ago, at less than sixty, he had created enough of an impression to qualify as one of the foremost of theatre figures destined to dominate the drama scene in post-liberation Bangladesh. There is Kittonkhola which firmly established Al-Deen as a prime personality in Bangladesh's theatre. But, then again, it was a position that the artiste's background had thoroughly prepared him for.
In Selim Al-Deen throbbed a tortured soul. The vicarious nature of his sufferings, of his identification with the social milieu he dealt with, was perhaps initially shaped in childhood as he went looking for books to read. Nothing else mattered. As a child in a family on the move (his father was in government service), Al-Deen fortified his reading with the experiences he came across. And that was when direct association with people together with his wide, and ever-widening, reading led to the evolution that was to propel him to the heights. By the time he entered university, he had, he noted, read all the major works straddling the world's greatest literary traditions he could get his hands on. And that was in 1966, a seminal year for Bengalis as politically they were poised to venture out on a search for a new, definitively nationalist identity. Selim Al-Deen would not be left out of that journey toward national self-assertion. He found in Munier Chowdhury the inspiration that he needed in his efforts to create images and deliver a new message. But then the guru died, murdered by men with little understanding of the place of aesthetics in life, men who celebrated the murder of better men. Like so many other idealistic young men at the time, Al-Deen forked out of the tragic end of men like Munier Chowdhury and the rise of a free Bangladesh a profound reason to carry on the struggle in all the ambience of new-found liberty.
And that was the moment when Selim Al-Deen threw in his lot with a whole new crowd of Bengali young men, all as ardent as he, into reshaping theatre in the country. It was a new ethos that came into the cultural consciousness when in 1972 these young spurred the group theatre movement on with the formation of Natyachakra. Al-Deen had his peers — Nasiruddin Yousuff, Al Mansur, Raisul Islam Asad, Khairul Alam Shabuj, Habibul Hasan and others — to add substance to the enterprise. The result was, if one were to put it in safe mode, democratic militancy that would reinvent the entirety of the drama spectrum in Bangladesh. Natyachakra was more than a forum for writing plays, for these young men. They also plunged into the sheer joy of acting out the roles they created in the plays. And then there is the tale of Dhaka Theatre. Al-Deen, like everyone else and fired by the urge to create endlessly, joined hands with Nasiruddin Yousuf and pushed the machinery of drama ahead. The results were electrifying. And where specifics mattered, Selim Al-Deen's were based on the satires he sketched of the contemporary social scene. An observation of Kittonkhola, Keramat Mangal, Hat Hadai and Chaka is but a study of the profundity of character he brings into his plays.
There was modernity in Al-Deen's approach to the literary. But it was modernity that did not leave cultures submerged in the shadow of other cultures. His early works, he used to say, were rather influenced by Sartre and Camus. And yet he possessed the liberality of heart to acknowledge (and this was in the early stages, in the late 1960s) that while western drama could serve as a basis for his creations, the peculiarity of circumstance that such drama held forth could not always be transferred to an interpretation of life in Bangladesh. And so he moved on, if not away. Epic realism defined such plays as Bashon, Saifulmulk Badiuzzaman and Keramat Mangal. In such productions as Joiboti Konyar Mon, it was the kathya-natya folklore tradition that underpinned his thoughts.
Selim Al-Deen was an extraordinary man even by the standards of the times in which he made his foray into the world of writing and theatre. At a time when young men nurtured ambitions of a typical middle class shuffle through life, of climbing the greasy pole of material prosperity, he convinced himself he would be a writer. He was not yet twenty when he made his choice known. He moved on, to build his own canvas of drama. His plays have gone out to the world, in translation. In his classes as a teacher of drama, he remained the epitome of contemporary Bengali thought. It was always the roots of Bengali culture he stressed, those that would ensure for it a place in the realm of global literature.
In Selim Al-Deen's death, it was the roots we remembered. He pinned us down to heritage. Which is why he is forever deserving of our gratitude.
(Selim Al-Deen, dramatist, writer and teacher, was born on 18 August 1949 and died on 14 January 2008)