Published in The Independent on 20 November 2010
For a person who achieved fame by cultivating the art of silence, mime artist Partha Pratim Majumder is surprisingly voluble offstage. When I met the Paris-based performer at his hotel in Gulshan, he was breakfasting with an assortment of film directors and actors. The mood was so congenial that it almost felt imprudent to ask whether they were old friends. Once inside Partha’s suite, a steady stream of well-wishers dropped by to pay their respects to Bangladesh’s “Master of Mime.” Following the departure of the fourth or fifth guest, Partha said, “I have to stay in a hotel when I visit Dhaka. If I stayed with my brother, it might be difficult having so many people visiting his house. Yesterday, a lot of journalists turned up here requesting interviews.” However Partha is unfazed by the celebrity status he is accorded both in his home country and abroad. Having spent decades perfecting his unusual craft, he is happily aware that millions of Bangladeshis recognise his efforts.
Partha was born in 1954 in Pabna, India. His family home was located beside a famous Hindu temple that attracted mystic performers from across the country. Partha was entranced by the shows, and by the age of five he began producing his own. He and his siblings used to drape their mother’s saris around a poster bed in order to create a stage-like atmosphere for an audience consisting of local children. In 1967, when Partha was 12, he foresaw the direction his future would take. He had just witnessed a different type of performance at the temple from those he had previously seen, and it made him realise that “art can exist in many different forms.” This belief spurred on Partha’s determination to become a successful mime artist once he moved to Bangladesh, despite the fact that no one else was doing it.
Following the Liberation War of 1971, Partha moved to Dhaka and was adopted by a relative, the famous singer Ostad Barim Majumder, who also founded the first music college in Dhaka. Partha had just completed six years of training in mime at Jogesh Dutta’s academy in Kolkata and began making regular television appearances on BTV. He was spotted by a senior executive of Alliance Francaise, who invited him to perform at the cultural institute. Partha said, “At that time, I didn’t have any money, and because I didn’t want to ask my parents for any, I couldn’t afford ballet shoes.” Following the success of Partha’s performance, The Shilpakala Academy accepted Partha as a student, despite an initial reluctance to incorporate a mime artist. “That was my big break,” he said with a smile. However another was about to come. The French Ambassador to Bangladesh urged Partha to move to Paris, where mime was – and remains – a beloved art tradition. “Initially, I said I wasn’t interested, because I was already famous and happy in Dhaka,” said Partha. But after a long period of contemplation, the temptation became too great.
Partha moved to Paris in 1981 to study with “the father of modern mime” Etienne Decroux. The French ambassador gave Partha a scholarship, making him the first person in South Asia to receive a scholarship for mime. Partha was introduced to Marcel Marceau, the legendary French mime artist, who subsequently offered to train him. By the following year, Partha had become a member of Marcel Marceau’s touring company and studied under him for the next three years. Partha described the legendary Marceau, who is most well-known for his alter-ego as Bip the Clown, by saying, “He has a spiritual power and he is a great guru. He treated me like his own son.”
It was Partha’s first visit to Europe and it was especially cold that winter, but he made it through the early days by forming strong friendships with other international students. Nevertheless, Partha said that whilst he calls Paris home nowadays, he has never fallen in love with the city and never believed that he would stay there permanently. He describes the city as a “totally different world” from Dhaka. When he first arrived in Paris, Partha spoke only a few words of French, but with the help of ex-students, who translated the lessons from English to French, he was able to learn. Partha attended classes for 14 to 16 hours a day and he learnt the ancient art of pantomime from Greece and Rome, as well as classical and theatrical acrobatics, modern dance, stick-fighting, drama and, of course, different forms of mime.
Partha waxed lyrical about his love for the silent craft of mime, “I can make music without a sound; a single facial expression can say so many things.” Partha continues to practice his body movements and flexibility every day and his efforts have no doubt been spurred on by winning a multitude of awards over the years, including this year’s Ekushey Padak. For his performance in the French play “Cochons d’Inde,” Partha received the prestigious Molière Award 2009. Partha also won the Master of the World title in India and Master of Mime in Malaysia.
However, when I asked Partha to describe the techniques involved in mime, he seemed unable to express it in words. Rather than giving a verbal reply, he suddenly leapt to his feet and gave an impromptu performance by ‘drinking’ a glass of water. Whilst I was no more enlightened, I was certainly entertained. Perhaps that’s how it should remain.