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June 6, 2000

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Ajit Panja earns accolades for his new role

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When we speak of politicians taking the stage, we aren't usually thinking of them actually slapping on the greasepaint.

But India's Minister of State for External Affairs, Ajit Panja, plays a sage, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, no less.

Doing theater after a hiatus of almost 13 years -- his last stage appearance was in 1987 when he played Shuja in the play Shahjahan, Panja is enjoying the kudos he is receiving for his role in Nati Binodini.

He has received praise from foe and friend alike. West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and Prime Minister Vajpayee have acclaimed his performance in the play.

After a stopover in London, Panja was in Chicago recently, the first stop in his US tour of Los Angeles, New York and Washington. The 500-strong predominantly Bengali audience gave him and his 34-strong troupe a standing ovation. Many members of the audience were moved to tears.

The play based on a true story set 130 years ago, tells of the birth of Star Theater in Calcutta. The story, which deals with women's rights and the powerful role Ramakrishna Paramahansa played in the women's movement, is based on the play Noti Binodini by Bijendra Kumar Dey.

Panja, who began is career as a barrister, and who is now one of the leading members of the Trinamool Congress, spoke to Shanthi Shankarkumar about his new role and how it has changed his life.

What got you interested in acting?

We have a club in Calcutta called the Calcutta High Court Advocates Drama Association. I'm a member of this club, but I'd acted in only one play before this one. I played Shuja in Shahjahan in 1987.

I then got busy with my profession and politics, so I could not pay attention to drama.

In 1999, Mihir Bhattacharjee asked me to play Gurumukh Roy, a Punjabi youth who was very interested in Bengali drama, but that didn't work out. He then asked me to play the role of Thakurji [Ramakrishna Paramahansa]. I thought he was pulling my leg.

But on our first rehearsal itself, with the blessings of Thakurji, everything clicked. We had our first show on April 2,1999 at Kala Mandir, Calcutta. We've done 20 shows so far.

We've had actors like MGR, NTR, Jayalalitha becoming politicians, but you are the only politician who has turned to acting.

You're probably right. But it just happened, by accident.

Do you plan to make acting a career after you retire from politics?

No, I've no plans of making this a career. This is my pastime. Some people relax by playing golf, or conspiring or gossiping. I think this is better. This is my recreation.

You're visiting Chicago, the place where Swami Vivekananda gave his famous speech...

We visited the hall where Swami Vivekananda gave his speech in 1893 and we all were emotionally moved. We couldn't enter the hall because it is under repair, but we spent an hour there just going around the place. I've read about him but being in the place he had visited was a very moving experience.

What aspects of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa's philosophy have you incorporated in politics?

Sri Ramakrishanji believed in " Sarva Dharma Samana " -- ie, unity of all religions -- these are his words in the play. Also, I've learned that consensus and not confrontation is the best way to deal with problems. Playing Sri Ramakrishna has also given me insight into how to quickly deal with difficult work. What used to take me 7-8 days to resolve now takes me 7-8 hours.

As a lawyer and politician I can always see the faces of the people and judge their reactions, but during a play, the audience is sitting in the dark and I cannot gauge their reactions, till the end of the show. But there is a communication of souls, a vibration that goes from one person to thousands... This is very unique.

What preparations did you have to do for the role?

Firstly, I've had to be fully understand the lifestyle of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa. On the days we have our shows, the entire cast turns vegetarian. I also got to meet one of Sri Ramakrishna' relatives who took me to Dakshinashar and let me study pictures and material written by Ramakrishna Paramahansa. I practised my gestures in front of the mirror, with a little bit of help from my four granddaughters who would tell me what to do. We had two months of intensive preparation, in February and March 1999.

Is it going to be all play and no work? You did meet with your counterpart in London, so will you be meeting with officials in Washington?

I will be meeting with my counterpart in Washington on June 4. We don't have a fixed agenda now, but we will be discussing the aftermath of Clinton's visit. Jaffna will also come up. I'm in constant touch with Delhi on the Jaffna and Fiji situations.

In London I discussed the Sri Lanka situation and about British Airways discontinuing its fights to Calcutta. We EW also discussed the chances of having an India-Pakistan cricket match in London. In Chicago, I met with Prof Ralph Nicholas, an eminent south Asian affairs expert, from the International House of Chicago.

What is your first love -- acting or politics?

Neither, it is law.

Do you foresee going back to the Congress?

No, I don't foresee going back. The Congress does not exist in Bengal. Mamta and I were thrown out of the Congress. We were not allowed to speak against the Left Front Marxist government or move a motion against their atrocities. We were literally gagged. The AICC had, with Arjun Singh, Pramod Mukerjee and Bharat Kishen Surjeet, given them the zamindari of West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala. In return they were hoping to become prime ministers with support from the Left. We will destroy that conspiracy.

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