From West to East, and then to South
Phyllis Bose moved from a little town in Wales to Bangalore in the Sixties. The actress, director, and drama teacher is back in the City after a long stay in Kolkata. Active as ever, she is now working on the role of theatre in education.
Phyllis Bose: theatre as therapy, education and more. Photo: K. Gopinathan
KOLKATANS IN Bangalore may not be aware that a familiar stage-name from back East now lives in their midst. When Phyllis Bose, actor, director, dynamic drama teacher, moved to the City three years ago, she came full circle, in a manner of speaking. For when she first came to India in 1960, it was to Bangalore, where her husband Probir's parents had settled down. Her in-laws owned a beautiful bungalow on the premises of what is now Venson's Garage (opposite BRV) where she got married "the Bengali way".
She would go for walks down deserted Cubbon Road. "There was nobody there!" she recalls. "I used to wonder, where have I come?" It was a long way from Blaenau Ffestiniog, the little town in North Wales where she grew up. She had wanted to do theatre since she was "this high" but she was raised by a strict and "very Victorian" grandmother who would have none of it. Her grandmother approved of her joining the Huyton College of Occupational Therapy in Liverpool, little realising that she had chosen drama as her area of specialisation! She met Probir who'd come to Liverpool to study engineering, and they fell in love. They had a church wedding.
Soon after their Bangalore maduve, the couple lived for two years "in the jungle in Bhopal, and I mean jungle". Moving to Calcutta in '62 must have seemed like getting back to civilisation. Phyllis recalls that the use of drama in therapy was virtually unheard of, and people used to ask her, when she mentioned that she was an occupational therapist: "Oh, you give wax baths?" But in Calcutta she saw a chance to do what she'd always wanted.
Expatriates like her had formed the Dramatic Calcutta Club, and she quickly plunged into theatre activity. As members began leaving for their native countries, the Club grew dormant. In the Eighties, Phyllis formed The Actors' Company. The cardinal rule was that whoever joined the group had to attend a workshop every Tuesday evening "to learn the art". Therefore, their productions always bore the mark of professionalism. Phyllis directed (and acted in) many a play of Chekov ("one of my favourites"), Moliere, and Pinter. Several gifted young thespians emerged from the Company, one of them being Rohit Malkani, a name familiar to Bangalore's theatre and radio audiences. Some youngsters in the group took up drama seriously and went for higher studies to France and the US.
Phyllis taught at the International School of Speech and Drama. She also won recognition for her association with St. James School. The principal, John Mason, called her for help in putting up their annual school play, and Smike, a musical based on Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, turned out to be the talk of the town. She followed this up with another spectacular musical, Piper, based on the Pied Piper of Hamelyn. "The rats were not ordinary rats, you see," says Phyllis, displaying scrapbook photos of boys with punk hairstyles. "They were the punk rats of society." When John Mason took charge as rector of Doon School in Dehra Dun, he insisted that Phyllis go over to do theatre with the boys there. The result: the Doon School production of Max Frisch's The Fire-Raisers.
Phyllis the performer was as well-known as Phyllis the artistic director and "Phyllis ma'am" the teacher. One of her critically acclaimed roles was as Gertrude Stein. In fact, she devised one-woman shows based on a series of literary figures, which the British Council and the USIS sponsored in many Indian cities. Bangaloreans might recall "An Evening with Dylan Thomas" in the late Eighties, where she brought the man alive not through his poems, as might be expected, but through the stories he wrote as a child.
Phyllis is an ardent proponent of drama-in-education and has conducted several teacher-training workshops in India and abroad. She believes that teachers can communicate better with students, whatever the subject, if they use the elements of drama in the classroom. "Even a five-minute capsule is enough to make a class interesting," she says.
"Phyllis ma'am" is as active as ever, here in Bangalore. She is Aditi School's "drama consultant" (she grimaces while she mouths the phrase), and has started working with children out of her home. Since October last, she has been conducting weekend foundation courses for those aged seven to nine, nine to 11, and 12-plus. Over 12 sessions the children learn voice development, speech theory and practice, acting techniques, presentation and performance skills.
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