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Bangla theatre from across the border
Dhaka-based director-cum-script writer Nuna Afroz appropriately brings Tagore to the centrestage at a fest hosted by ICCR in Kolkata. By Utpal K Banerjee
Bangladesh, though born of Bengal, was always given a step-motherly treatment as far as its theatre movement was concerned. The resurgent proscenium theatre that was born in and swept through Kolkata left Dhaka, the East Bengal metropolis, high and dry. Although some of Dhaka’s nouveau riche went on to set up theatre stages in that city and even founded a revolving stage, it was the Kolkata drama stalwarts that came to perform there and dominated the scene.
Kolkata showed the way by creating professionalism in play-acting following the model in West End of London. But all this left Dhaka untouched. The rise of IPTA after Independence injected a new wave in people’s theatre but did not touch East Pakistan, whose military regime severely censored anything remotely resembling drama.
Ironically, it was during the 24 years of the repressive Pakistani occupation that the seed of thinking on theatre was sown. Along with poetry, painting, literature, music and even journalism, theatre was used by the freedom fighters as their expressionist weapon. The result: All these muses strove for their own space in the newly-liberated land. In the absence of a formal stage, British Council, Mahila Samiti, Guide House and streetscapes lent their platforms and spaces for theatrical performances in Dhaka and even outside. In the new-found enthusiasm for theatre, several directors and actors came forward to establish themselves and, by the end of the 1970s, the two Bengals made their nascent effort at communicating with each other in this arena. Prangane-Mor, which came into existence as late as 2003, became quickly enmeshed in this effort and with 12 festivals in 14 years and with a due emphasis on Tagore Studies (on the lines of Shakespeare Studies overseas) has already found a respectable niche for itself.
Prangane-Mor Bangladesh Natyotsav 2017, which was held between November 3 and 7 at the ICCR in Kolkata, was their latest venture in this direction, with Ami O Rabindranath as their first evening’s offering. True to their credo, the director-cum-script writer, Nuna Afroz, appropriately brings Tagore to the centrestage in Tagore’s imaginary encounter with a Gen X female fan, Athoi. The latter, with her boyfriend Nehal, had gone to visit Tagore’s ancestral home at Silaidaha in Kushthia district, Bangladesh, where artistic paintings of Tagore at different ages catch her flight of fancy. She inexplicably leaves Nehal behind after which she weaves dialogues, in her fantasy, with Tagore during various facades of his life. In her imagination, Tagore is forever inclined amorously to the female of the species. But if one allows for these minor handicaps (she does not carry any handbag), Tagore’s love for Kadambari Devi, Victoria Ocampo and fleetingly, even for Maitreyi Devi, come brilliantly alive. The dialogue is interwoven by recreating some of his dramatis personae: Aparna, Ela, Nandini, et al.
According to the director Nuna Afroz (who also dons the role of Athoi), “When the writings of the author become synonymous with the reader’s innermost thoughts, they excite the mind, create tumult and catalyse new thoughts. Every day, the reader cogitates on those thoughts, spreads wings of imagination and adds colour to whatever resides in his or her mind. Slowly and gradually, there grows an invisible bonding between the author and the reader, and myths are born. While enjoying the work of the author, the reader builds his/her own mythic worlds. This is the staple of my play.”
On the details of the play’s mythology, the director says, “I’ve placed before Athoi several different Tagores: the 29-year-old, the 69-year-old, the 71-year-old and the final 80-year-old. Each of these individual Tagores speaks to Athoi of his own life and times and about his own creativity. And with each Tagore, Athoi, too, changes into different characters placed in different periods. My purpose has been to throw light on Tagore’s unique creations and artistic oeuvre through the mirror of his own life experiences.”
Earsha (Jealousy), their second offering, was a contemporary social play by the noted thespian, Syed Samsul Huque. It was an utterly lyrical drama, based on a ménage e trois among three painters. The elderly painter is a celebrity, known for his path-breaking abstract paintings, who falls for his stunningly beautiful girl-student, Pakhi. The latter agrees to pose for him as a nude model and ends up being his paramour. The painter preserves these figurative artworks in his cellar. The young artiste, whom Pakhi had married, discovers a portrait of the senior painter’s face hidden in her tinsel-box and, after an incident of discord, follows Pakhi to find her in the elderly artiste’s company. In disgust, he departs, releasing Pakhi from the marital contract. Pakhi leaves the senior artiste, too, and everyone becomes alone — totally solitary figures in their artistic sojourn in this world. The play comprises highly-charged dialogues, delivered very stylistically and, in effect, resemble long, Shakespearean monologues — varying in length between some 40 minutes and 13 minutes.
Director Ananta Hira avers, “It is a poetic play that spreads from one life to another and eventually becomes an ineffable narrative of confrontation — of one art with another, of an artiste with his own art, of a man with his most private relationship with his body. At another level, it’s a narrative on the dear motherland — its green meadows, its expanse of lush rice-fields, its verdant nature. At yet another level, it touches upon the realities of the liberation war, its scorching aftermath of devastated families and ravished women.” On love, he quotes the playwright, “If love deceives, art would offer me refuge. Who on earth can dare snatch me away from art?” and yet again, “If the lover’s heart burns, it’s scorched only by the fire of jealousy; anyone who has not been burnt by jealousy hasn’t held love in heart; jealousy is a cold rage…”
Shesher Kabita (The Last Poem), their third offering, was based on the path-breaking novel of Tagore who dared to challenge the fledgling new poets and scored triumphantly. Penned at the ripe age of 67 years, the story is built upon a car accident on the slopes of the hill town of Shillong and the chance meeting of their young drivers — the extrovert, UK-returned Amit and the demure, bibliophile maiden Labanya. The opposites inevitably attract and they fall for each other. After many a delicious moment as well as much agonising heart-searching, they are about to hold hands when Ketaki, an old flame of Amit from the UK, arrives on the scene. After some more prevarications and dramatic interludes, Amit marries Ketaki and, after a pause in time, Labanya decides to tie the knot with her college-flame Shovanlal. In the well-etched play, rendered fairly sensitively under Nuna Afroz’s baton, the wonder is that Nuna essays with aplomb both the dramatically-opposite roles of Labanya and Ketaki, while the other highly-gifted actor-cum-singer, Ramiz Raju, enacts both the roles of Amit and Shovanlal. If that were not enough, there are two Amits and two Labanyas on stage — one in flesh and blood and the other in a shadowy essence.
When asked, the director opens up about her dilemma, “Here I’ve dramatised a very well-read work of fiction that would catch me on backfoot if it’s misrepresented. In this play as well as my fist day’s effort, Ami O Rabindranath, I remain very circumspect, lest I hurt the Tagore scholar’s sensibilities. So, here my stratagem is to show two Labanyas and two Amits, who are unable to come out with their true, inner feelings of both love and anguish. Socially, they may either quibble, or court each other, while their carefully-hidden emotions might be pointing another way. Again, the same actor playing contrary roles is attributed to their acting prowess, as much as to say that each person has his or her alter-ego.”
Shyama Prem (Amours of Shyama), the fourth offering, was a take-off on Tagore’s celebrated dance-drama of the same name by the noted playwright Chittaranjan Ghosh. It is about the story of courtesan Shyama, who falls for the handsome foreign businessman Vajrasen and stakes her all for him. While Tagore dwelt upon the theft from the royal treasury as the cause célèbre, which implicated Vajrasen, the present script turns the Buddhist legend into a full-fledged love-triangle among Vajrasen, Shyama and the latter’s ardent lover Uttiya, for whom a life-long ardour has remained unrequited. On top of it, Uttiya is painted into the role of a rebel against the king’s oppression and his raising the flag of revolt provides a rallying point for the distressed village-folk.
In the play, Nuna Afroz excels as the village belle-turned-courtesan under the torture and ravages of the rich and her thoroughly disillusioned life of a sex-worker in the guise of a court-dancer. So she clutches at the rare chance to love a total stranger and start life anew. But it is Ramiz Raju who takes the cake in both spirited acting and soulful singing as Uttiya. The director explains, “Tagore’s dance-drama on life, love and humanity has been re-imagined by Chittaranjan into Shyama Prem on the solid staple of love, liberty and humanism…In this play, Uttiya is immortalised as a symbol of both freedom and free love. This Uttiya would ask Shyama wonderingly, ‘Who would save man but for another man?’ This Uttiya would stress convincingly, ‘Let every man be entirely liberated and let everyone’s love be safeguarded’. This is because only a truly free man can be a true lover. This world runs on a deficit of love, so Uttiya sacrificed his own life to protect the cause of love, the dream of freedom and humanism.”
Bibadi Sargam, their fifth offering, was an out-an-out patriotic drama neatly documenting the heady days of the freedom struggle. At one end was Gandhiji and his call for non-violence and passive resistance. Keeping intact their full regard for him, there was, at the other end, the impatient youth from the Eastern India, especially from Bengal, who wanted to take up arms against the colonial power and eliminate the foreign oppressors. Three fiery young men — Binay, a former medical student and leader, and his compatriots Dinesh and Badal — take upon themselves the courageous task of killing Mr Simpson, a particularly hated British officer. How they set upon their mission and fight the last-ditch battle till the gory end is colourfully caught in this play by detailing the post-1857 revolutionary movements and broad facades of India’s armed struggles.
Director and playwright Sisir Rahman avers, “Today’s generation has virtually forgotten the heroic men who fought for liberating their motherland. Even the political leadership is not aware of how many revolutionaries were taken to the gallows, how many died in prison, unable to bear the arduous hardship there and how many just disappeared without leaving a trace in the deadly Cellular jail in the Andamans.” He pointedly asks, “How many people know about the background of the three youths from Bikrampur of East Bengal, in whose memory the Dalhousie Square of Kolkata is named today? Out of them, Binay and Badal committed suicide and Dinesh was hanged. Ours is a small effort to pay homage to only a few who, having given up their life, have sunk into oblivion in our collective memory.”
Aurangzeb, the sixth offering was a full-fledged historical play, written by thespian Mohit Chattopadhyay. It was built around the sunset years of Emperor Shah Jahan’s reign, when his four sons – Dara, Murad, Shuja and Aurangzeb — were fighting to death with each other, laying their claim to the Mughal throne. Departing somewhat from an earlier play Shah Jahan by DL Roy on the same theme, Mohit sought to emphasise the main point that, although a devout Sunni Muslim – who would not touch his treasury but would earn his livelihood by copying Quran – Aurangzeb did realise at the end that he had been a violent killer and marauder in the name of religion. The performance was somewhat melodramatic, in the manner of a historical extravaganza.
The director Ananta Hira comments, “The paths to succession of the Mughal dynasty in India have been strewn with bloodshed and assassinations of near and dear ones without any exception. Carrying the genes of Taimurlong and Zengish Khan in their veins, all the mighty kings – beginning with Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and ending with Aurangzeb — proved the rule. There was almost ‘poetic justice’ done when, like Aurangzeb keeping his infirm father a prisoner in Agra Fort, the 90-year-old Aurangzeb himself was made to spend his last days alone in Ahmednagar in the solitary company of his daughter, by his rebellious son.” Ananta quotes Aurangzeb while on his death bed, “If one is heartless even after carrying Quran on his chest all one’s life, then one has no mercy to crave, because the sacred Quran does not ordain one to be a hangman. Allah does not ask one to kill brothers in order to occupy the throne.”
Condemned Cell, the final offering, was the piece de resistance of the whole festival. In a starkly realistic scenario set in an imaginary prison, there are a string of cells, each housing a prisoner given capital punishment. The inmates spend their idle hours sharing mutual confidence of their incriminating past while being kept in the dark about their execution. In the play, they are mostly Razakars who betrayed the country during the liberation war and are awaiting the long-drawn legal process culminating in their punishment. The play mostly captures the unrepentant remembrance of their vile acts couched in a coarse language and accompanied by physical gestures often bordering on the obscene. Yet, what comes out in the play is a fierce love of the motherland and even some tender moments for the love of a girl left far behind and forever waiting.
Sensitively written by Ananta Hira and competently directed by Aual Reza, the play is emphatically placed in today’s setting, helping to recapitulate the events before and after the glorious liberation of Bangladesh in 1971: almost half a century ago. The director says, “We have tried to portray some gruesome experiences of the pre and post 1971 freedom struggle when the barbaric military regime of Pakistan, aided and abetted by Razakars, al-Badar and al-Samas, created havoc in the form of genocide and mass-rapes of women in 68,000 villages spread over 56,000 square miles of landmass. The viewers are welcome to discover or disown resemblance of these events to their own memories of those harrowing times.” A much-needed cross-cultural exchange.
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