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Agony and Atonement: 8th Theatre Olympics, Part I
Photos courtesy: NSD & theatre groups

March 27, 2018

After two decades of conducting annually the Bharat Rang Mahotsav with great aplomb since 1999, National School of Drama unfurled - with the hand-holding by the parent Ministry of Culture -- the biggest venture of its existence: the 8th Theatre Olympics from February 17 to April 8 this year. Having begun appropriately in Greece at the end of the 20th century and having traversed through Europe and Asia in the last several years, the Theatre Olympics was a matter of national prestige and honor for NSD to host in India, comprising several hundred theatre performances hailing from all parts of the globe and simultaneously showcasing them in 17 cities of the country. The first three plays witnessed by this critic revolved round the agonizing question of existence: societal, personal and political.


First of all, Flesh, presented on February 28 by the Theatreworms Production from the national capital, delved deep into the epic Mahabharata revered over millennia and dug out daringly the issue of wedlock between two men and the foundation of motherhood itself from among its episodes. The play was adapted from the novel, The Pregnant King, as penned by the Odisha littérateur Devdutt Pattanaik, about an allegory of King Yuvanashwa, a childless king who mistakenly drinks a magic potion meant to make his queen pregnant. He then gives birth to a son from his left thigh. The conflict then begins at the dilemma of a man trying to behave like a king and a loving mother, at the same time. The societal question arises as to whether men and women should always have their well-defined anthropological roles and how far the role reversal can be accepted. The play also questions whether the gender play in human lives still created a furore -- as it does today -- thousands of years ago in King Yuvanashwa's time, namely, whether two men could tie knots even though both belonged to the same gender and whether the gender bias would hurt the common sense of dharma.

Directed deftly by Kaushik Bose, Flesh dealt with its difficult story with great panache. Yuvanashwa had his unusual agony understated, but the most eloquent role was played by the son Mandhat - the future king designate - seen torn by the terrible dilemma of having an assumed mother and a father who was, by the quirk of fate, actually the biological mother. The surrogate episode of a man infatuated by another man and finding his way to marrying him was less pronounced but equally poignant in its pangs of doubt as well as fulfillment.


The second play, Punishment, presented on March 6 by Azerbaijan State Theatre of Young Spectators from the Central Asian republic of Azerbaijan, went deep into the existential predicament of a lone woman's life: divided between the affection and fulfillment of a caring husband and two doting children on one side and an all-consuming love for a stranger, whose dragnet plucks her out of a comfortable family milieu into the terrible uncertainty of the unknown. When a human being forgets the reality and follows delusional expectations, the tragedy occurs. Hope is the key of tomorrow; however, it is followed here by the all-consuming shadow of death. And when hope dies, something terrible happens.

Punishment is beautifully depicted on stage by the soulful mono-acting of Kamala Huseynova, whose range of emotional and physical acting is unbelievably wide and far-reaching. In the words of its director, Mehriban Alakbarzade, "The greatest punishment of all is self-punishment. A woman loves another man in her most mature and responsible period... She loves mercilessly, hopelessly and looks forward to a new beginning. She forgets her children, her husband, her house, and her responsibility... She, in fact, has forgotten everything... for the sake of her ethereal love. The disaster begins when the woman begins to live the desired life. Hope is the key for tomorrow. However, the hope also carries a shade of death. The tragedy starts when the hope ends. There is only one way - suicide. But then suicide is unacceptable, although there has been a daily suicide for 15 years..." The dilemma looms really large.


The third play, Morshokam, was presented on March 7 by Theatre Art Unit from Bangladesh. A play in three acts, it raises the existential question at a political level. Its three acts remain individual enactments, depicting the same story again and again, in different guises and in different contexts, the same characters appear in all three acts: President, Minister of Finance, Secretary General and an all-powerful Mr. X. The game of manipulative politics plays itself out on stage in all three acts, where the only character who reins control is Mr. X - a mysterious agent of an unseen and untouchable, superpower. His manipulative game is that of control and subjugation, which - in the ultimate analysis -the game that Morshokam is.

The textual structure of Morshokam leaves an immense amount of freedom in being designed as a political play. According to its gifted director, Rokeya Rafique Baby, "The three-act play has no linear storyline or traditional structure and can be a collage of three distinct individual acts - with almost three different depictions of the same incidence. The space of the play is allegorical which reflects different times, different nations and different societies. Through the numerous references in the play, this space has the appearances of Cuba, Africa, Middle East or even Bangladesh. The set of Morshokam is a vital component in forming the expression of the play. Three elements form the core of the play - powers flowing along with domination, trade, and war. These three elements have been symbolically represented throughout its enactment. Morshokam remains a play within the play..."

At three different levels - namely, social allegory, private predicament and devious political platform - the three plays work out the quintessential question: how is existence defined and does redemption ever await the end of the road?

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.

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