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Folk divas from Bangladesh drama
Photos courtesy: the theatre groups

July 12, 2018

Theatre - - in all its manifestations - - forms the lifeline and blood sinews of the culturally conscious people of Bangladesh. Jatra and other folk variants are favorites and, come winter, the whole countryside goes agog especially with Jatras, mythological or historical or even socially nuanced ones, often running through entire nights. The rich literary heritage of Bengali lingo does not preclude adaptations from Sophocles and Shakespeare, Ibsen and Brecht. A new surge of life has come into the vibrant performing arts scene after the liberation of the country in 1971, today's playwrights and theatre personalities are justifiably varied, and many theatre groups fly their bastion of excellence with great aplomb.

Theatre Narrative from the East, held recently at the E.Z.C.C, Kolkata, from June 22-28, showcased seven plays performed by as many theatre groups from Bangladesh. One major trend that emerged from the festival was the canvas of a woman's life: her love, separation, deprivation, chastity, struggle for survival, self-sacrifice and the history of sheer fight for existence. The patriarchic society seems always to control her destiny and determines her self-expression in conformity with the male-defined norms. This critic took up two folk annals that poignantly echoed this age-old ethos and registered their muted protest.

Roop Sundari

Roop Sundari, presented on June 25 by Natyalok, Sirajgunj and directed by Anik Kumar, was a pen-portrait of a baiji's daughter by her protector landlord. Unaware of the girl's parentage, the ageing rich patron casts his covetous eye on the growing beauty. The scared mother turns out Laila (Tusin), their daughter, from the household. Concealing her identity, Laila is now a roaming bangle seller in a village fair and meets a kind-hearted youth Chhalim (Lahim) who buys bangles for his sister Kamala from her. At the end of the fair, the homeless Laila clings to Chhalim and, after a boat ride, lands in his very modest hut. The arrival of Laila, now known simply as Sundari, raises eyebrows in a cloistered village society and the willing bachelor marries her, giving her both protection and home.

This should have enabled Laila to turn a new leaf in her shelter-less life, but it does not quite happen that way. Her dancer-past catches up with her and the local Talukdar longs to 'possess' the vulnerable girl. The rest of the story - Talukdar seeking to 'possess' her by force, her stern refusal and ultimately her leaping into the turbulent Karatoya river to end life - recalls an old village legend of one Shila Devi's similar self-sacrifice in order to save her honour and is merely history repeating itself.

Though not very well enacted, the folk parable was palpably honest in its intention and earned audience approbation. The style followed was the 'narrative' format, introduced first by the celebrated theatre-person Prof. Salim Aldin of Dhaka. Here - somewhat like the folk form of paalaa gaan where there is a single narrator donning multiple roles and is supported by an assembled cast in singing - the presentation is for the principal characters delivering their own dialogue in a third person. This was quite a novelty: creating an atmosphere of almost Brechtian 'alienation'!


Champabati presented on June 26 by Shabdo Natyacharcha Kendra, Dhaka, was in contrast, a lyrical play by the noted playwright Syed Shamsul Huq who died only in 2016. The play was based on the 1951 play Beder Meye (The Snake Charmer's Daughter) by the Palli Kabi (Pastoral Poet) Jasimuddin (1903-1976), who was considered among the best lyrical poets in the Bengali language. Beder Meye was also made into a highly popular film a few years back as an Indo-Bangladesh joint venture. As a key figure for the revival of pastoral literature in Bengal during the 20th century, Jasimuddin was a versatile writer, with numerous poems, ballads, songs, dramas, novels, stories, memoirs and travelogues to his credit.

Directed by Khorshed Alam, Champabati is the yarn of eternal love between Champabati and Goya, both of whom are snake charmers. While performing a dance ritual at a village along with several members of her clan, she is kidnapped by the village chieftain. The latter warns Champabati that if she does not listen to him, all the members of her community would be wiped out. A helpless Champa agrees to abide by the chieftain's lustful desires, but manages to escape her captor's custody after a few days. Returning to her abode, she finds to her horror that Goya has been fatally bitten by a venomous snake. Champabati sucks the venom out of Goya's body, but succumbs to death in the process.

Mahin and Ali Noor, who played the key characters of Champabati and the village chieftain, won audience's acclaim for their lively performance. The high point of the play was that Jasimuddin's original lyrics were used for all the characters' dramatic dialogues, reminiscent of the same playwright's earlier well known blank verse play, Nurul-ud-diner Sara Jeeban (The Whole Life of Nuurul-ud-din). The lighting effects were strikingly apt and the choreography on the stage was vividly evocative of the rural milieu. On the whole, the main messages from the Pastoral Poet - about the helplessness of the communities low down in the caste rungs, the sexual cruelty the higher classes let loose on the women of the lower echelons and still the selflessness of the unlettered women in the face of cruel fate, came out ringingly alive in the whole play.

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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