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Damnation to Redemption

July 23, 2018

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (1894-1950) was one of the leading writers of modern Bengali literature. Examples of his highly diverse literary genres are: Pather Panchali (autographical 'saga on the road' transferred memorably on the celluloid by the cineaste Satyajit Ray); Aranyak (nature's saga on a forest trail with all its mysterious intimacy); Chander Pahad (a travel saga of adventures in the then unknown world of Africa); and Devjan (the esoteric saga of the after-life of its hero). A lesser known genre, verging almost on 'morality' play was his Athai Jal penned in 1947, where he explored the epic saga of a perfectly normal man's encounter with the so-called 'degenerate' world of the early 19th century Bengal, his plunge into its passion driven turmoil, heart and soul, and eventual resuscitation back into the familiar normalcy.

His protagonist, the no-nonsense rural doctor - high on discipline and ethical strictures - was vaguely reminiscent of another doctor of yore, Dr Faust and his saga of a sojourn into infamy in collusion with the devil Mephisto, chronicled as a tragic play by the immortal German poet Goethe in his eponymous epic in the 16th century. Dr Faust representing the modern human being, always drives himself to damnation, held back from the moment of true enlightenment. He has a passionate liaison with the village lass Margaret, impregnates her and finds her - now driven insane - thrown into a prison cell. The story also reminded one of Inferno, the first part of the Italian litterateur Dante's epic poem Divine Comedy, composed in the 14th century. The Inferno tells the journey of Dante through Hell. It is the "realm of those who have rejected spiritual values by yielding to bestial appetites or violence or by perverting their human intellect to fraud or malice against their fellowmen."

Athai Jal premiered in Kolkata on July 3 by Purba Pashchim, retained many of the above nuances in its basic structure, with a tale that explored the meaning and mystery of life in all its intricacy, though they always remain elusive. Based on the dramatic script by Ujjwal Chattopadhyay, the play was edited and directed by the young thespian Bratya Basu. The storyline depicted a tumultuous disorder brought in by sudden ripples overwhelming a simple and placid life. Here was the perfectly normal medical doctor Shashanka (enacted commendably by Debshankar Halder) - our present day 'Dr Faust' -- leading an ordinary, eventless existence when he is reluctantly drawn into the vortex of Khemta dances of the prevailing times.

Quite in vogue almost thirty or forty years ago in Bengal, Khemta was usually performed in a group with the flexibility that alternately individual dancers would perform when their turns came. Khemta used to take place in the courtyards of the houses of big zamindars (landlords), Barwaritolas (open green space in a village) and Natmandirs (dancing halls in the temple premises), often using songs based on the erotic episodes of Radha-Krishna, and liberally mixed with slang expressions and verbal abuses, known as Khisti and Kheur. The chief attraction of Khemta was the intricate movement of the feet needing great nimbleness and finesse, as well as the mischievous glances and suggestive movement of the torso demanding practiced skill and deftness.

This then is the 'Inferno' where Shashanka - lured by a couple of sidekicks, his henchmen --- meets his nemesis, namely, the beguiling Panna (essayed quite well by Suparna Moitra Das), an epitome of sensuality and her dancer cohorts, equally adept in an alluring body language. Together with them, Shashanka descends serially through the proverbial 'Nine Circles of Inferno' -- when the good doctor relinquishes his practice bag; picks up the harmonium to learn the choral music to accompany Panna; becomes the team's manager for keeping the chaotic accounts ledgers; and opts even for the sundry menial jobs. All this happens with Shashank's blinding obsession with Panna's sensuality, despite her mother's occasional admonitions. The bottomless ocean of worldly pleasure has to come to an end sometime, what with Panna's disillusion with him, and his own eventual disenchantment. Having gone down the infamous 'Nine Circles', one finds a chastised Shashanka back at his village desk, preoccupied happily with humdrum chores.

Bratya, the well-known doyen of the current Bengali theatre - and his equally adept playwright-associate, Ujjwal - have joined hands to do an excellent job. To re-create Bibhutibhushan's ignored masterpiece is by itself a splendid tribute to the muse of theatre. One only wishes the director - with his well-known command of the medium - would expand the scope a little and create a memorable 'period piece' complete with not merely a pristine Khemta milieu, but with also liberal doses of Khisti and Kheur -- providing, in fact, the flavour of the entire gamut of tappa and Pakhir Gan, which the great writer had harked back so vividly in his oeuvre in the early 20th century.

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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