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The Theatre of Femininity

December 18, 2018

Patriarchy had trumped matriarchy over eons, for all the wrong reasons. Millennia back, when the hunter-gatherers constituted the entire humanity, hunting of large animals and carrying them to the dwellings needed muscle power of the male, who dominated women, confining the latter to home for child rearing. With the emergence of agricultural communities just a few thousand years ago and with assured supply of food, the nomadic travels ceased, leading to enhanced population that, in turn, gave rise to increased pregnancies and consequent child mortality. Women gained precious little, till the arrival of industrial age and now the information age, when, for once, both maternity and muscle have started to matter less and equity has increasingly prevailed among the genders with higher quality of life for all. Or, at least, this seems to be so in the developed societies, but the lack of development still carries the legacy of an overarching patriarchy.

Beginning with the “free” female labor on the domestic front, the consequent ills are well-known and numerous. They extend all theway from female feticide; early marriage of the daughters; newly detected high mortality of nubile mothers; post-marriage dowry death; and widowhood contemptuously exploited; up to the point of women being perpetually treated as “property” by their male “masters”. Down the line, male predatory instinct prevails for the unprotected, harassment for the unwilling and subjugation of the downtrodden from the other gender: unabated and most often swept under the carpet. It was high time the performing arts in India dared pick up the cudgels in all seriousness and this critic finds it heartening that the indigenous drama groups of Bengal are developing a genre that can be given the nascent appellation: The Theatre of Femininity.


Premiered on November 18 in Kolkata, Aabritto (the Encircled) presented by Nadipat, was built around the marginalized life of the fallen ‘Jatra’ star Tarak Paul, now burdened with three equally wretched family members: the erstwhile “Jatra” prima donna Umashashi, his wife, now selling home-made paper bags for survival; Rajlakshmi, the out-of-wedlock daughter of another ‘Jatra’ queen, now reduced to be a household maid; and Kartik, a nondescript youth of uncertain parentage, doing odd jobs. Perceptively penned by Tirthankar Chanda and very competently directed by Prakash Bhattacharya, the family is seen eking out a miserable existence, till the energetic Kartik reaches out to a director-and-writer duo of a television channel to whom he sells the idea of making a documentary on Tarak’s past glory. Since Tarak had never faced an inquisitive electronic media, the ploy fails miserably. But the silver lining seems to be the sudden discovery of Rajlakshmi’s talents for acting and singing. She is immediately enticed with big money to become a TV star. But does she exploit the offer?

At this point the play reveals its commitment. While, earlier, Umashashi’s protestation was muted against the media director’s diatribe at a bewildered Tarak, the angst now bursts out like a volcano: in Rajlakshmi’s debut dialogue before camera revealing her remonstration against the male gender for continually degrading and demeaning her since her birth; and an even more unexpected outburst from Nandana, the director’s dream heroine, who returns to the scene and reveals how she had to “compromise” all her acting career to the TV bosses to reach the pinnacle she has. To this critic, it was the very first of the expressions of #MeToo ever heard on the proscenium stage, and proved that the organized theatre here has added its voice against the feminine indignity perpetuated much too long.

Sanjita Mukherjee as Rajlakshmi amply proved her mettle, both as an actress and especially as a singer. Umashashi (Sarbani Mukherjee) was consistently brilliant in her down-to-earth role, but the surprise was Nandana (ManishaTikadar) who began by a stylised vamp’s cameo, but transformed herself into delivering a spirited monologue on her #MeToo past. Kartik (Avijit Sirkar) was a shade too buoyant, and needed restraint. Tarak Paul (Biplab Naha Biswas) also needed to guard against his vibrant ‘Jatra’ diction when he is in quotidian situation. All this is not to minimize the excellent team work of the highly engrossing play, with great lights and sets.

On how he came to terms with the script, the director responds, “The social mirror of Tirthankar’s play influenced me deeply, as we are gradually losing the courage to call the black as ‘black’ and the white as ‘white’. Umashashi’s loud protestation at her husband’s humiliation gives us back the conviction which we had lost. Rajlakshmi, who had lost out to the debilitating needs of her life, suddenly decides not to cower before the demand and we learn to respect her. So do we admire Nandana in her new avatar. Even Kartik defies the codified social relationships and proves that one can survive without them. Indeed, Tirthanakar makes my bent-down backbone straighten up again! Could we not dust away the filth from our polluted mindset to make it transparent again? Succeed we must, otherwise, the society will inexorably move on, but we would be left behind as its cast-asides…”


Presented on November 28 by Pushpak, Ma (the Mother) looks most piquantly at the other face of femininity: the mother, indeed, the taken-for-granted life-giver of the human race. Both scripted and directed by the hugely-gifted Alokparna Guha, the play pieces together real characters and true events, and skilfully adds resonances from some famous writings of our time. Adopting almost the format of an ensemble theatre, the production is, in reality, a collage of five stories that try to catch almost the intimate heartbeat of a family where the mother (or her absence) matters vitally in the making of the family, the society, and ultimately the nation.

The first story shows how a mother provides guidance to her growing daughter to understand the “evil” sides of the surroundings and provides a constant veneer of protection. The second episode switches the venue to a school where the girl-child is tortured and the mother not merely protests, but also garners support from others to force the issue. The third depiction has the shades of the Mahabharata epic, where Kunti, the beautiful maiden, is lusted at by the Sun god and the pre-wedlock son, Karna, has to be got rid of against all the dictates of the maternal heart, at the behest of the disapproving elders and the frowning society. Tagore’s famous poem, Karna Kunti Samvad, provides a lyrical backdrop of the parable still so valid for all unwed mothers.

The penultimate tale veers round the upbringing of a daughter by her doting father (enacted very well by Murari Mukhopadhyay), who – in the absence of her mother --endeavours to be both her father and mother, in terms of care and nurturing. At the time of arranging her wedding, when the groom’s uncle insists on checking the genuineness of the gold ornaments given as dowry, the father’s sense of dignity and patience gives way and the nuptials are called off. He has his daughter’s entire support till the very end. This, again, is the milieu of many arranged marriages continuing till date and the inspiration from Tagore’s short story Aparichita, written a good century and half back, does not diminish the sting one bit.

The finale is a take-off on Maxim Gorky’s stirring novel Mother, penned in 1906, based on the then tsarist Russia’s pre-Revolution turmoil. Building around Anna Zalomova and her son Piotr Zalomov, Gorky drew up on real-life incidents that took place during a May Day demonstration in the shipbuilding town of Sormovo in 1902. After the arrest of Piotr by the tsarist police there, his mother Anna was drawn into revolutionary activity to directly lead the marching masses. In a true adoption, the present play echoes the events of any brewing revolution where a mother – in a role reversal – plays up what her missing son would have done, without letting the protesting zeal to subside. Alokparna dons Anna’s role, doing a spirited job.

On her choice of the theme, the director asserts, “From the feminine world, I have chosen to script the mother’s instinct. I think this instinct is the strongest in the whole nature that binds the society and the universe.” One would tend to agree.

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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