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A fairy tale and a morality play

May 15, 2019

Oriental epics, stories and folklore have a popular tradition to concoct parables that bypass conventional wisdom and bring up moral choices and sense of justice in an acceptable fashion. A fascinating illustration of an allegory of justice comes from the 14th century Chinese play The Chalk Circle by Li Xingdao -- adapted by Bertolt Brecht in his most performed play Caucasian Chalk Circle - which is a parable about a peasant girl who rescues a baby and becomes a better mother than the baby's wealthy natural parents. When it comes to a making a choice of the custody of the growing child, a quirky Qazi orders the two supposed mothers - the natural and the peasant girl - to pull the child in their own directions. The peasant maid gives up, rather than drawing asunder the child's limbs, but wins the Qazi's approval for keeping the child with her.

Return Ticket
Photos courtesy: Swapan Sengupta

Return Ticket presented on April 15 by Natyaranga was a very brave attempt to create a similar parable in the practice of clinical psychology. Here an almost maniac psychiatrist turns the conventions of therapeutic practice on their head and develop his own radical solution to provide his patients much sought-after relief. The story stands in three legitimate assumptions. One, the cause of each mental illness is different. Two, the role of medicine in treating mental illness is undoubtedly important, but usually the relief provided is short-term. And three, the mental state of such patients is seldom understood by the family and even less so by the society.

In the play directed by Swapan Sengupta, there are four affected couples seen. The first instance is that of a suffering wife subject, in her long married life, to the complaints and diatribes of her husband always in the middle of the night. The second instance is a young couple of doting lovers where the boy is insufferably suspicious of the girl devoted to him. In the third instance, a faithful friend tries to get his morose, confused companion to get married, but to no avail. And the last instance is a young brother who is denied succor for their old parents from his other-worldly brother. To start with, binary conditions of these couples are psychologically assessed: with a case history and mental status examination. Physical examinations and psychological tests are hinted at, with a week-long therapeutic period. This is standard therapeutic practice so far. Thereafter, the apparently ambling doctor prescribes a mythical pair of "return tickets" to each couple - with their "dates of death" indicated! - with the implied idea that the sufferer gets adequate care from the responsible party for a guaranteed period of "life span." Flying in the teeth of modern psychiatry from this point onwards, this is, nevertheless, poetic justice and appears to be a triumphant device, howsoever unconventional!

The play -- very creditably designed and penned by Rajat Mallik, considering this to be his first-time effort - is well-handled by the director Swapan Sengupta. In a well-coordinated teamwork, the kingpin remains the quizzical doctor Goutam Halder, who, playing around with his mannerisms like a master sorcerer, weaves the play thorough. He is occasionally a little too loud, even slovenly, and his adlibbing too obvious. But, at the end of the day, his poetic parable of justice - for the mental sufferers deserving to receive their quotient of assistance from the society - seems eminently workable, howsoever allegorical and at odds with the accepted clinical practice. A great original work!

Photo: Avishek Ghosh

Photo: Indrajita Chakraborty
Bhalo Lok

The works of the Italian Nobel Laureate playwright, novelist and scholar Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) generally portray Italian middle-class society. With Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, Pirandello revolutionized modern drama in all its aspects from staging to the form of the play. In his own specific contribution to the modern theatre, he imposed upon the art form of theatre itself the principles of analytic decomposition, which Ibsen was content to apply only to human psychology. To this critic, Pirandello's 1920 novel-turned-play, Tutto per Bene (All for the Best, in English), would appear to radically deviate from his usual post-Modernist genre of plays, and follow rather the best traditions of a medieval Morality play, with the protagonist representing an entire social class, while the antagonist and supporting characters are present as personifications of abstract virtues or vices. Prevalent in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, Morality plays were, indeed, an externalized dramatization of a psychological (or spiritual) struggle depicting "the battle between the forces of good and evil in the human soul."

Bhalo Lok (A Good Person) presented on April 24 by Sayak -- a nearly 45-year-old group of theatre enthusiasts -- was faithfully adapted by Chandan Sen to an Indian milieu reflecting a placid rural background in a village 'Majher Char' on the Bhagirathi river bank, where the breeze of urban culture blows but mildly though. Directed by the thespian Meghnad Bhattacharya, we locate two childhood friends, Satyacharan and Dhurjati, both disciples of an erstwhile great man Nityananda in socio-political ideology. But the two friends are eons apart in their inclinations. While Satyacharan is an embodiment of goodwill, bonhomie and camaraderie for the village folk, Dhurjati - having migrated to the city - is presently a crafty politician, without scruples and befriends crony capitalism through scheming journalists. Satyacharan is surrounded by Prabha, the trusted domestic help and Jaleshwar, the faithful local shopkeeper.

After a yawning gap of 18-19 years, Dhurjati revisits his ancestral village for inaugurating its first primary school. Meanwhile, much water has flown down the Bhagirathi. Kalpa, daughter of Satyacharan and Kamalika, who was their mentor's daughter and was affectionately brought up in the city by Dhurjati when Satyacharan was economically weak, comes to meet her long-missing, affectionate father, and the explosive (and long-avoided) encounter between Satyacharan and Dhurjati takes place. Suddenly, it turns out that Dhurjati had a completely secret, adulterous liaison with Kamalika earlier and is Kalpa's biological father. Kalpa has an existential choice now, between the vile and wily Dhurjati, or, the transparently truthful and honest Satyacharan.

Meghnad is superb as Satyacharan (with some touches of melodrama), Asis Ghosh brilliant as Dhurjati, and Kathakali a very comely Kalpa -- with splendid teamwork by a seasoned group. A very satisfying, straightforward and appealing Morality 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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