Theatre experiences - folk, freak and Greek
August 26, 2019
Theatre in Bengal and Maharashtra are very much alive and kicking, with Marathi plays perhaps having an edge over their Bengali counterpart. Mumbai holds quite often ticketed drama performances - bang in the midweek, as morning and early afternoon shows and get a house-full at that, while Kolkata does not dare it, generally relegating its shows to the long weekend. But this does not deter the Eastern metropolis from experimenting with various theatrical forms. Over a little more than a month, this critic got to view a vibrant revival of the folkloric drama, a fantasy play built upon bizarre events and a wonderful take on a Greek myth of yore. Here goes the review.
In the marginalized villages of central West Bengal districts live the Muslim women who are professional singers during Muslim weddings. It is little known that unlike wedlock in the Hindu community in the rest of the country, Muslim marriage - in both parts of the erstwhile Bengal -- comes alive with professional singing bouts, giving livelihood to a marginal class of Muslim women. Still less known is the immense pathos - in the nature of deprivations in their conjugal life, their exploitation by the clergy elite and the stifling suppression they face in a totally patriarchal society. In the painstaking research done by Ratna Rashid (which deserves to be expanded and publicized) into this community's livelihood from the countryside of Burdwan, Birbhum, Murshidabad and Nadia districts, a dismal and heart-wrenching portrait emerges of the sadness and suffering of these women, voiced only in their anguished oral poetry.
Biye -Gauni Kandan-Chapa (Marriage-singer, with Stifled Wailing), presented on July 12 by Theatre Workshop is a wonderfully-titled saga of these totally neglected females, strung around a dozen lyrics (all original compositions, except one contributed by the playwright Chandan Sen). Showcased almost as a docu-drama, the veteran editor and director Ashok Mukhopadhyay brings us the carefully researched material in the form of a modern musical theatre. A cooperative venture by many theatre persons, the play takes shape as interviews by the itinerant scholar Munwara -- shown as an educated housewife in a Muslim family in a remote village who got exposed to their songs from her mother-in-law - and her collection of the songs by the reluctant belles, after much coaxing. When their pathetic stories eventually come out as hidden in the lyrics, Munwara is dumbstruck.
Thus Gol-bibi (Rina Halder) narrates the anguish, along with bitter humor, of living with a co-wife of her husband; Felna-bibi (wonderfully donned by Bindiya Ghosh, with a brand of physical acting rarely seen performed by female actors on stage) describes the acute deceptions in life which could still not deter her from singing on; and the aging Olema (enacted spiritedly by Suranjana Dasgupta) comes out with suppressed wailing, rendered by her singing group of women. Side by side is presented the cameo characters of the scheming Maulabi (Arun Banerjee), the deceiving husband Sherjaan (well done by Loknath Dey) and the other males. The entire performance is in a delightful version of Bengal's Pala Gaan (group recitals) where the actors sit in a semi-circle and come up to enact their roles, then go back to the seated anonymous group and dissolve themselves in the chorus repertory.
Kudos to the director for presenting a nearly forgotten genre of music as absolutely vibrant drama!
While there is no accepted definition of what a 'freak theatre' is, normally one version can be any eerie situation of ghosts and spirits superimposed on a real-life social or psychological drama that could stand on its own.
Revenge Factory presented by Anya Theatre on August 13 very much satisfies this criterion. Both written and directed adroitly by Debashis, the play has the gripping story of a twosome -- the frustrated lover Bulan and his more stout-hearted friend Jimbo -- who devise a devious partnership of wreaking secret revenge on unsuspecting parties in return of "payments" from people who hire them. This is nothing short of "hired crime", but the make enough money to thrive on a social plane. Called "the Revenge Factory", the nefarious venture goes on for quite a while and makes them enough money, till they develop friction and are separated from each other. This happens on the idea of Jhuma, the erstwhile lover of Bulan, who returns on the rebound from a broken marriage, and professes love for him again. How they form now a "Reconciliation Factory" with the pious idea of getting separated people together and how they tie themselves in a knot when Jhuma's estranged spouse comes to them as a client, is the rest of the story.
In the play, there is woven a parallel narrative of the ghosts of a band of policemen - somehow "returned" from the netherworld - who support them in their depraved activities, but are up in arms against them when their wonderful, philanthropic functions take off. Apparently, the idea is to prove the abysmally low morale of our police forces. Once one accepts the two layers of the play, it is a well-enacted performance with vigorous ensemble acting and establish the comic element - with crooks and "cops" exchanging repartees - surprisingly well!
Ancient Greek literature, replete with its dramas, legends and myths, has been a perpetual source for other litterateurs to follow with their variety of themes, depth of foresight into future and wonderful insights into human relationship. The fifth century BC - known as the "Golden Century" - has particularly the fount head of the great tragedy, comedy and satire play heritage for the whole world.
Ion, penned by the great tragedy playwright Euripides sometime in the early fifth century BC- though not among his most popular oeuvre like his Electra plays - was recognized still for its innovativeness. Put in brief, the beautiful, nubile maiden Creusa is seduced by the god Apollo in the remote Inner Rock caves, where she gives birth to a son, unbeknown to the world. She deserts the baby in the caves to the ravages of the wild beasts, but the child is saved by the god's mercy and, when grown up, is employed as a scavenger in Apollo's holy temple. The curtain opens when Creusa, now a queen yet barren, visits to seek divine blessings for a royal child. She is drawn to the handsome youth Ion and is disappointed to learn that he is an orphan. Meanwhile, her husband, the King Xuthus, arrives and receives an oracle assuring him of the Queen's later motherhood and adopting Ion as his son and prince regent, for the present. With great hesitancy, Ion comes to the royal palace.
The queen Creusa is most reluctant to adapt a stranger and plans his killing during the anointment ceremony with poison. Ion is saved fortuitously and on finding out the criminal plot, rushes to kill the Queen. While they are at each other's throat, Apollo's messenger brings a tiding that Ion is actually Creusa's long-lost son. When the basket in which Ion was deserted is produced, Creusa identifies its contents inside, to Ion's full satisfaction. Ion and Creusa are re-united amidst great joy and the god's will to protect his progeny is fulfilled.
Rani Creusa presented on August 16 by Chetana Group, is an adaptation of the above myth into Bengali by the thespian Bratya Basu with many novel embellishments. Equally pronounced is the Úlan with which it is directed by Sujan Mukhopadhyay. Thus, the seduction scene in the dark cave is enacted with great aplomb by Creusa (wonderfully enacted by Nibedita Mukhopadhyay), continuing her rage and frustration against the accepted patriarchal and divine order, including sexual exploitation. The King Xuthus (played with aplomb by the veteran Saheb Chattopadhyay) is honest and straightforward as a person. Innocence of Ion (enacted quite well by Rishav Basu) shines through. The second half of the play is dominated by the drama of the people's court - for which Greek city based democracies were justly famous - and how the vox populi functions with great impact along with the classic confrontations between the state and the individual; between liberalism and religious orthodoxy; and, above all, between the scheming gods and the uncomprehending man, ideas only hinted at by Euripides.
The stage support brilliantly rises to the occasion -- with superb set design (Partha Majumdar), functional lighting (Soumen Chakraborty) and imaginative costume and couture (Prabal Mondal). Music by Prabuddha Bandyopadhyay, in particular, followed a consistent chanting pattern - different from the Gregorian choral singing in medieval cathedrals - to lend them an ancient flavor. Indeed, the formidable director-dramatist duo seemed to have done a great job to infuse rare grandeur and dramatic vigor into the otherwise dialogue-based Greek original.
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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