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Values across millennia - feminism, feudalism

October 22, 2019

How long can one go back to look at the definitive narratives about the human values? Considering the earliest Greek myths recorded, in the poet Hesiod's Theogony composed in the 7th century BC one gets snapshots of the myths on the origins and genealogies of the Greek gods. One comes across the bewitchingly beautiful Medea there, as the granddaughter of the sun-god Helios and wooed by Jason, the bravest of the Greek heroes. Based upon this myth, the Greek playwright Euripides built his epic tragedy Medea in the early 5th century BC.

The plot centers on the actions of Medea, the princess of the "barbarian" kingdom of Colchis and the wife of Jason. She finds her position in the Greek world threatened, as Jason leaves her for a Greek princess of Corinth. Medea takes vengeance on Jason by murdering Jason's new wife as well as her own children (two sons), after which she escapes to Athens to start a new life. Medea became a classic of the Western canon and has remained the most frequently performed Greek tragedy right up to the 20th century. It experienced renewed interest in the feminist movement of the late 20th century, being interpreted as a nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of Medea's struggle to take charge of her own life in a male-dominated world.

Nearly three millennia later - after Hesiod's Medea - comes the noted Bengali poet, novelist and short story writer, Sunil Gangopadhyay, whose fictionalized account of true events, Lanthan Saheber Bungalow, is set in the early 19th century and narrates the triad of conflicting feudal interest: among the retired British mariner-turned-philanthropist, Charles (Charlie) Hamilton; the merchant-marauder organ, East India Company; and Prince Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1847), the large-hearted rich zaminder (incidentally, grandfather of the great poet Tagore). The white émigré Hamilton (his name mispronounced as 'Lanthan Saheb' by the simple village folk) has settled in a village -- near the grave of his long-departed wife Jennifer (Jenny) - where the British couple had raised a rich orchard and owned a large plot of land which they had given away for supporting the village market. The local people lavish their affection and gratitude on their dear 'Lanthan Saheb' who, most selflessly, has been giving them of his love and care for their well-being and was worried about medical treatment of the locally rampant eye disease. How the greedy Company wanted to get him out of the Company's property and how the zaminder's munificence -- as a token of recognition of Hamilton's selfless service for the marginalized men - won him back his mansion for occupation till death, is the rest of the story.

Photos courtesy: Rangapat

Medea presented on September 21 by 'Rangapat' is a brilliant transcreation of the Euripides original, with gorgeous sets and a brilliantly handled, masked Chorus (a must with the ancient Greek drama). After a short overture between the lamentation of the heart-broken Medea (essayed brilliantly by Senjuti Mukhopadhyay) and dire predictions of the evil times to come by the elderly nurse Agathe (well enacted by Sukriti Lahiri), the scene reverts to a flashback of a pyrrhic courtship of the unequal couple, followed by a steamy simulation of their union, cementing their future bonding.

Directed superbly by Tapanjyoti Das, the play proceeds on the same grandiloquent note with setting, acting and lighting combining to lend support - to Medea's uprooting to Corinth; her receiving tidings of the breach of faith by Jason; her futile attempts to persuade Jason to remember his marital vows; her being occasionally admonished by the nurse and the Chorus; her receiving the Corinthian King Crayon's stern orders for immediate banishment for the sake of peace, and Medea's pleading for being allowed just one day to stay on. Thereafter, the events acquire a breakneck speed with Medea hatching her dire plot to take revenge on Jason against all sane advice; Jason's dark forebodings; the chance meeting with the Athens king, Aegius, offering her refuge in Athens; her offer of the poisoned, gilded robe to the unsuspecting Corinthian bride, killing the daughter and the father in one fatal sweep; and the final chilling act of murdering her two sons, with a completely devastated Jason pleading for a last look at his sons, only to be denied by Medea.

Suman Saha assuming the triple role of Jason, Crayon and Aegius is simply marvelous. On a broader level, the director brings out beautifully its feminine viewpoint beyond the plot's normal ambit of love, temptation, violence, failure and utter revulsion. The feminist dimensions are well-etched: Medea's troubles from her loss of roots from Colchis to Greece; her feeling of isolation, becoming a persona non grata; her conflicts surfacing against the surrounding people, race and religion; her utter desolation at the altar of Jason's lust for power; and the eventual deception designed on her very presence, leading to a total suppression of her identity and existence. Hence the retribution, the revenge! Hence the upholding of the feminist values, three millennia ago!

Lanthan Saheber Bungalow
Photos courtesy: Nandimukh

Literally meaning the 'Mansion of the Lantern-carrying Gentleman', the play was presented on October 6 by 'Nandimukh' as a tribute to their founder, the iconic Bengali actor Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay, who died in 1983 even before he could complete a half-century innings!

Directed competently by Ashok Chattopadhyay, the play opens with Hamilton - who has turned into an alcoholic since his wife Jennifer's death -- having a drop too many. He is surrounded by his minions, Laxmi, Phatik and Kasem from the local populace who can give their life for their dear "Lanthan Saheb." He is at loggerheads with the Naib of the absentee zaminder trying to evict him from his bungalow by hook or by crook. The overhanging shadow of the ominous East India Company, whose writ runs everywhere, had sold their land interests to the zaminder and is now desperate to get him out of their way. The ugly clash of feudal interests is depicted against a benign British 'renegade' whose only desire is to live near his dear departed's last remains and carry on with the philanthropic work they had launched together.

The rural scene is well etched with the simple folks pledging their all to save the kind "Saheb" and the latter snatching his hallucinating moments with the "spirit" of his wife Jennifer. The old stalwart Asit Basu essaying the role of Hamilton is comfortable in the somewhat melodramatic style, reminding one of the Bengali Jatra days. Sonali Chattopadhyay as the "spirit" is just right, and the village personae build an old worldly charm in a virtual period piece.

And the message comes loud and clear: "Any place can be your motherland and any people of any religion can be your companion," as noted by the director in the play's explanatory note. The feudal values play out their overwhelming presence in a regime that was just cracking up under the onslaught of a demonic commercial skullduggery and suave Dwarkanath Tagore's was only a passing presence that could not stop the menacing authoritarianism of the gathering storm waiting to happen and sweep away the old human values.

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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