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Solo storytelling

Calcutta's big groups are going places. While Rangakarmee returns triumphantly from its German trip, Nandikar flies off on its annual American sojourn. The ability of a few companies to muster enough support to tour internationally gives local theatre welcome foreign visibility.

Nandikar's new pair of productions confirms that this institution of contemporary Bengali theatre, which made a name through its adaptations of Western dramatic classics, has now chosen a different path to travel. For some years now, under Goutam Halder, it has concentrated on dramatising poetry and fiction, mainly from Bengali. This shift in generic and geographic source material had mixed results at the beginning, but now Halder appears to have got a surer handle on how to script and theatricalise literature.

Chokh Gelo and Bappaditya, originating from master narrators Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay and Abanindranath Tagore respectively, also showcase the mother-daughter duo of Swatilekha Sengupta and Sohini Halder respectively. Sengupta brings her whole life experience into the characterisation of the ostracised 'witch' who lives alone in the sandy wilderness outside a Birbhum village in Bandyopadhyay's story Daini.

Shunned because she apparently had the evil eye, the old woman finds that the reputation pursues her even there: the few people she inadvertently meets or tries to help with the little that she has, either run away or die from causes not of her making. She starts to believe that she actually is a witch.

Sengupta's eccentric chuckles and mumbling to herself are enhanced physically by Ranjit Datta's fine makeup. As director, Goutam Halder succeeds in expressing not just the injustice of the situation but also the elemental nature of Birbhum's landscape. Tapas Sen's exceptionally stark lighting and the cyclorama of a distant horizon credited to Soumik and Piyali brood ominously over the solitary denizen and ultimately crash down on her in a finale reminiscent of the storm on the heath in King Lear.

Abanindranath Tagore's Bappaditya comes from his familiar compilation of Rajput tales for young people, Rajkahini. It tells the violent story of the eponymous prince who passes through so many crises of identity that finally he represents all mankind, worshipped after his death by Hindu and Muslim alike. But it excludes the Bhil tribals from this all-embracing harmony (Bappaditya ruthlessly slaughters them and Abanindranath sheds no politically-correct tears either).

Besides, Halder's interpretation of Bappaditya's unfulfilled 'eternal love' for the Solanki princess seems too romanticised, given that Bappaditya showed no qualms about marrying first the princess of Devabandar and then the princess of Khorasan.

Nevertheless, Sohini Halder ignores these subaltern and feminist perspectives, and delivers a stirring solo storytelling performance, bolstered on the one hand by Abanindranath's plangent palette-like language, and on the other by strong music from an always-present ensemble that vitalises the show.

ANANDA LAL

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