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SEEKING INSPIRATION IN HISTORY
Theatre

Along with the commemoration of various demicentenaries this year comes the concomitant historical drama. Sixteen Bengali groups have collaborated on Natadha’s Palashi (picture), to mark the 250th anniversary of the battle that established the British in India. Of course, the subject is not particularly original — not only do three uneven plays exist featuring Palashi in their titles, but also two classics named after Siraj-ud-daula, by Girish Ghosh and Sachin Sengupta.

With such saturation, what can dramatist Shib Mukhopadhyay do that is especially new' He attempts a much more extensive prehistory than his predecessors, starting as far back as Murshid Quli Khan’s move of the diwankhana from Dhaka to Makhsudabad, renamed Murshidabad by him, in 1700. Inevitably, large chunks of the intrigues that followed over the next 50 years fall by the wayside, notably the role of Siraj’s grandfather Aliwardi Khan, who does not appear. The distaff side is better represented, including Siraj’s mother Amina, envious aunt Ghaseti and wife Lutfunnesa.

The 23-year-old Siraj, created plausibly by the baby-faced and initially namby-pamby Arna Mukhopadhyay, seems in fact more historically correct than Ghosh’s or Sengupta’s heroes (enacted by Dani Babu and Nirmalendu Lahiri respectively, both in their late thirties). The author has also dropped the fictitious characters invented by Ghosh and Sengupta, but downplayed Mir Jafar’s proverbially villainous faithlessness. Starring such actors as Meghnad Bhattacharya (Clive), Saumitra Basu (Jagat Seth) and Sima Mukhopadhyay (Ghaseti), Palashi has strong performances, though, ideologically, it remains fairly conventional, tarring all merchants, whether British or Indian, as machinating, and equating the mercantile class with capitalistic imperialism.

Skip a hundred years, and we arrive at the turning point whose sesquicentennial occurs this year. Like Palashi, Ganakrishti’s Jhara Samayer Kabya, based on Mirza Ghalib’s life around 1857, suggests that we note the similar things happening today. In this case, too, many earlier plays dealt with the poet’s biography, like Kaifi Azmi’s Akhri Shama and Surendra Verma’s Qaid-e-Hayat, though not in Bengali. Therefore, Sumitro Bandyopadhyay’s work acquires some significance, but is less about Ghalib than his changing times, in which new political, economic and aesthetic orders replaced the older ones.

Thus, as the senior Ghalib wonders at what goes on, a young harbinger of literary modernism rebels against the recognized norms of Urdu poetry. Bandyopadhyay also shows the commercialization of art already under way, as a publisher displays greater concern over sales than quality. Ghalib (Taranga Sarkar) acts as silent witness to all the changes, whereas his wife (Soma Dutta) bitterly criticizes him for his neglect of financial responsibilities.

Amitava Dutta credibly directs his large cast (Palashi boasts of an equally numerous team) in delivering dialogue liberally laced with Urdu and verse in the original language, but a few details look quite dubious: book launches with red ribbons round the volume, applause at poets’ gatherings instead of the customary verbal plaudits, and even a pistol of decidedly 20th-century vintage.

In 1856, Bankimchandra Chatterjee published his first historical novel, Durgesh-nandini, which Ushnik’s Durgesh-nandan alludes to, albeit only in its nomenclature. The transition from past glory to present “economic development” occupies the centre stage in Ishita Mukhopadhyay’s contemporary tale about the Rajput custodian of a fort who swears by his heroic ancestors’ code of honour, whereas the village lass who becomes his partner has her sights on the city lights of Jaipur. The two-hander reaches its crisis when the government decides to convert the site into a hotel and offers the man a humble durwan’s position.

However, this production does not fare as well as its Hindi translation premiered by Spandan in 1998. As director, Mukhopadhyay utterly fails to block her two actors; besides, she needs sustained and varied performances from them. But the young Shounak Sanyal is too fixed and limited in his voice and body language, compared to the freer, more experienced Mandira Banerjee. Hiran Mitra’s heavy set cannot compensate for the drawbacks.

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