Once one accepts that a two-hour dramatization or cinematization of a novel can never hold all its important incidents (and thereby removes the inbuilt literary bias that complains at the slightest trace of “infidelity” to the original), one can try to appreciate such a performance with as near a tabula rasa as possible. At the same time, one should not, and indeed cannot possibly, erase all previous impressions of a classic text like Tagore’s Chaturanga while watching its stage version. The ideal spectator sits on a fine edge, between allegiance to the spirit of the source and a willingness to go along with what someone’s new vision makes of it.
Therefore, in order to review Purba Paschim’s Chaturanga, dramatized by Sekhar Samaddar and directed by Bratya Basu, perhaps one should first attempt to define what Tagore wanted to say in his novella. This seemingly complex task becomes easier by reading it against the backdrop of the Tagorean canon, where shadows of certain themes flit in with great regularity. Each of Chaturanga’s four “limbs” embodies one of these preoccupations. Together, though they may not add up to a complete picture of life, they do form intriguing quadrants of approaches to it.
Chaturanga begins with Sachish’s uncle, a resolute atheist, whose single-minded commitment lies in working for the cause of social humanism. Its narrator, Sribilas, however, with whom it concludes, shows no deep conviction in any doctrine at all, except a loyalty to his friend Sachish. Between these extremes of practical involvement and easygoing good nature (yet both sharing the virtue of self-abnegation) appear Sachish and Damini, also opposites, the potential romance that never clicks. Sachish’s quest for an ideal to shape his life requires a guru to guide him; he swings unbelievably from acolyte of his radical uncle, who dies, to devout disciple of a Vaishnava swami, finally finding spiritual peace on his own. Damini’s search for the physical love that she never received in marriage fixes on Sachish (upon her husband’s death), but after he rejects her, ultimately finds consummation in Sribilas when he proposes to her. Poles apart in spirituality and physicality respectively, both Sachish and Damini discover self-fulfilment in the end. But as their aims are mutually irreconcilable, Damini and Sribilas surprise us as Tagore’s perfect pair — because Sribilas is the only one in the triangle who does not proclaim his desire. He never wants to possess, a quality that Tagore always upheld.
How far does the play express these typically Tagorean dualities? Given the limited time on stage, Samaddar does well to incorporate most of the novella’s 27 sections by adopting the contemporary filmic mode of scripting short, snappy scenes. However, this has a downside too, preventing the actors from building episodes and characterization as they normally would have, and neither is Tagore’s fiction suited to these jumpcut techniques. But Basu interpolates two flagrantly un-Tagorean moments: when Sachish accidentally spies Damini writhing in her bedroom, crying “Daya karo, amake mariya phelo”, he makes Sachish enter (rather than run away) and clasp her in a near-kiss. And for the climactic night in the cave, he brings on Damini like a filmi nagini in a glittery bodysuit to twine round Sachish with her legs. Overt crudity that kills Tagore’s subtlety.
The lead quartet’s acting varies. Soumitra Mitra convincingly portrays Jagamohan (the uncle), his gentle altruism, rationalistic strength of mind as well as his anger at his hypocritical, orthodox family. Debdut Ghosh stands out as Sribilas: natural and engaging, he never lets us guess his feelings for Damini, maintaining a conversational rapport with the audience. What comes across in Kushal Chakrabarti’s interpretation of Sachish is his confusion; Basu satirizes the ashram sequences, so the depiction of any sincerity in Sachish’s religious fervour does not arise here. But it is Chaiti Ghoshal who disappoints the most, caught between habitual fake TV emoting and occasional flashes of hysteria, indicating that Basu had asked her for a psychologically disturbed Damini but she could not deliver. It is a tribute to Tagore, not her, that the last line (of the book and drama) still rings true; she tells Sribilas before dying, “May I find you again in my rebirth.”
In his directorial note, Basu also links retroactively to Chaturanga disillusionment with institutionalized communism and anti-globalization, but thankfully these remain there only in theory and are non-starters on stage. Visuals that just do not work include the British college teacher speaking incomprehensibly in a red beard and a frayed, misshapen top hat, and Saumik-Piyali’s apology for a set.