Arghya, continuing its laudable internalizing and integration of traditional performing arts, crystallized in Bharatkatha in 2009 by employing Chhau, Pandavani and Jhumur, now steps into neoclassical terrain by incorporating Kutiyattam and Kathakali (plus a Chhau reprise) in its spectacular new productions, Karna and Meghnadbadh Kabya. The larger-than-life scale of the Kerala forms pleasantly startles Bengali theatre out of its conventionality, but also dominates the less grand components in the hybrid, like the quieter narrative modes that director Manish Mitra utilizes too. The spectator often needs to quickly readjust to this contrast.
Mitra anthologizes extracts from six versions of Karna’s story, starting on Bhasa’s Karnabharam in Kutiyattam, then sampling Tagore’s Karna-Kunti Sambad and Kuru-Pandav, Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjaya, Buddhadeva Bose’s Pratham Partha and Sabyasachi Deb’s Karna, garnished with Irawati Karve and Saoli Mitra. He claims these are “all the significant literary works” on Karna, but that is simply not accurate. Obviously he should begin with the Mahabharat itself; and instead of two excerpts each from Tagore and Bose, he should inject wider variety with such plays as Aparesh Mukhopadhyay’s Karnarjun or T.P. Kailasam’s Karna.
Meghnadbadh Kabya has greater cohesion because it relies on a single source, Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s epic (marking its sesquicentenary). Although Mitra selects only five episodes from it for dramatization, he succeeds in expressing its human trajectory, more than in his discontinuous presentation of the other tragic hero, Karna. We see Salya, Indra, Kunti, Draupadi and Krishna — in that order — along with Karna; and Ravan, Chitrangada, Pramila, Mandodari, Lakshman, Vibhishan, Saran and several messengers, in addition to Meghnad. Mitra’s construction heightens Karna’s solitude on the one hand, and the sense of family life around Meghnad on the other.
Orthodox characterization suffers in multiple casting. Five actors, including a woman, perform Karna in different styles — an interesting concept — but the other roles are cast discretely. However, in Meghnadbadh, nobody enacts dedicated parts, which makes every scene difficult to sort out initially. The actors of Meghnad, in both his appearances, also play two other characters in each episode, confusing even a veteran like me. Nevertheless, the performers impress with their intensity: Pinaki Biswas (the statuesque Kutiyattam Karna and Kathakali Ravan), Sima Ghosh (Tagore’s Kunti), Anirban Ghosh (Bose’s Karna), Srabani Bhaduri (Draupadi), Ranit Modak (the mourning Ravan).
Mitra attends carefully to artistic design, as in the striking use of fire for Meghnad’s pyre, and Sima Ghosh’s aesthetic costumes. The classical music is apt, but Arghya persists in tolerating technical lapses with lapel mikes and sound balancing. It seems contradictory for a group so immersed in traditional theatre (which perfects voice projection) to resort to amplification.