Krishnagar, Oct. 10: Chhai Das clutched his chest, sank to the ground and collapsed — as laid down in the script and as he had been doing for almost every day over the past month.
Then he started to groan. Another rehearsal done well with a bit of improvisation, his fellow artists thought, and waited for him to rise to his feet — as he had been doing all these days.
Last evening, Das, 58, did not get up.
Life had just imitated art in the most tragic of circumstances in Nadia, death striking the amateur actor exactly as it was preordained in the script.
Das was not a full-time actor — he was part of a slice of life in Bengal that makes festivals celebratory social events with deep involvement of the community.
Das’s day job involved toiling in paddy fields as a labourer at Barnia-Sardarpara in Tehatta, 166km from Calcutta. A lover of village plays (jatrapala), Das took part in the local productions almost every Puja.
This year, the chosen play was Kajalrekha (which translates as kohl-rimmed eyes but the title plays on the names of the leading characters).
Scheduled to be staged on Ashtami, Kajalrekha’s theme is communal harmony. It tells the love story of Kajal, the son of Muslim zamindar Shahazada Khan, and Rekha, the daughter of a poor Hindu, in the eastern part of undivided Bengal.
The relationship is opposed by the zamindar. During an altercation with Kajal, the zamindar flies into a rage and suffers a heart attack.
Tragedy unfolded when this scene was being rehearsed last evening.
Kartik Das, one of the actors, recounted: “Chhai-da was playing the zamindar. Towards the end of the play, he clutches his chest and slowly sits down and then collapses. Chhai-da enacted the scene like he had been doing every evening. But yesterday he started groaning after lying down. We thought he was improvising. Then he started foaming at the mouth and we realised something was wrong.”
Das’s son Haribhusan, who plays the flute in the play, said: “We rushed him to a private nursing home at Barnia market, where a physician declared my father dead. The doctor told us he died of a massive heart attack.”
It is not clear whether a doctor certified the cause of death or one of the quasi-medical staff reached that conclusion, which is not uncommon in villages.
“Chhai Das was very enthusiastic about staging jatrapalas in the village during the Pujas. He plays a key role in choosing the plays and enacting them,” said Tarun Ghosh Chowdhury, the Barnia gram panchayat chief.
“The rehearsal was being held for a month in the courtyard of the Chandi mandap. Yesterday, the rehearsal was being held with some hired musicians,” said the panchayat chief.
Haribhusan, the son, spoke of his father’s enthusiasm. “After returning home, he would eat two rotis, take tea and rush to the Chandi mandap, asking me to go ahead of him as I am a member of the music team.”
Das apparently was feeling tired yesterday. “Yesterday evening my husband was feeling very tired before he left for the rehearsals. I had asked him not to go. But he would not listen as he loved to act in these plays. He even told me to go and watch him enact the zamindar’s role,” his wife Sushila said.
Told of the tragedy, magician P.C. Sorcar Jr., whose father P.C. Sorcar Sr. had died while performing in Japan in 1971, said this evening: “According to Natyashastra of Bharat Muni, devoted actors merge with their characters. There are many instances where actors have died while performing. Bharat Muni has cautioned actors about this.”
Sorcar Jr. recalled his father’s death. “In that particular performance, he was having chest pain but he carried on with the show. At the end of the show, he had confessed to the audience that he was not feeling well. He had also told them that his son would complete the contract. I did so and performed with a synthetic smile, wearing my father’s sherwani,” he said.
In Kajalrekha, Kajal and Rekha marry with a heavy heart after the death of the zamindar.
However, Kajalrekha is unlikely to be staged, unless the villagers decide to go ahead with the play as a tribute to Das.
The villagers said this evening they had decided to cancel the event. “We are very depressed. For the past one month, Chhai-da attended the rehearsals without fail. He was one of the main driving forces behind the play,” said Afer Sheikh, a villager.