As the Tagore tributes trickle to a stop, some imaginative approaches ranging from the spatial to the textual catch the eye. Bengali groups, unlike Hindi and English, or in the rest of India, shy away from experimentation with space, to the extent that they literally cannot think out of the box called the proscenium stage. This conservatism has severely limited their outreach, completely out of sync with worldwide interest in environmental and site-specific theatre.
Among the senior generation, only Bibhash Chakraborty has shown a consistent desire to try out non-proscenium locations, exemplified by Anya Theatre’s Grihaprabesh inside the Sovabazar Natmandir (picture). This historic playhouse, probably the venue in the Rajbari complex where Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Ekei ki Bale Sabhyata and Krishna Kumari premiered in 1865-67 before the birth of commercial theatre, is occasionally hired for small concerts, but seems to cry out for the revival of dramatic productions. Unfortunately, Calcutta Corporation’s high rental poses an impediment. Anya Theatre persevered, even if at a loss, making us hope that this marks a turning point for groups, perennially short of places.
Chakraborty knew that only the right play can exploit the Natmandir ambience fully; the choice of Grihaprabesh proved a masterstroke, for the silent pillars that have seen so much appeared to empathize with Tagore’s tragedy of a house built with such love by an owner dying prematurely. Although using the permanent raised platform, the actors also stepped down to floor level for scenes outside the bedroom. Additional spectators could have sat on both wings enclosing the floor, to break the conventional stage-auditorium divide and increase intimacy.
I missed the touch of Chakraborty’s directorial hand, which had evoked Tagore’s other deathbed drama, Malancha, so well in the past. Debesh Chattopadhyay, entrusted with direction, considered neither the incredibly perfect acoustics nor Tagore’s refined sensibility, allowing the cast to emote as in any contemporary soap, drowning the Natmandir in melodrama. By having two actors share the lead, he declined Tagore’s challenge to the hero to hold our attention while supine from start to finish. Sudip Sanyal capitalized on the opportunity of lighting through lattices, but Dron Acharya’s otherwise carefully un-electrified arrangements crashed in an utterly un-Tagorean synthesized finale.
Shohan’s Taser Desh belongs to that increasing genre of works “sourced” from Tagore but scripted by current writers, post-lapse of his copyright. Ujjwal Chattopadhyay has authored this version, but one finds that he stays close to the original plot, characters and even dialogue, sometimes. The new insertions come mostly in the form of a few topical lines that resonate in the context of West Bengal politics today — like Chattopadhyay’s adaptation of Macbeth. Whether this alone justifies credit for authorship remains moot. Actually, Taser Desh carries a hugely revolutionary subtext (as incendiary as Achalayatan or Rakta-karabi) that remains unexplored by Bengali theatre and goes abegging here, too. Not for nothing had Tagore dedicated it to Netaji.
As director, Anish Ghosh succeeds in divesting it of its shopworn dance-drama mode, restoring the primacy of prose in which Tagore composed it, interspersed with songs, of course. Still, Anjan Deb could achieve more with the Cards’ regimented moves, and Gautam Ghosh’s music ideally should be live. Hiran Mitra captures the spirit by designing set and costumes in bright primary colours. The largely young unit gives a vibrant performance, but Partha Gupta charms the most, as the befuddled Raja. Tanima Tat creates a Rani delighted by the winds of change, but Pratik Datta should look for more convincing ways to portray the Prince who, after all, brings the fresh air.
At the edge of the sliding scale of fidelity lies Bohurupee’s Rajar Khonje, linked to Tagore only through Janusz Korczak’s staging of The Post Office in his Warsaw orphanage 70 years ago. It does not perhaps qualify as Tagorean, yet as the fourth local production in two years to resurrect that history, it demands attention under that rubric. Besides, the programme note refers to “Rabindranath’s Amal vision of life”, and the search for both the “real Raja” and the land of Amra sabai raja in it.
It comes closest to Renaissance’s Rajar Chithi 1942: both depict the last months in the lives of the Jewish children and their benefactor before deportation to the gas chambers. Where Renaissance stresses their suffering, playwright Rangan Chakrabarti offers greater hope — Korczak’s inculcation of parliamentary government among the kids, dedication among the workers, the final departure wearing their Sunday best. But since he presents facts, his conversion of Korczak to “Dr Charak” (though retaining his colleague’s name, Stefa) and incorporation of questionable fictional material baffles. Tulika Das directs the orphans naturally and Debesh Raychaudhuri enacts the good doctor with appropriate restraint. To extrapolate relevance into our times, Das ends with Israeli forces herding Palestinians off their homeland.