Half of the six shows at Happenings’ seventh Rabindra Utsav comprised drama, two of them by established institutions of Indian theatre that have never got the chance to visit Calcutta previously, so we anticipated their work with bated breath. Both Ninasam and Janam, however, subverted expectations with productions atypical of their usual style. Furthermore, their approaches to Tagore presented opposite extremes of faithfulness: Ninasam perhaps over-genuflected in reading out verbatim, whereas Janam used Tagore as a notional platform to take off into quite a different scenario altogether.
Ninasam, acronym of Nilakantheswara Natyaseva Sangha (founded in 1949), has become a model cultural centre in the north Karnataka village of Heggodu, bringing modern art to the community that rallies round its activities. Its productions, experimental and modernistic but with strong roots in local traditions, tour across the state. Babugiri joins Kannada translations of the short stories, Thakurda and Khokababur Pratyabartan, as a portrait of babu culture — probably too problematic a phenomenon to encapsulate so easily. In performatory terms, it drops theatre in favour of straightforward storytelling: four actors narrate direct from books in their hands and dramatize the prose (picture). We can interpret this variously, as too much respect for Tagore or innovative direction by Akshara K.V., or both. But theatricality does suffer as a result of the fixed positions, though much of the emotion is reinstated through apt Rabindrasangeet sung powerfully in the original Bengali by Vidya Hegde.
Jana Natya Manch, abbreviated as Janam, became a national byword for politically-committed street theatre under Safdar Hashmi from 1973 and refused to cow down even after his horrible murder during a performance in 1989. Therefore, seeing them on a proscenium stage may seem akin to viewing a fish out of water, though their present writers, Sudhanva Deshpande and Brijesh, have composed for this medium too. In Char Rang, they adopt the form of Chaturanga for a new play linking four characters in Delhi, all of whom come into contact, literally, with Tagore’s book. A professor teaches it; one of her students gets drawn into it; a young man attracted to her decides to impress her by reading it; while he does so in the Metro, an inquisitive older passenger peers over his shoulder at it.
Char Rang borrows themes from Chaturanga like human relationships, the status of women and the fraudulence of organized religion, but one can certainly argue that Chaturanga holds no monopoly on these subjects, found all over Tagore and other authors as well. Structurally, Janam uses the quality of the episodic and the unsaid in Tagore’s novella, leaving us to fill in the blanks in their own story. Supplementing it, Deshpande as director adds two dimensions: the actors themselves depict scenes from Chaturanga in puppetry on one side, which does not succeed, first, because the selection simplifies the original and, second, because the puppeteers have not mastered the skills yet. But Shaaz Ahmed’s live mutable painting on glass interpreting the onstage action does work, also for two reasons: it matches the unstable fluidity of life in the foreground, and forms an urban analogue of Kerala kolam art.
A much younger troupe, Badungduppa, has brought theatre to the Rabha tribe in Goalpara, Assam. Sukracharjya Rabha formed it in Rampur village in 1998, naming it after their indigenous onomatopoeic drum. Adapting Tagore’s short Rather Rasi into Rabha, he actually deletes most of the text, physicalizing the events virtually into dance-theatre. This language speaks just as loudly as Tagore’s words against the menace of the caste system. However, Sukracharjya does polarize Rather Rasi into an upper-castes versus Sudras conflict, which Tagore did indicate but transcended by his inclusive vision in which all people laboured unitedly for the welfare of society.
Sukracharjya applies several techniques learnt during his two-year apprenticeship under Kanhailal in Manipur; one notices Kanhailal’s signature of subtlety and grace in Dhananjay’s and Radhika’s choreography, where even force and violence get stylized by suggestion — no body contact is necessary, the muscular energy of a gesture flows like a ripple through thin air to impact the target. I wished the group did not have to cramp themselves into a stage (with musicians behind the wings) but had performed in the open, their natural space. I also dearly hope that they now take up more complex plays like Muktadhara or Rakta-karabi, environmentally close to them.