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Theatre offers a level playing field

Rajesh as Amol and Pratika as Sudha in a scene from Rajar Chithi-1942. (Arnab Mondal)

When a 12-year-old street child, a tribal girl who has never been to school and a visually impaired youth take the stage at the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi, on January 14, it will be a dream come true for playwright and director Shubhashis Gangopadhyay.

Gangopadhyay had always wanted to create a democratic space on stage and Rajar Chithi-1942, his latest production for theatre group Renaissance which has been selected to be a part of the 15th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, lends a platform to people from all sections of society.

“We try to involve common people and help them grow as individuals through this form of art. I think that is the true purpose of theatre,” said Gangopadhyay, founder of Blind Opera and later Anyadesh for the visually impaired.

Two of Gangopadhyay’s earlier plays — Manasa Mangal with Blind Opera and Raktakarabi with Anyadesh — had also made it to the NSD festival. More than 85 productions, including 11 from Calcutta, will be staged in the latest edition of the festival from January 5 to 20.

“None of the three plays is part of mainstream theatre. It proves that if we try, we can produce good plays. This can be a way to develop a new form of theatre,” said Gangopadhyay.

The mission is, in a sense, a culmination of Tagore’s vision, feels the playwright. “In many of Tagore’s plays, an ordinary person emerges as the central character. Amol in Dakghar, Jai Singha in Bisarjan and Nandini in Raktakarabi are some examples. None of them belongs to the upper rungs of the social ladder.”

In Rajar Chithi-1942, the director blends Tagore’s Dakghar with the true story of Janusz Korczak, a Christian physician who ran an orphanage for Jews and staged Tagore’s play with the children barely a fortnight before they were sent to a death camp.

“Abrassa, the boy who played Amol in the orphanage in 1942, was a ‘nobody’ and our Amol, Rajesh Singh, too, comes from a poor family and is an ordinary student at Adarsh Madhyamik Vidyalay, Dum Dum. We found him at a theatre workshop in his school,” said Gangopadhyay. “Pratika Sanyal, who plays Sudha, on the other hand, comes from an upper middle class family and studies at Bethune Collegiate School.”

Both Rajesh and Pratika are determined never to quit theatre. “Last year, Shubhashis Sir took a few of our classes and offered me the role of Sudha. I am very happy to be a part of such a big production,” said Pratika, who has been attending theatre classes at Nehru Children’s Museum since 2010.

Sanju Oraon, 25, has never been to school, but she too enjoys being on stage. A resident of Adivasi Para in Dum Dum, Sanju’s entry into theatre happened by chance but she has since played key roles in several plays.

“A friend of mine came looking for a cassette of tribal music for a play. I was curious. So I went to see the rehearsal and soon became a part of Natapith. I was 15 then. I went on to play the lead in the play,” recounted Sanju, who has become a trendsetter of sorts in her locality.

Shubhas Dey (37), who plays Chhidam in the play, is a role model for visually impaired artistes. He was just two years old when he lost vision in both eyes because of wrong treatment. Soon after, his parents passed away. But life did not stop for Shubhas, who took admission in Calcutta Blind School, Behala. It was while doing his graduation in political science from Calcutta University that Shubhas met Gangopadhyay at a theatre workshop.

Shubhas finds inspiration in Amol. “Amol is the embodiment of our imagination. He is ageless,” said Shubhas.

Rajar Chithi-1942 ends with a new Amol holding up a letter, the letter of salvation. Twelve-year-old Mir Azajul, who plays this role, lives on a footpath near Sovabazar Metro station. His father pulls a cycle van and his mother works as a domestic help. “One of my father’s friends took me to Alok Sir (Alok Chakraborty, director of Renaissance) who was looking for a boy for this play. I didn’t have a clue about theatre, now I am loving it,” said Azajul.

Gangopadhyay hopes the chance to perform at NSD will encourage Azajul and other members of Renaissance.