Nandikar’s National Theatre Festival focused its spotlight squarely on the eastern region. Seagull (Guwahati) revived The Green Serpent, its first directly political statement that had upset some Assamese in 2009 but proved the boldest production on view. Dramatized by director, Baharul Islam, from Dhrubajyoti Bora’s story, it lays bare the highly volatile state of Assam today. Ostensibly a personal tragedy of victimization, it refers to ethnic violence, the Bodoland Territorial Area, tribal problems and Bangladeshi migrants. An Assamese family living there for generations get sucked into the insider/outsider tensions; they are branded as foreigners, and the daughter is raped. Commenting on the situation in an interview, Baharul has said, “Sometimes I feel like I’m a second-class citizen because my last name is Islam.” Bhagirathi Islam and Pallabi Phukan (picture) express the trauma of the mother and daughter respectively, but the son’s name, Asom, seems too blatantly symbolic.
Baa — The Creative Breeze brought the other entry from Assam, Habib Tanvir’s classic Charandas Chor translated into Assamese by Bhagirathi and director Anup Hazarika. They remained faithful to the source, even though they condensed it to 100 minutes keeping in mind the normal duration of theatre in our far-eastern states. Hazarika adopted the Nagara Nam folk-music form of the lower valley as his mode, transforming the text into a colourfully stylized performance ringed by singers and dancers (costumes and choreography by Pakija Begum), less boisterous than Naya Theatre, but no less striking in impact.
From Manipur came Banian Repertory Theatre, whose Kumudini had Manipuri womankind as its theme. M.C. Arun’s script juxtaposed a radical young woman discussing the subject with a man and a jailor, and the history of Maharani Kumudini, who successfully manoeuvred Manipur through the crisis following her husband’s death in 1834 and kept the throne secured for her two-year-old son to ascend later on. She became a role model for Manipuri women, usually stereotyped as gentle and docile, but still often alone, like her. M.C. Thoiba’s direction tended to over-explicate the discourses when just the presentation itself sufficed.
Natya Chetana (Bhubaneshwar) returned again, with Chring Chring, dramatized by Subodh Patnaik from Mohapatra Nilamani Sahu’s short story, Bihanga Biplaba. Similar to the Sufi fable, The Conference of the Birds, the winged denizens of the forest, fed up with the lawlessness of the monkeys — cronies of the King Bear — and corruption in the court of justice, revolt and take over the reins of government. The allegory is obvious. Patnaik designed his trademark central bamboo structure, somewhat compromised this time by the use of plastic toys, hardly eco-friendly. Directorially, he spurred his now international ensemble into yet another energized display led by Sujata and Manoj as the harassed pair of orioles, but portraying the tiger as devious shows that Patnaik has not caught up with our desperate attempts to save the king of the jungle.
The Bangladeshi Tempest (Dhaka Theatre) disappointed so much as to make us question the basis on which the Globe Theatre commissioned it for last year’s Globe to Globe Festival staging Shakespeare’s works in 37 languages. The fault lies not in Rubayet Ahmed’s translation or Nasir-uddin Yousuff’s directorial decision to combine Palagan and Panchali as the performance idiom, but with the utter blandness of acting that failed to stir a ripple in the teacup, forget a tempest. Prospero (Rubol Lodi) conveyed no power, the not-so-innocent Miranda (Esha Yousuff) behaved as if she had known quite a few men before setting eyes on Ferdinand, Ariel (Shimul Yousuff) moved with leaden rather than fleet feet, and Caliban (Chandan Chowdhury) stayed a most un-postcolonial rogue, yet never attempted to violate Miranda. Only the actress playing Trinculo (Samiun Jahan Dola) offered a distinctive, spirited portrayal. As for the Manipuri pung-cholom dancers, we see far superior exhibitions here, including in Kumudini. Londoners, knowing no better, probably loved this Tempest simply for its exotic otherness.
The only new local play was Tritiya Sutra’s one-act Sunya Sudhu Sunya Nay, Ujjwal Chattopadhyay’s dramatization of Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s entertaining short story. However, this tale of a painter who goes to a supposedly haunted house and gradually falls in love with the resident young ghostess to the extent that he marries her cannot be reduced merely to a vehicle for laughter as has become the current fad in Bengali treatments of supernatural fiction. Especially given Saradindu’s sad, moody and even serious ghost stories, we expected more layered interpretation from a director like Suman Mukhopadhyay. Curiously, Joydeep Ghosh’s film, Maya Bazar, in the can for three years and recently released, contained a more nuanced retelling of the same story. Still, Turna Das excels as the mute spirit and Suman Nandy complements her as the man, but Mukhopadhyay overdoes both the farce in the prelude with his mother and the projected slides, which work only in the conclusion.