After praising the initiative behind the national Theatre in Motion festival last month, I have to retract my words because the event has more or less imploded midway, with the cancellation of all its November shows, by the groups Sanket, Pierrot’s Troupe and Ekjut. The last leg in December may go the same way. Even before it opened, the organizers had surprisingly blamed “the lack of theatre culture” in Calcutta, which they will no doubt repeat now, though something else obviously seems to have scuttled their plans.
The tour of two productions by JustUs Repertory (Chennai) compensated for our denied out-of-town expectations, and introduced the Bhawanipur Education Society College as a new player in the theatre sponsorship stakes. JustUs, one of India’s few companies committed to providing a different stage experience, brought the dance-drama Yashodhara and the play Night’s End, both by Gowri Ramnarayan. The latter proved yet again how Ramnarayan specializes in exploring important subjects that dramatists rarely take up. Have we ever heard of a full-length play set in a wildlife sanctuary around a man raising a tiger cub? Because ecology has hardly any presence, leave alone priority, in the popular imagination, our country stands to lose its remaining tigers to extinction within the next ten years.
But Ramnarayan refuses to give in without a fight, without hope; she says in an interview that theatre “gives me the freedom not to accept what’s not right”. So she starts by invoking Vidura’s sage advice from the Mahabharata: “Don’t destroy the forest, don’t kill the tiger./ You cannot have forest without tigers, nor tigers without forest./ The forest protects the tigers, the tigers the forest.” And she writes a simple tale. A Kerala youth from a traditional Kathakali lineage gets a job as a forest officer in a Rajasthan tiger reserve, where he rescues the cub; poachers had killed her mother. The local Mogiya tribals, hunters by vocation, take a liking to him and begin to understand his conservationist vision. We see only one of them, a woman who fancies him. But the love story is less theirs than that of the man and the tigress he rears before she returns to the wild.
Ramnarayan composed the text in a consciously unconventional style — the man and woman soliloquize separately, themselves not meeting, though she always has an eye on his movements. Their alternating monologues grow shorter and shorter until their fleeting encounter towards the end. Ramnarayan should edit their expository speeches at the beginning, which furnish far too many details about their past, unnecessary for today’s sharp audiences. A reduction of 10-15 minutes may tighten the production to its ideal length. One of our few authors with a sound knowledge of classical forms, Ramnarayan utilizes this in her direction — giving the officer a Kathakali background so that Sheejith Krishna (picture) can showcase his talent easily, in Mahabharata sequences from the Kathakali repertoire. He actually performs a double role, because he also represents the cub by reacting to her affectionate jousts with him. Akhila Ramnarayan portrays the Mogiya woman with a natural freedom.
In another reclamation of classical drama based in nature, Ganakrishti has staged a Bengali translation of a Slovenian adaptation of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala by Evald Flisar, with whom the group shares a professional association. Unlike most Indians who know nothing about our foremost Sanskrit play, Flisar recognizes its universal relevance and transports three of Kalidasa’s dramatis personae into metropolitan India: Shakuntala works in a travel agency, Dushyanta is a foreign tourist, and Madhavya his sceptical buddy.
The concept reminds me of my contemporization of Shakuntala ten years ago, where Shakuntala remained in a forest ashram, but Dushyanta became a rich city slicker holidaying in the lap of nature, who takes advantage of her, analogous to what urban Indians do to our wilderness. Whereas I retained Kalidasa’s script, Flisar retells it his own way and drops all the other characters. Thereby, he loses the subtle and intense rasas that evoke the timeless beauty of the original. In their place, he turns his Shakuntala into an East-West opposition stressing cultural imperialism, moving from stereotypical notions that the twain shall never meet to a plea for harmony.
Amitava Dutta has translated Flisar’s free verse into a spoken prose idiom for Ganakrishti’s young directors, Amit Ganguly and Ankan Roy, to handle more manageably. Soma Dutta interprets Shakuntala as a new-generation working woman, Hillol Chakraborty depicts Dushyanta as very confused and decidedly unheroic, and Dipak Das’s Madhavya comes closest to Kalidasa’s characterizations, as the jester-confidant.