Topping their previous Tagorean successes in prison therapy with Taser Desh and Tota Kahini, the Baharampur unit of West Bengal Correctional Services staged Yakshapuri, their most ambitious project yet, under Pradip Bhattacharya, the director of Berhampore Repertory Theatre. Not only is the source, Rakta-karabi, far more complex than the other two works, but to suggest that penitentiary conditions resemble those in Tagore’s allegorical town takes gumption. We must congratulate the authorities for their magnanimity in allowing this interpretation.
Bhattacharya makes a point by using Tagore’s original title to stress the grim location, rather than Tagore’s second title, Nandini, which highlights the heroine, or his final choice of the poetic symbol of a flower. We have seen many productions of Rakta-karabi, but this one amazes in two unexpected ways. First, it completely demolishes the notion that Tagore composed this play in a high-flown literary register unrelated to reality. Not once did I sense that the mostly unlettered actor-inmates spoke artificially; on the contrary, their lines flowed as though they actually conversed like this, whether in their villages or in jail. In hindsight, how forced the same speeches sound when delivered by sophisticated urban performers pretending to be rustic!
Second, I have never heard a better Bishu Pagal than Buddhadeb Mete (picture, with Nandini). He possesses innate stage presence, commanding attention whenever he appears. But above that, blessed with a full-throated voice that one associates with the countryside, he makes Tagore’s lyrics his own, sung with deep feeling and in perfect pitch (unsupported by any instrument), fluently expressing their profundity.
Bhattacharya gets everyone to chip in, though, and some of the ensemble scenes where the excavators talk or get drunk also strike us with their verisimilitude. He has edited the text towards the end, perhaps worried about our patience. I encourage him to reinstate more, for he has a most capable team.
In Nairik’s Phera, written by Sumana Kanjilal and directed by Jayanta Mukhopadhyay, we view one possible outcome of a convict’s release and homecoming. A theatre director imprisoned for killing his wife finds himself not entirely welcome on his return: his daughter-in-law disapproves of his friends dropping in, and his recounting some of his jail experiences to her child. Realizing that his family cannot fully accept him, he decides to leave — and to revive his theatre involvement by embarking on prison theatre to help that neglected community. It is heartening to note the growing sensitivity to issues of rehabilitation in drama, whether through factual application or fictional awareness-raising.