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THE VOICE OF THE UNDERCLASSES

The rise into the big league of a nascent director always makes good news in the world of Bengali theatre, which constantly needs fresh voices to sustain its claims to diversity. Parthapratim Deb has directed previously, with his parent group, Nandikar, where he began supervising childrenís theatre, and his own unit, Baghajatin Alap. But his recent works for these units establish him as a name to reckon with in future, as long as he does not stagnate in one style and keeps alive his search for learning through unfamiliar processes.

Both productions under discussion reveal this readiness to relive almost anthropologically the experiences of people surviving on the edges, remote from Calcutta. Nandikarís Nachni depicts the exploited Nachni entertainers of Puruliya, whereas Alapís Sagina Mahato revisits the tea-garden labourers of Darjeeling district. Obviously, Deb feels an empathy for the underclasses that draws him to such texts, both of which come from major novels: Subrata Mukhopadhyayís epic Rasik (1991), which Deb himself has dramatized, and Gaurkishor Ghoshís Sagina Mahato, made famous in its dramatic incarnation by Badal Sircar in 1970, which Deb adopts.

Debís deliberate changing of Mukhopadhyayís title rightly shifts attention from the Rasiks, the male managers-cum-artistic and sexual partners of the Nachni dancers, to the women themselves, foregrounding their oppression. He also compacts the sprawling 700-page source impressively, without sacrificing the intricate warp and weft covering three generations of a family of Rasiks, who continue to abuse their Nachnis and even othersí, though they may have their own wives at home.

The strongest performers are the actresses: Swatilekha Sengupta as the oldest Nachni, Kusmibai (whose Rasik attempts to seduce the youngest recruit to the clan), Sohini Sengupta as Bijalibala (cajoled into joining by her already-married lover) and Sharbani Bhattacharya as Rasanabala, Bijaliís mother (who sells her off to a dacoit, which she considers a better prospect). The gritty opening scene between daughter and mother sets the mood. The conclusion, with Kusmibaiís corpse dragged out of the village before Bijali stops it, saying she will conduct the last rites herself, shocks in its veracity. Deb (in picture, alternating with Sumanta Gangopadhyay), Rudraprasad Sengupta and Debsankar Halder enact the three generations of Rasik proprietors in descending seniority distinctively, vivifying their internal tensions.

Nandikarís house style of larger-than-life spectacle suits the social context. Although viewers may regard it as too loud, we could justify it as capturing the pitch and mannerisms of the community itself. Deb takes particular care on accents, too, and most of all on the Jhumur songs and percussion, since he is a musician himself.

A similar approach characterizes Sagina Mahato, in which Deb galvanizes his entire group into a collective energy and ensemble work that match the inherent liveliness of the labourers, as well as Saginaís successful mobilization of them into both music and action. Purely on a hypothetical plane, one wonders if Deb has thought of replicating the historic journey of Sircarís play, originally written for the proscenium, but then breaking out of it to launch Sircarís concept of anganmancha, beyond the conventional stage. Alapís version can easily do this, if they want to.

In the present election season, Sagina Mahato resonates with Sircarís exposť of how political parties use disaffected citizens opportunistically for their own ends, forgetting them later. In Saginaís case, the party noticed his popularity and elevated him to the post of labour welfare officer, but then betrayed labour welfare itself. After Sagina realized this, he refused to obey their high command that had ordered him upwards to the national level, and he returned to his roots. Unlike many of Sircarís more disillusioned dramas, it ends on that note of hope, in the true spirit of socialist realism.

Deb delivers an electrifying performance in the eponymous role, whether charismatic, drunk or singing. As Gauri, the party functionary sent to co-opt Sagina, Nandini Bhowmik gives a nuanced portrayal of ideological commitment that later begins to waver, combined with growing personal affection for him. In Sagina Mahato as in Nachni, Deb puts large teams of young theatre artists through rigidly-choreographed movement on stage to create riveting crowd sequences.