Swapna-sandhani has timed its new play, Karkat-krantir Desh, for the ballots. Disillusioned by party politics, the poet Sreejato turned to history to write it, finding an objective correlative in the power struggle at the end of Shah Jehan’s reign, between his sons, the liberal Dara Shukoh and the conservative Aurangzeb. Drawing on Abraham Eraly’s Emperors of the Peacock Throne, Sreejato does not tinker with facts, and tells the story succinctly, unlike the epic scale of Mohit Chattopadhyaya’s Aurangzeb, recently staged by Rangapat, adapted from Indira Parthasarathy’s Tamil original. But nobody so far has performed the best play on the heir apparent, Dara Shukoh by our very own former governor, Gopalkrishna Gandhi.
For his allegory meant for present times (“India at the crossroads... had the potential of moving forward with Dara or of turning back to medievalism with Aurangzeb”), Sreejato chose the bare minimum of major characters: the royal males, the opposed sisters Jahanara and Roshanara, Dara’s wives Nadira and Rana-dil, and two Sufi sages whose guidance he sought, though I am not fully convinced that Dara’s love life suits Sreejato’s point. Koushik Sen gives Dara tragic dignity, and Subhro Saurav Das expresses Aurangzeb’s resentment and scary determination, but Siddhartha Banerjee makes an insipid Shah Jehan, in dire need of personality. As director, Sen should politicize the drama much more from the start, otherwise it may be misread as simply a standard history. He also repeats his predilection for masks in the choreographed scenes. But finally, Dara’s call to “take up wisdom, knowledge and truth” echoes for us today.
Polemical theatre in a partisan propagandist mode typifies Nemesis by Natyamukh (Ashoknagar), which Sudipta Chaudhuri dramatizes from Rabisankar Bal’s story, “Taimurer Shâsaner Parabarti Adhyay”. A Kafkaesque regime spirits away an artist significantly named Josef K to design a tribute to themselves and their icons, Marx, Engels and Lenin. For some strange reason, the ruling clique includes Professor Moriarty and Tintin. Impervious to brainwashing, Josef makes sure that the truth surfaces in his artwork, where skulls proliferate as symbols. Abhi Chakrabarti directs with arresting visuals, but ironically, Nemesis reminds me of how leftist theatre groups used to continue railing and sloganeering on stage against capitalist vices even after 30 years of Communist power. Natyamukh should not retrogressively target a spent force, but wake up to the ground realities around and let the truth surface like its Josef does.