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MODERN INTERPRETATIONS AND SUBALTERN TALES

Having completed their 66th year of existence — a monumental achievement by any yardstick, given the highly precarious life-cycle of Indian theatre groups — Bohurupee rededicated themselves to their founding father their annual festival, commemorating Sombhu Mitra, whose birth centenary falls next year. They plan to organize successive events in his honour, leading up to his birthday in August 1915. This year’s festival made a point of inviting current interpretations of two classics indelibly associated with him: Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Tagore’s Rakta-karabi (in the Berhampore Repertory Theatre —West Bengal Correctional Services version, already reviewed in these columns).

But Bohurupee have also played a pivotal part in consistently encouraging and therefore creating original Bengali drama, by seeking out and taking chances with unknown writers, as well as supporting their later works. They have continued to do this — the programme contained two plays by Arupshankar Maitra, who had contributed Nishiddha Thikana and Atmaghati to the Bohurupee repertoire previously. Maitra specializes in subaltern subjects, and his latest, Mukhosher Mukh, is no exception. Set in a remote town bordering Odisha and Jharkhand, where most of the tribal inhabitants find employment in the operations of “Hindusthan Mines Ltd”, it contrasts the well-off lifestyles of the executives’ families with the mute deprivation of the natives, who symbolically wear masks.

The photographer uncle of an officer’s wife comes to spend a few days with them, bringing his new acquisition, a next-generation camera that he says can take pictures of people’s minds (in fact, a recent news item suggests that this idea may not remain science fiction for very long). While he goes about his business, we see her attempting to do social welfare and her son getting into unpleasant scrapes at school and home, both of them appalling in their attitude to the domestic help and other locals. A crisis is averted, but Maitra’s relatively safe conclusion leaves us unsatisfied, by resorting to an old device similar to waking up from a dream, or technology that does not deliver what it promised.

Debesh Raychaudhuri has directed powerful scenes of the masked residents silently expressing their abject straits, and drafted young blood into the Bohurupee team to ensure future continuity. Notably, he has discovered debutante Mausumi Mukhopadhyay (the wife, picture), who imparts to her rather unfavourable role an intensity of characterization rare in a newcomer. Badal Das’s mobile shadow panorama on the backcloth gives a novel touch.

Both in their titles and as depictions of times out of joint, we could compare Mukhosher Mukh with Chhanch Bhanga Murti, Maitra’s earlier play directed by Tarapada Mukhopadhyay. Here, too, the locale is a village, bereft of rain for a long time; the protagonist, a humble craftsman of religious idols. After a lifetime of moulding images of Durga, he decides in disillusionment to make a deity of sin or vice instead, since it reigns over society now. Not just that, he rejects all mores, going against his relatives to bring his old beloved to cohabit with him, and proclaiming his desire to eat beef. In contrast, his God-fearing daughter, tortured by her in-laws, has returned home but holds herself back from reciprocating the overtures of her first lover, still attracted to her.

Raychaudhuri enacts the artisan with his consummate stage presence, supported by three strong actresses: Sumita Basu (the troubled daughter), Tulika Das (his gossipy family senior) and Saleha Ahmed (his daughter-in-law). The production also merits fresh attention because the late Khaled Choudhury designed its rustic homestead, one of his last sets before he gradually withdrew from active involvement in theatre.

Oedipus is by Ebang Amra, an unusual repertory in Bengal, which started off in 1994 at the village of Satkahaniya in Bardhaman district. Drawing its 30 members from the surrounding community, it functions a little like Natya Chetana in Odisha, utilizing indigenous forms and raw material in the creation of its outdoors performances, generally staying away from the city.

The director, Kallol Bhattacharya, ambitiously selected Sophocles’ tragedy to communicate the backstory of which he theatricalized in the first half many scenes not in Sophocles — for instance, Oedipus’ encounter with the Sphinx. Consequently, he had to telescope chunks of the original text, yet he manages to convey its power. Using an ensemble approach, he visualizes some attractive collective sequences. However, his hero looks much too young and frail to convince as Oedipus. Tanusri Bhattacharya presents a more assured portrayal of Jocasta.