The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Two Tagores, many moods
A moment from Shodhbodh

May may be the cruellest month in Calcutta, but culturally it hots up, too. Rabindra Jayanti celebrations persist right up to June, featuring Tagorean programmes every evening. Among the Tagore plays in this year's showcase, two contrasting productions deserve critical attention. Anya Theatre revives the relatively little-known Shodhbodh, staged by one of Bengali theatre's best-known directors, Bibhas Chakraborty, whereas Natadha returns to Tagore's best-known drama Rakta-karabi, directed by the less-known Shib Mukhopadhyay. Neither combination produces perfect results.

Shodhbodh originated in a long story, Karmaphal, published in 1903. Requested in 1925 by the professional company Art Theatre to write a play for them, Tagore converted Karmaphal into Shodhbodh, which did not take much effort because Karmaphal, quite unusually, had been composed almost entirely in the form of dialogues.

But it was not a brilliant piece: basically a morality play bearing an exemplary tale, it also had a contrived sentimental ending. We may speculate that the commercial theatre's predilection for melodrama encouraged Tagore to prepare this script about Satish, who foolishly steals to buy an expensive gift for his beloved Nalini, daughter of an Anglicised couple. This leads him into a spiral of vice.

Uncharacteristically, Chakraborty misreads this as a satire on aping Western manners. Tagore never held extreme positions ' he satirised equally the dogmatic nationalist rigidity of Satish's father, as well as the indulgent love of Satish's mother and aunt, whose mollycoddling spoilt him. By treating it as 'a farcical comedy', Chakraborty also goes against its stylistic grain.

In the midst of this uninspired approach, only flashes of good acting surface: Sulakshana Chakrabarti allows Nalini's genuineness to shine through in patches; Krishna Datta and Rajat Sengupta give Satish's parents some solidity; Nandini Bhaumik makes the aunt credibly fickle; Debashis Raychaudhuri presents the uncle as a preparatory exercise for his deeper portrayal of a similar role in Rangroop's Shesh Raksha. But Partha Bandyopadhyay (Satish) behaves too namby-pamby to convince.

Surprisingly, Chakraborty neglects realistic details, letting Nalini's father wear half-pants and the bearers carry tea and snacks not as if in an upper-class home but precariously piled on as if from Basanta Cabin.

Tripti Mitra as Nandini in Bohurupee’s Rakta Karabi

Golden and growing

Bohurupee's trailblazing Rakta-karabi premiered on May 10, 1954, and its golden anniversary continues with as many as five versions of Tagore's classic still running. The one by Natadha, from Howrah, has drawn some appreciation but, as in most others over the last half-century, Bohurupee's shadow looms large.

I cannot understand why our directors cannot break through its apparently impenetrable barriers and interpret the text imaginatively with fresh insight.

Signs of such a vision glimmer under Shib Mukhopadhyay's direction, for the first thing that strikes us is Subrata Chattopadhyay's set, which decks the pillars of Raja's gates in the Indian tricolour. This bold concept suggests that the nation (or its politicians) has become as exploitative and distanced from the people as Tagore's Raja was. But beyond that, no radical departure emerges.

Tripti Mitra's characterisation of Nandini influences Sadhana Mukhopadhyay, particularly in vocal delivery, as does Sambhu Mitra's direction overall.

The crucible of Rakta-karabi on stage is the invisible Raja's voice and his ultimate entrance. Sambhu Mitra carried it off by his distinctive power and tone, but those who try to emulate him are doomed. Amarnath Upadhyay just does not have enough force. Among the others, Bedanta Bandyopadhyay impresses as Bishu, singing with full-throated ease, while Soumen Banerjee tinges Gosain with the ominous saffron nexus between religion and politics.

Unless someone completely re-views Rakta-karabi in a contemporary way, however, no revival of it can go down in history.

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