Girish Karnad's best-known political dramas prove their continuing relevance in faithful Bengali productions. Does mankind learn anything from historical precedents? Of course not. But that should not deter groups from trying, disturbed by history repeating itself. As Aparna Dharwadker says about the two plays reviewed, "to understand the present one must return to the past".
Tale-danda, translated into Hindi as Rakt Kalyan, thence into Bengali as Raktakalyan by none other than Sankha Ghosh, and now staged by Rangrup, went back to 12th-century Karnataka for its example of egalitarian idealism ruthlessly crushed. The saint-poet Basava inspired a utopic population of casteless, female-empowered, non-idolatrous followers, patronized by the king Bijjala, but abhorred by Hindu orthodoxy, who dethroned him with his malleable son Sovideva, and initiated a pogrom.
Sima Mukhopadhyay's direction presents Karnad's warning vividly, and imparts particular fidelity to the mutual respect felt by Basava and Bijjala (picture). However, by characterizing Sovideva as a bit of a buffoon, she underestimates the shrewdness of conservative ideologues who incite the public so smoothly. Somnath Datta adds a few choreographed sequences reflecting the general conditions, but they strike us as ornamentation, not essential to the script. A better-integrated input comes from Tulika Das's rich and authentic costume design.
Sansriti's Tughlaq brings Karnad's first national success to a new generation of Bengali viewers. Here, too, he chose a medieval visionary, from the 14th century, but unlike Basava's spiritual depth, he depicted Muhammad Tughlaq as practically-minded, and instead of Basava disappearing after the debacle, he showed that the Sultan's frustrations eventually drove him off-balance to violent deeds. Karnad criticized Nehru through this prism but, ironically, we see that it applies to India today, in the parallels with our own version of mad demonetization and premonitions of the making of a despot. The director, Debesh Chattopadhyay, revives the old Bengali translation from English by Chittaranjan Ghosh and Swapan Majumdar, and the once iconic presence in Bengali theatre acting, Rajatabha Dutta, portrays a lonely and misunderstood Tughlaq with intensity in one of his rare stage appearances these days.