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By Ananda Lal
  • Published 19.09.09

Mayar Khela does not occupy a particularly lofty niche in Tagore’s oeuvre. An early musical drama owing its triangular plot to his first prose play, Nalini (1884), it treats love with immature romanticism compared to his complex explorations of relationships later. Unlike the even earlier Balmiki Pratibha, it was theatrically weak, too, because Tagore gave the songs precedence and sketched a thin story around them.

Yet it has its own significance. Pramada’s character offers a prototype of the Tagorean theme of the suffering that results if one mistakes love as superficial attraction and pleasure. In theatre history, its all-women premiere (including the male roles) at Bethune College in 1888 proved revolutionary at a time when respectable ladies never appeared on stage. Its music was exceptional. And it obviously meant a lot to Tagore, since he revisited it fifty years later, transforming it into a dance-drama, though not in the same league as the reigning trinity of Chandalika, Chitrangada and Shyama.

So, by deciding to present the original Mayar Khela, following an excellent Balmiki Pratibha in 2004, Baikali took a calculated risk, that the superior or intrinsically Tagorean qualities would overcome the syrupy content. The gamble didn’t entirely pay off. We got a faithful production, but felt that the director, Pramita Mallick, should have adopted the dance-drama text, as Tagore’s experienced hand had whittled down a third of it in 1938, tightening it substantially. The brochure remarks that this composition remained incomplete, but that is a myth; anyone reading it (first published in the 1950 edition of Gitabitan) will realize that it shares the typically economic, episodic structure of the other dance-dramas.

Tagore’s unskilled, youthful characterization handicapped the actors: Ashok and Kumar flitted about like moonstruck adolescents (no wonder Tagore gave them just a token presence in 1938) but, surprisingly, so did the hero, Amar (Sasha Ghosal). The leads’ faces resembled fixed masks. The tableau in the picture says it all — the stolid, self-effacing Shanta (Snita Pramanik, left) with her hand signifying restraint and reluctance; Amar foolishly turned away from her and gazing lovelorn at Pramada (right), who, leaning forward, embodies the only gesture of action, hence the most dramatic character. But Shruti Naha Sen could not express Pramada’s potential for inner conflict.

The choreography clicked very well; I could hardly believe that the performers had virtually no previous training in dance. However, the songs, albeit impeccably recorded by the cast themselves, proved the biggest disappointment — theatre must never resort to lip-syncing to a soundtrack, for it immediately loses the magic of live singing. Saugata Banerjee’s colourfully-designed costumes were offset by Sohan Bandopadhyay’s blatantly symbolical triangular set pieces. But Baikali’s considerable effort makes us look forward to more.