Nandikar's new productions showcased at their National Festival find their directorial mantle resting on Sohini Sengupta's capable shoulders, with a social consciousness spanning the history of female emancipation and sensitivity to the differently-abled. But their exhibition on women performers embarrassed with numerous factual errors.
Swatilekha Sengupta renders sterling service against the general ignorance about pioneering personalities of 19th-century Calcutta by dramatizing Narayan Sanyal's Rani Kadambini. Only cognoscenti know of Kadambini Ganguly's achievements: one of the first two Indian women to graduate (1882) and earn a medical degree (1886), then practise as a qualified doctor. The play shows how she battled daunting odds, with support from father and husband, reformists of the Brahmo Samaj. These included pathological patriarchal antagonism from the British principal of Medical College, who kept failing her in his subject, lack of amenities for women there, and even scurrilous libel from the editor of Bangabasi, who labelled her a "prostitute".
For reasons probably connected with depiction of English culture, we do not see her in 1890s London completing three physicians' licences (or her political activities with the Congress party), but Sohini as Kadambini and Debshankar Halder as her husband Dwarkanath Ganguly (picture) carry off their portrayals credibly - except for waving to each other in public once, a gesture unimaginable in their circles, however liberal. Halder necessarily plays second fiddle, though Dwarkanath's Abala-bandhab was possibly the first feminist magazine in the world. Also, the opening scene with the ailing Nepali queen emits a misleadingly comic flavour. Otherwise the drama ranks next to Rangrup's Abyakta in educating audiences about our forgotten real-life heroes.
Sohini switches to experiment on Mrityunjay, a dialogue written by Saptarshi Maulik about the friendship of two schoolboys, one of whom suffers from cerebral palsy. By making the latter stand first in class and do most things better than ordinary others, Maulik creditably rejects milking sympathy as such works normally do. Sohini applies a novel form by using a musical ensemble led by Shubhadeep Guha seated recital-style in a half-circle, all wearing white, so that the stage resembles a dastangoi storytelling centred round Maulik as lead narrator.