Avant Garde in Theatre at Mofussil; RANG YATRA, 5th National Theatre Festival by Gobardanga Naksha

Posted by Kaahon Desk On December 31, 2017

Rang Yatra,Gobardanga Naksha’s Fifth National Theatre Festival was organized between 17th and 24th December 2017. That small-town Gobardanga is passionate about theatre is common knowledge, with large banners advertising plays dotting its railway platforms and with a populace that is forever vocal about its love of theatre. More than ten groups actively practice theatre here. But what many might not know and can take inspiration from is that Gobardanga Naksha, active in theatre for over 35 years, has built for itself in the heart of the town a dedicated theatre space by the name of Gobardanga Sanskriti Kendra. There is within the precincts an open space that can host a variety of events and an enclosed performance area (Bichitra), which allows intimate theatre, black box theatre, and even, with some imagination and compromise, stage theatre for an audience numbering around hundred and twenty.

Previous Kaahon Theatre Review:

According to Kaahon, the success of Rang Yatra as a festival was mainly twofold. One, the curating of plays for the festival bore the definite mark of a well-considered approach to theatre. The attempt to prod audiences to enlarge their understanding of theatre by exposing them to various national and internationaltheatrical experiments is entirely commendable. Though billed as a national event, there were two productions that had come from abroad. The festival also attempted to align itself with the recent trend of Bengali theatre, in consonance with what is happening globally, to search performing spaces other than the proscenium and Bichitra was architecturally just right for this. Two, the organizers created an ambience conducive to exchange of opinions within the festival arena. The idea to involve directors/actors in interactive sessions with audiences after performances, while not novel, was welcome. An act of omission requires mention too. It was quite clear from the choice of showcased productions that the organizers were trying to look beyond the world of the so-called big, reputed groups of Kolkata. From this perspective, some productions from other districts and towns of the state could well have been considered. The organizers will probably look into this in the future editions of the festival. Kaahon could not be present at the festival on 17th and 22ndand thus this critical review is based on the performances viewed on the remaining five days of Rang Yatra.

It has to go down as a cruel irony designed by the theatre God that a festival otherwise replete with plays of a high quality should end with one that is difficult to be enthusiastic about. ‘Kabira Khara Bazar Me’, produced by Breathing Space – The Drama Company from Rajasthan and directed by Abhishek Goswami is a pretty old play written by Bhishma Sahani. Though the text is relevant to religion based politics of our times, it has not been retouched enough to be able to connect with today’s audience. The acting style remained problematic too. Neither of the proscenium, nor of the open air, but frequently falling back upon dialogue delivery while remaining immobile, the acting prevented the creation of dramatic moments. Choosing to play recorded music was probably a bad idea for this production. On the whole, the play failed to connect with the audience. Another production that also failed to sufficiently connect was ‘Faust’ (produced by Bose Studio, New Delhi and directed by Santanu Bose), based on the Faust legend, much used in literature and drama, where a man in search of absolute knowledge (eternal youth in the context of this play) sells his soul to the Devil. Cast in the mode of postdramatic theatre, the play has few dialogues, is reliant on physical acting based on dance-like movements, uses many snatches of Hindi film songs and projects innumerable images and short video clippings on the backdrop. The props laid out at the front of the performance space give to the production the feel of theatre as ritual. The play tries to approximate contemporary reality through hinting at a homosexual connection between Faust and Mephisto, by making Faust become Mephisto and vice versa during the course of the play and suggesting through image and action sexual violence of a horrifying order. At one point of time the two actors presented their sculpted, toned bodies in almost total nudity. This subverted the gender politics of visual pleasure inherent in the visual arts and also put under question the issue of aggressive masculine sexuality. However, the excessive use of Hindi film songs and dance inflicted great damage upon the central text – the songs were evoking the contexts from which these had been extracted and as those contexts had no connection to the play, the narrative thread was breaking repeatedly. It was also a problem that the two actors were not as proficient in verbal acting as they were in physical acting. On the whole, this avant garde performance seemed not quite able to reach the audience.

Judged by the yardstick of reaching the audience, Sovendu Ganguly’s solo performance ‘Swapnowala’ was entirely successful. Designed as an intimate performance, not only did it directly connect with the audience, but, in keeping with the demands of the form, involved the audience in the performance. Digging deep into the phrase ‘intimate theatre’, what Sovendu did was in reality an intimate self- exposition of a performer through performance. The narrative presented a performer finding his true self in theatre after having to let go of his many dreams of becoming clown, football player, singer, dancer, poet etc. Having erased acting from his acting, Sovendu adopted instead an easygoing, seemingly unstructured, mode of reminiscing. When at the end of the performance the audience took over the stage that the actor had vacated, lit candle in every hand signifying the dreams of each, intimate theatre seemed to have achieved its goal with empowerment of the audience having taken place. This production demands some editing – the sequences presenting repeated shattering of dreams can be shortened. A sense of wallowing in nostalgia governed the entire performance, while the section about the Mother came across as too charged with melodramatic sentimentality. The use of a laptop to play music was a bit out of place in this production that approximated Grotowski’s poor theatre in its austerity.

One can think of Usha Ganguly’s ‘Antaryatra’ as taking off from the point where Sovendu Ganguly’s ‘Swapnowala’ stops – in the latter a performer discovers the world of theatre,while in the former a seasoned theatre artist reviews her long association with the medium. Though almost 15 years old, ‘Antaryatra’ is structured in such an open-ended manner that it allows for self-renewal. The light and set designed by Tapas Sen and Khaled Chowdhury are the plays assets, as is Usha Ganguly’s remarkable performance ability which makes it possible for her to switch from character to character in seconds. Her control over voice and body, her skillful use of performance space and her ability to connect with the audience are all learning experiences. As she converses with the many characters she has portrayed over the years and with the people she has come across in her theatrical journey, performer/director Usha unpacks the intimate history of her association with theatre as a woman.

‘Jyotisanghita’, produced by Jibon Shongket, Habigunj, Bangladesh attempts to reclaim a slice of national history from the pit oblivion and distortion by reinstating the history of an individual. This entirely political play, written by Ruma Modak and directed by Sudip Chakraborty, is based on the life of freedom fighter Jagatjyoti Das. It goes to the credit of the actors of Jibon Shongket that with little or no rehearsal at all, they have been able to perform the play (designed for the proscenium) with admirable aplomb at Bichitra which does not have a raised stage. The introductory section with its stylized, literary language is a bit too stretched out and it takes a while to move from the abstract to the concrete, from the general to the particular. But once the play enters Jagatjyoti’s life, it moves rapidly, even in those sections where communication is primarily verbal (the influence of eminent playwright Selim Al Deen’s ‘kathanatya’ is unmistakable in these sections). If the mark of NSD (India) inspired design is evident in all aspects of the performance (music, costume, lights, movement), so is the attempt to move towards organic theatre particularly in the use of local Habigunj apparatus. The true success of ‘Jyotisanghita’ has to lie in this that it conveys to the present generation the truth that constructing the history of the Bangladesh liberation war is indeed a political enterprise.

Jyotisanghita1-kaahonJyotisanghita, theatre from Bangladesh


Jyotisanghita 2

Jyotisanghita, theatre from Bangladesh 

‘Hulo’ by Gobardanga Naksha (playwright Mainak Sengupta, director Ashis Das) is a political allegory that uses the form of the musical to satirize the unequal but unending struggle of the common man, denied of even the most fundamental of rights, against a supremely powerful nation state. The flexibility of the play’s form will allow it to be performed practically in any space – proscenium, open-air, intimate. Quite eye-catching are the compositions to indicate a train, a platform, a dustbin, a tube-well, a TV talk show etc. Also noteworthy is the mature performances turned in by the cast comprised mainly of young actors. That the text will aim its satirical ire at corporate media that flourishes as an extension of the state machinery is understandable, but drawing attention to a particular media house by taking a specific name somewhat defeats the objective of being critical of the system of corporate media as a whole.

By way of conclusion, the two most satisfying productions of the festivalwill be looked into. ‘Saheb Baganer Dukkhini’ (produced by Dolls Theatre, original play by Manoj Mitra, directed by Sudip Gupta) can lay a claim to be considered significant merely by virtue of this that it extends our standard understanding of theatre. This very sophisticated play completely dismantles the common notion that puppet theatre is meant for children, a sweetened, didactic thing. Sudip did away with the frame that puppet theatre generally uses and made the production proscenium-worthy, giving it an added dimension. However, with Bichitra not being able to provide the depth and distance that a proscenium would, the strings were visible and disturbed the illusion-making. People performed alongside puppets and that added yet another dimension. The people were mute, the puppets eloquent and the people-puppet interactions were seamlessly fluent. The play appealed also through the element of magic realism created by the puppets, which would not have been possible with only human actors. By creating the visual experience of an Indian fairy tale using European puppets and by performing a well-told tale, Sudip managed to extend the horizon of the possible in theatre.

‘Estrelas’, produced by Oposto Teatro Laboratorio, Brazil (language English, original novel Clarice Lispector, direction Julia Varley, solo performance Marilyn Nunes) will remain a wonderful example of the high that can be achieved in theatre using relatively few materials and relying primarily on creative imagination and performance ability. The play has a novelist writing a novel about a poor young girl who has dreams of becoming a star and the people who enter her life. In the end, none of her dreams materialize as a car runs her over. This apparently straightforward narrative contains the novelist’s and her protagonist Macabea’s various existential questions related to their quest for self-knowledge. In the performance, Marilyn essays all the characters and she does so, the immense importance of costumes in process of character building becomes evident. She changes costumes on stage a number of times to become the various men and women of the play, modulating her voice, her gait and her body language accordingly. Marilyn squeezes every bit of performance possibility offered by the intimate space to create meaning though her fingers, her eyes, her hair and at one point of time, a foot in a red shoe. Light and music perfectly complement her performance. Added are a little singing, a touch of dancing and a dash of magic – that is, everything that can be part of theatre is used. But as everything is used proportionately and as necessitated by the text, nothing seems superfluous. In the final scene, after Macabea is dead the novelist dies in a way too. She lies down and all the lights go out, leaving on the stage a cluster of glowing stars (estrelas). A brilliant dramatic moment is created in which the iridescent stars, while indicating Macabea’s unrealized dreams, go on to signify the rise of anther star – that is Marilyn herself, and in a happy coincidence of names, Macabea’s dream of becoming Marilyn Monroe seems to fulfill itself in an oblique way.


Estrelas, theatre from Brazil


Estrelas- Theatre-from-Brazil-kaahonEstrelas, theatre from Brazil

Not just through these plays, but also through the many discussions, performances and short plays that took place on all days of the festival at Utthon, the open-air performance arena, Gobardanga Naksha’s Rang Yatra celebrated Theatre. As this festival explored emerging trends and innovations in national and international theatre and tried to find ways and means of thinking theatre afresh, the big Kolkata theatre festivals remained happy presenting yet again mainly Kolkata based lavishly mounted, already successful productions. Even as Gobardanga went out into the world, Kolkata chose to remain stuck in Kolkata. Maybe the time has come when the gravitational center of contemporary Bengali theatre practice and innovation will move out of Kolkata to come to Gobardanga or some such place. Rang Yatra has stoked this possibility and thus the responsibility has landed on Gobardanga Naksha to continue to seek the new in theatre. Kaahon will wait to witness that seeking.

NB 1 – The performance of ‘Tumhari Vincent’ (Hyderabad) will be reviewed in the context of another festival.

NB 2 –When the performance of ‘Paromparjo’ was on at Uthon (direction Anil Mondal), microphones were blaring the announcement of another event. The actors were all teenagers and their words could hardly be heard. But in an amazing display of concentration, they went on acting without missing a beat, using every inch of the performance space. The reins of Bengali theatre in future will be in the hands of these small-town actors who will not stop at anything. Our hearty congratulations go out to them for not having learnt to stop.

Dipankar Sen

Srijayee Bhattacharjee

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