Chand Manasar Kissa – When Saga becomes Gag

Posted by Kaahon Desk On February 8, 2018

The opening show of Chand Manasar Kissa, produced by Sansriti (in association with Pancham Vaidik), that a packed Minerva Theatre witnessed on 03.02.2018, sadly and disappointingly turned out to be quite regressive in terms of its political ideology. The Manasa of this play comes across as unremittingly negative and destructive, the indubitable villain of the narrative. She fumes with rage and plots Chand Saudagar’s ruin, and when from time to time she seriously injures him, she breaks out in unholy exultation. It is equally bewildering and depressing that when across the nation forces of muscular brahmanism and patriarchy are being robustly resisted, a Bengali play will reductively read a text from the Bengali folk tradition that attempts to present, through the conflict between Manasa and Chand, on one hand, the struggle of the subalterns to gain social standing and on the other, a threat to the patriarchal order by positing in the narrative center a female figure who is completely independent, audacious and tremendously potent. The Manasa that Manasamangal Kavyapresents is repeatedly rejected, insulted and injured. Born of Shiva’s sperm, Manasa is lusted after by Shiva; her step-mother blinds her in one eye; her terrified husband abandons her (though returning for a while to impregnate her). Denied dignified acceptance by Gods and her own family, Manasa demands human worship. Chand Manasar Kissa is a retelling of the Manasa myth that (i) totally suppresses the causes of her anger; (ii) foregrounds her destructiveness and relegates to the background the fact that Manasa, a symbol of eternal fertility, restores the lives she takes; (iii) makes no attempt to critically analyze the words of abuse that Chand throws at Manasa – ‘চেঙমুড়ী’, ‘লঘুজাতি’– words that contain the histories of male anxiety about a free-spirited woman and the toxic casteism of the upper castes. In any retelling, it is what is rejected and what is retained, what is highlighted and what is submerged that ascertains the politics of the retelling and it is on this account that Chand Manasar Kissa assumes a problematic position.

Previous Kaahon Theatre Review:

If the makers had assumed that a strategy to tackle this problem could be the introduction of two new comic characters (an uncle nephew pair) who would politically correct the play through their slapstick commentaries, they had assumed wrongly. First, the attempt to orient and fix the audience’s reception of the play’s events through characters that stand outside the play is itself questionable – this happens when the makers are not fully confident about being able to communicate their meaning clearly and when they do not sufficiently trust the audience’s ability to receive the play-text. Secondly, the commentary that the pair comes up with is not without flaws. When they satirically invoke the present central government, the effort becomes forced because what they say runs counter to the politics of the play. Secondly, when they raise the feminist question as to why even the mangalkavya authors chose to remain silent about Lakkhindar’s questioning Behula’s chastity immediately after being brought back to life, it becomes clear that their reading of Manasamangal is blemished. Coming as it does after the detailed description of Behula’s superhuman effort to give Lakkhindar a second life, Lakkhindar’s question about Behula’s purity is enough to mark him out as a rather silly flag bearer of patriarchy – the authors of mangalkavya knew very well that not a single word more was required to critique Lakkhindar.

A few words about the performance. A salient feature of Chand Manasar Kissa is the relative absence of the director vis-à-vis the ‘visual poetry-maker’ (even though we know that a director remainsan absent presence in a performance). This play is, of course, not of the category which is so entirely performance-dependent that it attempts to erase from the performance all marks of the director. There is nothing inherently amiss with the explicit presence of the ‘visual poetry-maker’ and the absence of the director; what is important is what the text demands. Let us try to then look at this issue in terms of the demands of the text. ‘Poetry’ in the phrase ‘visual poetry’ is significant as it conjures in our mind the notion of something beautiful, something aesthetically pleasant. ‘Visual poetry’ then means creating something beautiful with visual images. And the entire performance is replete with a lavish arrangement to provide visual pleasure, beginning with the uniform designer costumes of the choric characters that manage to remove all traces of differences, impoverishment, and tribulations. The costumes of the enormously affluent Chand Saudagar and of Manasa, goddess of the marginalized classes, bear a remarkable similarity in design and quality, as if sourced from the same shopping mall. The importance of visual pleasure is suggested by the picturesque peacock-boat, as it is by the logo of Manasa and the shadow image of itinerant singers that appear on the cyclorama. Immediately after the interval the uncle nephew combine break into a martial dance, supposedly for the cause of visual delight. Even when the play touches upon poison, death, animus, anger, lust visual poetry remains fixed in its objective to provide aesthetic entertainment. Chand Manasar Kissa is a production where visual poetry exists not in response to textual demand, but where the text becomes an excuse to create visual poetry.

Amidst all this, Monalisa Chatterjee as Manasa does something quite remarkable through her performance. On one hand, it is her consummate performance skill – her harsh grating voice, her raising a hand above her head in a gesture of undiluted threat that mocks the standard posture of divine benediction, her carrying in her body a restless energy – that transforms Manasa into a ghastly villain. On the other hand, her construction of the ghastly manages to extract the epic and still continuing struggle between Manasa and Chand from the syrup of visual poetry and throw it in the sweat, blood and slime of the political battlefield. The manner in which Monalisa, remaining all the while within the visual design, deploys her performance to counter the design, might provoke the devout to believe that she has earned the grace of Manasa.

Dipankar Sen  | Srijayee Bhattacharjee

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