Curating a Festival ; Nandikar’s 34th National Theatre Festival lets us down

Posted by Kaahon Desk On January 8, 2018

For more than three decades, Nandikar National Theatre Festival has remained an important end-of-the-year event for Kolkata theatre lovers. The 34th edition of this Festival took place at the Academy of Fine Arts from 16th to 25th December, 2017. When it first started the Festival was practically one of its kinds, in west Bengal and the entire country. With time, things have changed and now we have a plethora of theatre festivals all over the state. That Nandikar is still continuing to organize this event despite all challenges is praiseworthy in itself. However, this being a festival of which Kaahon, along with thousands of theatre lovers, has great expectations, certain things need to be said which might not make the organizers happy. These will be said not to injure the organizers but in order to document the gains and misses from the point of view of the audiences of the Festival.

Previous Kaahon Theatre Review:

The biggest miss has to be the disappointing paucity of productions from outside West Bengal. One of the greatest draws of this Festival used to be that it brought the Kolkata audiences in the presence of productions from various parts of the country. The plays not only provided enjoyment; many became a learning experience for theatre workers here. The reason for this dwindling down may be a fund-crunch; whatever the reason, the reduced number of plays from other provinces has definitely dulled the Festival’s sheen.  Nandikar attempted to compensate for this shortfall in two ways. One, they included many in-house productions; in fact, they performed one of their plays twice in this Festival. One of the stated aims of this Festival, as reminded from the podium, was for Nandikar to provide to other groups a platform to showcase their works. It seems Nandikar has somewhat strayed from this aim. Two, the Festival saw quite a few recent Kolkata-based productions that have tasted popular success – Kojagori, Khorir Gondi, Bukjhim Ek Bhalobasha, Nirbhaya etc. – so that people watched such plays at the Festival which they had already watched some time earlier or would have done so in the near future. It was a case of a festival being an extension of the usual. The usual was present also in this that people came, bought tickets, watched plays and went back home, as they normally do while watching plays. Audiences expect and desire a festival to include talks and lectures and discussions, interactive sessions with directors and actors, special discussions about the technical aspects of theatre such as light, set, costume, make-up etc. as all these add up to a well-rounded festive celebration of theatre. Arranging these would entail not so much an investment of money as that of effort and willingness.

We will now take stock of some of the Festival productions. A significant feature of this Festival was that Nandikar, who have up to this point not done much work outside the proscenium, evinced an interest in theatre at other spaces, so much so that a few ‘intimate’ plays were included in the Festival. But what simultaneously surprised and disappointed us was that Nandikar arranged the performance of the intimate plays on the Academy proscenium and that the producers of the plays performed their intimate plays on a proscenium stage without batting an eyelid. We were reduced to witness the absurdity of a tennis match being played on a badminton court. In an article published sometime back Kaahon had made this observation which is relevant here: “…many are choosing the intimate theatre form more out of extraneous considerations (such as unavailability of proscenium stage or financial crunch) than out of any serious commitment to the form’s aesthetics and politics. There is no harm doing intimate theatre out of contingency, but one has to fulfill the formal requirements of the intimate.” Fulfilling formal requirements was the least of the concerns of quite a few productions which, in fact, struggled to fit into one space a work designed for another. For example, the lead actor of Batil Chithi (Atmik, Kolkata) was compelled (with an irate audience loudly asking her to do so) to raise her voice level, which went against the grain in the play’s design. An important part of the performance, the handing of blank postcards to the audience at the end of the play, had to be changed (because of the specific nature of the performance space) to distributing the postcards before the play began. If this did not damage the performance text, nothing will. The depth of the stage was quite useless and the height a hindrance for the solo performer in Eladidi (Amta Porichoy, Howrah) though the characterization and performance were really praiseworthy; she performed remaining on the apron of the stage and climbing down to the level of the audience at times, simply because her text demanded her character to be in close proximity with the audience. The visual created by Mrityunjoy (Nandikar) was one of a musical narrative. The musicians played sitting on chairs with standing microphones in front of them while the actor, seated for the entire length of the performance, had a collar microphone. It is debatable whether the production turned out to be theatre at all. The utterly self-indulgent Happy Birthday, marred by a weak text and even weaker performance, missed out on having the little impact it could have had if performed in an intimate space instead of on the proscenium stage. It remains a mystery as to why these performances could not be arranged in an appropriate space – the Tripti Mitra Sabhaghar was just next door.

Sticking to the policy of keeping the Kolkata-based productions out of the purview of this article, we will now mention the three Festival productions, which to our mind were the most rewarding. Tumhara Vincent (Rangaklapa, Hyderabad) is a stage adaptation of Irving Stone’s classic Lust for Life, the biographical novel based on Vincent van Gogh. Visual design is the play’s most striking aspect. The many-hued stage awash with tinted light captures the bright colours of van Gogh’s paintings. The intelligent use of props creates image after image, quite aptly so in the context of an artist’s biography – the white satin cloth suggesting the snow-capped mountains, the black cloth in smoky blue light signifying coal mines and the cardboard sunflowers swaying in a breeze lit up by the morning sun. The expression of the creative imagination of director Satyabrata Raut, entirely successful in producing text-driven, meaningful visuals using props and lights,is indeed unforgettable. There is lack of restraint, however, in allowing the acting to be pitched very loudly and in having the lead actor to be in a state of perpetual restless, running about, all presumably to suggest van Gogh’s psychological turmoil. After one point of time the characters on stage become entities of the imagination, having ceased to remain human beings in flesh and blood. The errors in the spellings of the names of French artists (projected on a screen) need to be remedied.

Visual design is the play’s most striking aspect. The many-hued stage awash with tinted light captures the bright colours of van Gogh’s paintings. The intelligent use of props creates image after image

Across the Sea (The National School of Drama Theatre In Education Company), another impressive production, blended puppet and human figures. Director, puppeteer Anurupa Roy has been working with puppets for a long time now. Her previous works include Durga (based on Bibhutibhushan’s Pather Panchali), Her Voice (Draupadi’s take in the Mahabharata) and Kashmir Project (through which we heard the roar of female voices from Kashmir). Borne out of the attempt to bring on to the theatre stage the look and feel of an animation film, Across the Sea comes through as a slice of Disneyland on stage. The play shows and tells the charming tale of a baby penguin’s drifting away from Antarctica to reach a distant Africa to make new animal friends there before finally finding its way back home. A unique theatrical language emerges when the simple enjoyable fable is performed and an imaginary world is created using puppets. It takes a while for the audience to enter this imagined space, but once they do, the connect holds strong. The scene in which a length of white cloth and lights create an ocean on which the penguin floats away is quite outstanding. The human aspect in the gait of the puppet ostrich is interesting. When the fantastic beasts (the giraffe, the elephant, the crocodile, the penguin) converse with each other, their stylized voices sound quite effective, though there is scope of some experiment in modulation. The hunting-man with his gun entering the animal world introduces a political dimension to the text. After the suggestive play of non-human language of the animals, the human voice seems intrusive. It is quite clearly established that humans are not required and are rather the villain of the piece in this animal Eden. We hope that this production that keeps the audience wonderfully engaged with its dialogue, music, dance and the wizardry of the puppets, will sharpen the performance even further and will continue to seek newer theatrical elements and moments to become a performance of a truly international standard.

If we keep on one side the many disappointments of the Festival and on the other side, the play Pebet (Kalakshetra, Manipur; playwright, director Heisnam Kanhailal), this one production more than makes up for the letdowns. The first thing that strikes us is the play’s minimalist approach – there is hardly any set, very frugal lights (the blue light to suggest the warmth of a nest is mesmerizing) and just stylized bodily movements. It is remarkable how a costume of a particular colour takes on a definite significance. Such a subtle sense of moderation governs the entire production that words become redundant. The other thing that is equally striking is the thoroughly political natureof the play-text. The play is rooted in a Manipuri folktale – the decision to tell one’s stories by mining the tradition of one’s own ancient folktales is evidently political. But the play does not merely stage a folktale – the narrative is altered to convey contemporary social and political experiences. The frantic struggle of the mother-bird (Pebet) to protect her brood from the cunning cat is a metaphor of Manipur’s struggle to protect its culture and ethnic identity threatened by an aggressive Hinduism. However, this has to be counted as the play’s strength that when received as a Bengali in today’s Kolkata, Manipur seems to enlarge itself to become the whole of India. And if one so desires, one can easily supplant, in a suitable context, Hinduism by any other institutionalized religion. In a major sequence of the play we see the mother-bird (Sabitri Heisnam) standing still in the semi-darkness of the backstage while the cat dominates the foreground – the very little that is done is enough to suggest how the country suffers when forces of evil raise their ugly heads. Pebet teaches us how the aesthetics of minimalism can bring to the politics of a play a remarkable keenness. Since this production manages to take us back to the days when the Nandikar Festival would be as a school to many, this essay can close here, voicing the hope that Nandikar will in the future think of going back to its past.

Srijayee Bhattacharjee | Dipankar Sen | Nabin Mahapatra | Labanya Dey

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