The recently concluded 7th National Theatre Festival, named Jashn-E Rang (3rd to 8th November), organized by Little Thespians saw a host of performances at Gyan Manch by teams and people from various parts of the country. Kolkata based Little Thespians, led by Uma Jhunjhunwala and S. M. Azhar Alam, have been performing theatre in Hindi and Urdu for more than 23 years within which time they have produced more than 20 plays and around 40 shorter performances – this statistical nugget is enough evidence of this that Little Thespians are a serious theatrical force to contend with, within Kolkata and nationally. Kaahon was in attendance at the festival on 5th and 7th November, and the following report is based on the experience of the two days. The lineup of 5th November had a ‘story’, Mauritius, performed in the Qissa Khwani section and the play The Chairs, produced by Amateur Theatre Group, Jammu and directed by Mushtaq Kak. On 7th November, things started with an outdoor presentation in the form of street theatre (in Bengali) by a Kolkata group before moving indoors for Ek Aurat Ki Diary Se in the Qissa Khwani section and the play Arth by People’s Theatre Group, New Delhi, directed by Niloy Roy.
The audience turnout on both days remained far from satisfactory. Surely, there must be more Hindi-theatre enthusiasts in the city than what we saw on the two days that we were there. It does not do the theatre-mad, theatre-connoisseur reputation of Bengali speaking Kolkata any good if it remains indifferent to theatre in other languages. It has been regularly seen that the guaranteed way to motivate Bengali theatre lovers to watch a Hindi/Urdu play is to have a Naseeruddin Shah or a Paresh Rawal in the cast. The only phrase that comes to one’s mind to describe this sorry non-cosmopolitanism is linguistic-cultural insularity and the sooner Bengalis cure themselves of this condition, the better.
But if the general indifference of the linguistic majority of Kolkata has to be cured, the remedy has to be the showcasing of the best that other-language theatre has to offer, which is where Jashn-E Rang, sadly, came up short. Curating the right kind of plays and performances should be a major focus at the stage of planning, so that a festival becomes a celebration of talent and quality performance rather than an assemblage of those available. One also does not know why other Kolkata-based Hindi language theatre groups should be absent from the festival. The two performances in the Qissa Khwani section on both days (Mauritius and Ek Aurat Ki Diary Se) were, at best, rather amateurish productions. It goes to the credit of Little Thespians that they attempted to present a spectrum of performance forms during the festival instead of offering the standard fare of proscenium theatre. But every form has its own unique demand and great care needs to be taken to do justice to each. Briefly, while Mauritius suffered as a result of bad scripting, Ek Aurat Ki Diary Se was repetitive and shoddily performed. The biggest disappointment was, however, Niloy Roy’s Arth. A clear case of a theme forced to fit a pre-determined ‘design’, Arth was marred by indifferent acting, inadequate physical fitness in a play that required quite a bit of it, painfully slow transitions, erratic light. The most irksome aspect of the play was that the period piece was left completely unconnected to contemporary experience.
Mushtaq Kak’s The Chairs, a faithful Hindi translation of Eugene Ionesco’s play, was by far the most satisfying production, even though the set and especially the light design remained problematic aspects. Kak did not try to interpret Ionesco’s play and allowed it to develop it as the ‘tragic farce’ that it is. Both Sunil Sharma and Sumana Kumari were able, through their presentation of the two protagonists, capture and convey the dark, comic absurdity of their situation. Both actors turned in seasoned performances, blending understated and over-the-top histrionics to suit the requirements of the text.
It is indeed heartening to see that Little Thespians consider generating a discourse in public life about theatre important. A substantially lengthy session was devoted to discussing the role of educational institutions and the media in propagating theatre (6th November), in which a number of media persons and teachers of schools, colleges and universities took part. Though unfortunately unable to be present at the programme, Kaahon records its unqualified appreciation for the effort on the part of the organizers of Jashn-E Rang to seek ways and means of popularizing theatre, especially among young citizens. Jashn-E Rang has been an experience characterized by hits and misses, but there is enough reason to hope that future editions of this festival will turn out to be majorly satisfying events.