Sonai Bibi – An enjoyable historical folk ballad reflecting the contemporary time

Posted by Kaahon Desk On July 6, 2019

Rangroop theatre group’s “Sonai Bibi” is being staged presently in different theatres. It was recently performed at Lady Ranu Mookherjee auditorium, Academy of Fine Arts on 15th March 2019. Based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s historical story Kirtinashar Epare Opare, the play is written by Sounava Basu and directed by Jayanta Mitra, under the supervision of the matriarch of Rangroop Theatre and veteran thespian Smt. Sima Mukhopadhyay.

Previous Kaahon Theatre Review:

The story revolves around the later part of 16th century; at a time when the local zamindars throughout Bengal and Assam used to maintain a loosely independent confederacy. Armed with their own militia, these independent landlords were known as ‘Baro-Bhuiyans’ (‘Baro’ here connotes many). Threatened by foreign enemy attacks, their 300-year rule was gradually coming to an end. In such a historical juncture, Sunil Gangopadhyay had woven his story around two chief Bhuiyans of the Bhati region in medieval South Bengal, Isa Khan and Kedar Ray and their common link Sonai Bibi. It narrates how conservative customs, religious bigotry and conflicts robbed Bengal of its freedom. Kedar Ray’s child widow sister Swarnamayee is faithful towards the customs. Isa Khan falls in love with her but Kedar is unwilling in his sister’s remarriage! Therefore, with Swarnamayee’s consent, Isa Khan abducts and marries her and she becomes Sonai Bibi. This brings down the military relations between Kedar and Isa, giving way to the Mughals to invade Bengal! Since the historical facts concerning this period of Bengal are quite limited, Sunil had made rather liberal reinterpretations about the incidents and characterization. Similar freedom has been taken by the playwright Sounava Basu as well which is generally needed for adaptation. Apart from this, he has made some significant characteristic alterations in the story; especially the perspective of women rights has added another dimension to the story. The character of Bibha, Kedar’s wife, is his contribution to the story. Her character is not just a symbol of oppressed yet modern-minded femininity but her presence in a certain scene towards the fag end has soaked her character in the complete flow of the play. Hinting towards the sexual dissatisfaction of the widow Swarnamayee in the initial scenes is equally commendable. Sunil Gangopadhyay’s dialogues are usually lively and they are mostly kept unaltered in the play; the changes done in the question-answer scene between Swarnamayee and Isa Khan have rendered the whole scene exquisite.  But adding the part where Isa Khan dives into the dangerous river or eliminating Isa’s diplomatic stance in the final war dehumanizes the character and reduces him to a one dimensional ‘hero’- which was not expected at all. On the other hand, the scene of the Baro-Bhuiyans coming together at Pratapadwitya’s call is difficult to believe in terms of history; as per records there was no such idea of unity at that time. According to history, Isa Khan dies at seventy, whereas in this play he stays young throughout. But since in both the story and play, there is an approach towards modern ‘reconstruction of legends’, it makes sufficient room for this deviation from history as well!

Director Jayanta Mitra has structured the play in the traditional Bengali Pala-Gaan form but has also added present-day language of theatre to it. Sandip Suman Bhattacharya’s set design blends well with the director’s thought of the play: involving mostly some rostrums and signposts, used according to the scenes’ demands. The unique introduction of the play lifts the audience’s interest in no time. The initial incidents are described through a pleasant music and dance sequence. Music by Subhendu Maity is exceptional, especially the use of flute at certain dramatic moments adds to the flavour of the play. Choreography by Tarun Pradhan was proper and pleasant. Poulomi Talukdar’s dress design reflects her clear knowledge of the medieval Bengali attire. Light design by Badal Das is consistent with the story’s appeal. But the expectation that the introductory scene creates about the play’s musical movement is left unfulfilled since songs appear again at the concluding scenes of the play. This although creates an imbalance in the play, the audience becomes attached to the play from the very beginning. The momentum of the story, attractive scene design, well groomed movements of the characters on stage- everything keep the audience pinned to their seats. They can feel the meaninglessness of religious conflicts, significance of unity, relevance of belief in mutual relationships, importance of ignoring social and religious customs that restrict individual freedom, necessity of coming out of the socially predestinated circles for both man and woman- and this helps the play transcend its historical boundary and become universal.Mahabharata 2 – Practicing the incult package & shallow tricks in Mahabharata’s Udyoga Parva

A weak point of the play is definitely acting. It was a bit loud; since the play is structured on Pala-Gaan form it was understandably expected and was never over the top as well. But the overall standard of the acting was very average! It was only Ananya Shankar Debabhuti in the shoes of Kedar Ray who could perfectly bring out the conflict, dejection, affection and rage of the character. Among the notable minor characters were Jagannath Chakraborty as a minister of Kedar Ray and to some extent Sounava Basu as Isa Khan’s friend Dawood. But the extended scene of Dawood and Sonai’s joint brandishing of swords appears too keen to attract claps! If the audience becomes more interested in such ‘stunt’ scene as sword fighting rather than significantly crafted dramatic moments- it compels us to think twice about the scene. The character of Isa Khan is already abated by it one dimensionality, moreover, Apurva Kumar Saha with his delicate articulation has rendered the character that demands vanity and robustness to more of a romantic hero. Amrita Mukhopadhyay as one of the major characters Sonai Bibi had immense opportunities but she too could not surpass the threshold of average acting; instead the actor playing the role of Swarnamayee’s maid appeared pretty convincing.

But overall the play is very entertaining, giving us a faint hope in these dark days of Bengali theatre! Looking back at history with the help of the present-day mirror, while also reminding us of Bengal’s oldest tradition of Pala Gaan, demands great commendation. Rangroop theatre group has been presenting plays for long now; still its name is synonymous to the famous productions of the 90s, such as, Bikalpa, Bhanga Boned or Je Jan Achhey Majhkhane! We do sincerely hope that in the responsible hands of Jayanta Mitra, Rangroop in the days to come will once again rise to its own past glory.


Anjan Nandi
A science student, postdoctoral researcher, writer-translator of science oriented popular literature and a dedicated audience of theatre for last two decades, he has observed many changes in Bengali theatre from a very close proximity. He is a regular contributor in Bengali Wikipedia and engages himself deeply in photography and cinema.

Translation – Rishav Dutta

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