Tota Kahini by Uttarpara Bratyajan – The Conflict of Proscenium and Intimate

Posted by Kaahon Desk On January 23, 2018

This article can take off by taking cue from a rather significant point raised by Krishnendu Dewanji, the director of Tota Kahini (Uttarpara Bratyajan), when he appeared to address the audience after the performance on 20.01.2018 at Tripti Mitra Sabhaghar. He said that the play has been designed to be performed on the proscenium stage as well as in an intimate space. This point needs to be considered carefully.

Previous Kaahon Theatre Review:

If we unpack what Krishnendu Dewanji said, it would seem that they have designed a play, which in terms of performance, will appear unaffected irrespective of the site of performance. But is this possible at all? Will a performance of the play, say at the Academy of Fine Arts, be what it would be at the Tripti MitraSabhaghar? Certainly not. And just as it happens for the performer, the audience too views understands and feels a play differently with a change of the performance space. What all this adds to is that the performed and received text that Tota Kahini becomes on the proscenium stage will be very different from what it will be in an intimate space. Put differently, Tota Kahini will have to modify itself in response to the change of the performative demands of stage-space if it has to avoid being a square peg in a round hole. The performance that took place on the 20th was marked by the problem that this modification had not quite taken place. But another important point needs to be covered before we can come to discuss the specifics of this issue.

The question of politics of theatre gets muddled when it is said of a play that it can be performed on the proscenium as well as in an intimate space. If by politics we understand the lopsided distribution of power among various groups involved in diverse transactions with each other, then the question of the unequal power relation between performer and audience has to be given singular importance while examining the politics of theatre. The performer is particularly empowered in proscenium theatre – she inhabits the high, illuminated stage, she alone is vocal and in motion, she manufactures all meaning. The audience remains in darkness, an almost passive consumer of constructed meaning. Performer and audience remain distant in this theatre. Intimate theatre, however, stands against this politics. Here, performer and audience remain in close proximity on the same plane. Because the audience is few in number, performers have the opportunity of intimately connecting with them. Most importantly, it is a formal requirement of intimate theatre that the audience beempowered by being drawn into the performance and ultimately within the process of meaning-making. All in all, the politics of intimate theatre is geared towards reducing the power imbalance that underlines the performer/audience relationship. Now, if a play is performed on the proscenium stage as well as in an intimate space, it will have to emerge as two distinct plays in the two locations or remain a politically confused text.

Tota Kahini by Uttarpara Bratyajan

We will now specifically look at some of the problems of the performance of Tota Kahini in the light of what has been discussed so far. First and most important, the performance we witnessed, though uniformly good, was one appropriate for the proscenium stage. The volume and pitch of dialogue delivery in the intimate space sounded unremittingly loud, uncomfortably so at times. It is an elementary feature of proscenium acting that while facing the audience, the actor will fix her gaze not too high or low, so that she will seem not be solely looking at the balcony or just the first three rows. The problem is that this proscenium-fit level of gaze hovers mid-air in an intimate space, a couple of feet above the heads of the seated audience, who then fail to connect with the action. Secondly, the light design splitting up the Sabhaghar into two zones – the lit up for the performers and the darkened for the audience – is essentially of the proscenium. It effectively instructs the audience to stay put in the darkness and not become part of the performance, thereby drawing them into an intimate space only to close them out. Thirdly, there is enough scope to consider deeply and keenly as to whether the intimate space can be intrinsically fused with the performance. Without giving away too much, this can be said – is it possible to think of the small dark room with its black walls as a cage by itself, trapping within its confines bird and performers and audience?


Two more issues require to be looked into. Using no other props but books and using voice to create music or bird sounds are undoubtedly compatible with the relatively unadorned approach that is the hallmark of intimate theatre. Is canned music really required for this production, especially when at times the music fell too loudly on the ears? In this context it may be said in passing that while the use of a slice from the Sound of Music soundtrack was very successful by being able to inject a telling note of irony, the use of the Abbasuddin classic ‘phandeporiya boga kande re’ was hopelessly in apt simply because the traps of the two birds are of completely different orders. The other issue pertains to the changes made and increments added to Rabindranath’s text by the playwright Jahar Dasgupta. Rabindranath’s King is not an actual person but an embodiment of the idea of authority and hence, his gender is of no particular importance. But when King becomes Queen in the play, this gender shift prompts us to inspect its significance. We take note of the fact that there is a somewhat opportunistic tendency in not clarifying whether this alteration is meant to indicate a real person installed in a position of power. The idea of the sutradhar quoting from Rabindranath’s essays on education works well to a point, after which this explanatory urge transforms the theatre space into a classroom. The introduction of a host of marginalized and oppressed characters paves the way for certain significant issues to be unambiguously raised. However, the alteration which is not merely unnecessary but is in fact seriously damaging to the text, is the final addendum, where an expression of hope is sounded to the accompaniment of ‘phirey chol matir taney’ playing the background. This hopeful note is neither supported by Rabindranath’s text nor (even) by the performance. The play would do well to lose this extra baggage and remainonly with the tremendous impact of the audio-visual image of the rustling of pages of text books in the dead bird’s gut and the whole of nature grieving the death of the bird.

The manner in which a number of compositions actually perform some of the thematic concerns of the text is entirely praiseworthy. Such compositions would include evocation of flapping wings by turning pages of books, suggesting the relation of learners and learning in a mechanical education system by having the performers carry books with their teeth and indicating the deadness of the education system through staccato movements. The performances turned in by the actors bear unmistakable marks of theatre-training and disciplined practice which is why the play, while it is on, becomes satisfying to watch despite its problems.

Bengali theatre is at present moving through a phase in which theatre groups are finding it difficult to get theatre halls to present their shows, the cost of proscenium shows is rising and the amount of government grant is dipping. In this situation, Uttarpara Bratyajan, like many other groups, is leaning towards intimate theatre. We hope that they will sincerely and in a well-thought-out manner attempt to satisfy the formal demands of intimate theatre as a measure to strengthen their theatre practice.

Dipankar Sen
A student of theatre as an art practice, he is definitely a slow (but hopefully, steady) learner. He is a father, a husband and a teacher of English literature in the West Bengal Education Service. His other interests include literature in translation and detective fiction.

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