One criterion that separates an accomplished theatre group from an average one is versatility. On the basis of Mahānirvān, we can say that Ensemble, now in its tenth year, has come of age. From its debut of Brecht’s The Jewish Wife, whose solo performance mode influenced later interpreters like Usha Ganguli, to the precise naturalism of Elkunchwar’s Uttarādhikār (Wādā Chirebandi), which became its greatest success, to the conscious feminism of the three one-act plays titled Mānushi, it now moves on to the musical—one of the most exacting of theatrical styles.
Not the Western musical, but the equally demanding idiom from western India which inspires Satish Alekar’s stagecraft. It is indeed a pleasure to hear Abhijit Basu adapt the Marathi tunes and lyrics to a local milieu, utilizing mainly kirtan but also kabiyāl, gāzi, Vedic mantras, folk songs and children’s lullabies to telling effect in this satire on Indian attitudes to death. What’s more, the cast is in fine mettle vocally, unlike most Bengali thespians who attempt to sing on stage.
The other exceptional aspect of the production is Sohag Sen’s collective blocking: her meticulous ensemble work lives up to the group’s name. Alekar’s plays do not read well in print, but Sen proves that a director with ideas can transform his scripts into vivid theatre. In her hands, Mahānirvān reaches such dizzying heights of comedy and irony in Act One that a letdown is inevitable in Act Two. Moreover, Sen cannot conjure the same magic twice because Alekar’s own aimless writing dissipates toward the end.
Tapas Thakur’s performance (as the spirit whose body has just died but who cannot find release until his last rites are properly conducted) is a model of understated anguish and annoyance at the absurd bureaucracy and ceremonies associated with death in India. His widow is given an appropriately casual portrayal by Madhuchhanda Ghosh. However, their son (Debashish Sinha) could do with a greater dose of an angry young man. Of the neighbours, Dipak Ghosh easily stands out by his effortless lampoons.
Drama Academy India conferred its newly-instituted annual awards for “socially-conscious” theatre at the Academy of Fine Arts on August 2. As many as twenty in number, therefore covering a broad spectrum of theatrical activity, these prizes are a worthy way of encouraging lesser-known groups. Exceptionally, the winner for best Bengali comedy, Samikshan (whose awarded production, Lobhendra Gabendra, followed the distribution ceremony), is quite a big name in the theatre world.
By reviving this hundred-year-old farce by the nearly forgotten Rajkrishna Ray, Samikshan has done a historical service, but arguably not much more. The historic part is due to Ray’s position as the first professional Bengali author and founder of his own Bina Theatre in Mechhuabazar. But he wrote better farces than Lobhendra Gabendra (such as Dāktār Bābu), and had greater success with mythologicals.
Mohit Chattopadhyaya, who edited the text, could have done a better job because, though Ray called it “a satirical society play”, Lobhendra Gabendra does not fulfil its early potential, petering out before really tackling the social problems of dowry and son-begetting. In fact, stressing its subtext might have made it more interesting, for it seems to reﬂect Ray’s autobiographical statement, “Debt is the worst kind of poverty” (he died in penury).
As usual, however, Samikshan handles the musical portions very well under the leadership of director Pankaj Munsi. The songs, scored by Ashok Narayan, are delivered with gusto by Munsi as the avaricious father Lobhendra and perhaps even better by Sujit Munsi as the spoilt brat Gabendra. Among the cameos, one must mention Manasi Ray’s ﬂawless performance as the courtesan and Gaur Kar’s emaciated coolie.
(From The Telegraph, 25 September 1993)