Anamika Kala Sangam’s unique month-long Four Square Critics Choice Festival at Gyan Manch brings together for the first time in Calcutta a substantial number of current plays vetted by a panel of theatre critics. Reviewers may constantly carp about the decline in local theatre nowadays, but this festival empirically displays the tremendous variety and talent of theatre in Bengal. Admittedly, every one of these productions cannot be good in all respects, yet each is guaranteed to contain something of quality.

The first brand-new work, Rudāli (February 15), is an exception. The year is still young, but we may already have the best production of 1993 on our hands. In Rudāli, Rangakarmee returns after a break to the dramaturgical method that succeeded so well in Holi: a workshop involving the group that creates its own performance text with which the cast is most comfortable. The source is Mahasweta Devi’s story by the same name, but it has as much relation to the stage version as a seed does to a tree. As many as five writers and one adviser are credited with the final script.

The acting shows all the hallmarks of Rangakarmee’s distinctive approach—collective excellence from the entire troupe and individual brilliance from the main roles (Usha Ganguli and Yama Shroff, the long-lost friends who become professional mourners, almost a statement on how oppressed single women have the last laugh on society). In fact, Rangakarmee shrewdly introduces enough black humour in the dialogue so that the sombre subject appears at once natural and not too grim. But Ganguli’s best achievement as director is to make this virtually a women’s play. She is famous for her ensemble work with men; now she proves she can do the same with actresses too (as many as fifteen).

But don’t expect the cinematic glamour of a Dimple Kapadia Rudāli here. Ganguli sets the action and accent in southern Bihar and eschews ornamental decor; her music contains no catchy theme songs; prettily ethnic dresses and bindis are not her style. The whole design is spartan, dominated by shades of brown which symbolically connect with the earth on which the poverty-stricken villagers live and die. Theatrically, some scenes are nothing less than stunning.

Statutory recommendation: don’t miss this play.


It is easy to understand why the Delhi production of Uljhan, directed by Avtar Sahni (presented by Anamika Kala Sangam, Kalamandir, January 13) won an award from the Sangeet Natak Akademi: it has a serious objective plus an eye for production values, commitments that ordinary north Indian urban theatre groups lack.

The story comes from Vijaydan Detha, one of the stalwarts of modern Rajasthani literature, whose multi-volume series titled Batan Ri Phulwari retells folktales through his characteristic Marxist prism. Detha’s detractors argue that the tales thereby lose their original flavour; his supporters contend that his interpretive bias is just as good as any other. But the plot of Uljhan—an innocent prince reared by wolves in a forest, restored to the throne where power corrupts him—clearly forms the stuff of archetypal folklore juxtaposing the noble savage with artificial civilization.

Manoj Bajpai is far more effective as the wild man than the tyrannous king, whereas Krishna Priyadarshini (the gypsy girl who discovers, cares for, falls in love with and educates him) romantically simplifies a potentially complex part. Of the supporting cast, Vibanshu Vaibhav is a natural as the barber who has to groom the prince but incidentally tells him about the birds and the bees. The play has an aesthetic ambience through Sahni’s choreographic touches and music score, Gurmukh Singh’s spare set design and Girdhari Lal’s geometrically zoned lighting.

(From The Telegraph, 4 March 1993)