Once again, a new and unknown troupe has surprised me with an alarming, powerful production that restores faith in Bengali theatre’s future and makes a critic’s life worth living. Shoulder to shoulder, an established older group takes an equally brave stand on the same issue.
Belghoria Abhimukh’s Kojāgari adapts a now-obscure novel by Howard Fast, who had refused to divulge names during the McCarthy witchhunt, gone to jail for “contempt”, and suffered blacklisting to the extent that he had to self-publish his masterpiece, Spartacus, and its immediate successors like Silas Timberman. In the latter, an unassuming professor teaching the concept of democracy through Mark Twain’s works finds himself accused of Communism, sacked, and finally imprisoned for perjury. Dramatizer-director Kaushik Chattopadhyay makes the perfect choice for us from Fast’s vast oeuvre and fluently converts Silas into a Bengali college lecturer specializing in Tagore’s canon who, along with a few others, protests the sale of wooded land on campus to promoters, inevitably dragging himself into trouble. Fast once said, “a person’s philosophical point of view has little meaning if it is not matched by being and action,” which even sounds Tagorean.
What happens to Shailesh/Silas can happen to any of us, including the most nonviolent. The gentle warning from the Principal, the family pleas not to get involved for safety’s sake, the inquisition by the college board, the cadre-driven threat-laden student politics that erupts in the auditorium – all are only too real and frightening. One must mention Ashok Majumdar as the timid Shailesh undergoing gradual transformation, but for such fresh faces, everybody acts well, while Shubhadip Guha arranges a particular Rabindrasangit grunge-style to suit distorted times. I exhort organizations who believe in protecting besieged values and the inviolate right of free speech to invite Kojāgari for shows, which for obvious reasons it is denied.
Many of its strands combine serendipitously in Shudrak’s Vaijayantikā, an original play by senior dramatist Debashis Majumdar, who always provokes thought. Courageously, he sets it in Visva-Bharati, immediately bringing the role of Tagore’s institution, originally a model for an education of difference, into question. We learn that a student has disappeared without trace – recalling Najeeb Ahmed of Jawaharlal Nehru University. His peers agitate using a novel medium: Tagore’s writings. Like Chattopadhyay, Majumdar underlines Tagore’s radical pronouncements, trying to ensure that we do not forget his reformist zeal. As in Kojagari, we see a spectrum of academicians holding varying opinions, and a police administration that follows a sinister process instead of its responsibility to safeguard us with a sense of security. We note the irony of allusions to Rakta-karabi. Why is it so difficult in a supposedly modern society to tolerate dissent that does not harm fellow citizens?
Majumdar’s seasoned direction exhibits no false steps, and both his experienced and young actors perform in character. Uncannily, both plays as they near their endings present an open-air night scene surrounded by trees that evokes eerie premonition rather than romantic beauty. Ideally, Kojāgari and Vaijayantikā should be viewed on consecutive evenings to fathom the change that has occurred in Tagore’s “golden Bengal”, and whether it is still possible to turn things around.
(From The Telegraph, 3 March 2018)