Historical drama in Bengali stages a comeback with two plays set in medieval times, ranging from the turn of the 13th century to the late 18th century. In both, invaders lay waste to parts of eastern India.

Bohurupee’s Kathā Nālandā recounts the plunder of Nalanda by Bakhtiyar Khilji, fairly well established in the collective memory as the death blow to that ancient shrine of learning. However, the dramatist Kajal Chakrabarti adds a more nuanced picture. He describes Nalanda as already in decline (a view supported by most historians) due to the rise of Tantric Vajrayana, which gave greater importance to occult magic and the body than to spirituality, and exploited for this purpose women of adjacent villages. Meanwhile Khilji decides to ransack Nalanda almost as an afterthought, in his quest to possess a woman he loved who had taken shelter there as a nun; this subplot seems not to have any factual basis. Moderates among his Muslim comrades try to convince him not to resort to violence and atrocities, but in vain.

Debesh Raychaudhuri directs a large cast to Bohurupee’s exacting standards, himself portraying the despicable Khilji. Kathā Nālandā clearly prioritizes events over characterization, but other actors who impress with sufficient onstage time include Prabal Mukhopadhyay as the last head of Nalanda and Rishabh Basu as a young bhikkhu. Shankha Bandyopadhyay’s set conveys a period ambience.

Kalyani Natyacharcha Kendra revives Nuraldiner Sārājiban, the famous verse drama by Bangladeshi author Syed Shamsul Haq about the Rangpur peasant rebellion in 1783 led by the simple farmer Nuraldin against tyrannical zamindars propped up by the British. Victorious and independent for five weeks, the uprising could not possibly withstand the powerful East India Company, who crushed it ruthlessly. Haq implied that things might have turned out differently if all the locals had united in Nuraldin’s cause.

Kolkata last saw this play in 1999, in the bilingual, intercultural and intertextual production directed by Sudipto Chatterjee for Epic Actors Workshop, New York. Compared to that highly ambitious project, Kishore Sengupta directs a very young team in a dynamically choreographed ensemble where the same performers enact the rebels as well as the status quo-ists just by a change of masks. He wisely retains Haq’s sensitivity in not delineating all the British as villains, but a few as slightly sympathetic to the “natives”. Dipankar Das excels as the unwilling hero, the only psychologically developed portrait.

(From The Telegraph, 17 September 2016)