When theatre presents mythological lore about popular deities, it inevitably risks the injustice of compressing reams of important episodes into a two-hour span, as well as attempting to reconcile contradictory or disparate material from multiple sources into a cohesive action. In this no-win scenario, the wise option (other than avoiding mythic biodramas altogether) is to select a narrow, specific story so as to exhaust its possibilities fully – like the Greek tragedians knew so well, especially the strategy of in medias res.

Neither Nandipat’s Manasā-mangal nor Nandikar’s Pānchajanya does this, as they retell their respective narratives from beginning to end. Even though Nandipat’s brochure proclaims Behula as the heroine, more than half of Ujjwal Chattopadhyay’s play elapses before her first appearance. Indeed, it picks up only after this, into an exhilarating climax, thus indicating where director Prokash Bhattacharya should edit the show. In Chattopadhyay’s favour, one must say that he injects anti-patriarchal and anti-pantheonic interpretations: Behula fights like a proto-feminist, while Manasa exposes a bumbling Shiva and hedonistic Indra as unjust upholders of a heavenly glass ceiling.

The two women stand out also on stage. While the conflict of egos between Manasa and Chand causes Behula’s pain, Manasa (Sanjita) has a strong presence, which Chand (Bimal Chakraborty) uncharacteristically lacks. And Behula (Monalisa Chatterjee) rows and dances away with the honours in a blaze of fervour and dedication, possibly the only one to manifest the larger-than-life truth of folk performance, which for most urban actors just does not come naturally.

Pānchajanya opens in the aftermath of the Kurukshetra war, but then goes into flashback mode to depict Krishna’s entire life. Problems arise in dramatist Parthapratim Deb’s inability to bridge the yawning chasm between the romantic pastoral Krishna and the political courtly Krishna, totally different personae, though one could argue that his killing of Kamsa anticipates his later role. Most inexplicably, Deb pays hardly any attention to Krishna’s lasting contribution, his rationalization in the Bhagavad Gitā.

The casting of two discrete Krishnas, young (Saptarshi) and older (Deb), adds to the impression of watching two separate plays. By that logic, director Sohini Sengupta should have employed two Radhas, but by acting Radha herself right through, she creates a major conceptual discrepancy. Among the principals, Saptarshi engages us with a charming freshness, whereas Kamsa’s looks come too close for comfort to Bane’s in Batman and Immortan Joe’s in Mad Max. Deb’s always sophisticated live music and Sengupta’s mobilization of Nandikar’s youthful zest energize the production.

(From The Telegraph, 12 November 2016)