Bengali theatre has developed a profound nostalgia for its rural forefathers – at once desirable to acquaint the new generation with its history, and disagreeable for the uncritical romanticism with which it glorifies the past.

Shabdamugdha Natyakendra does a great service by dramatizing Syed Mustafa Siraj’s autobiographical novel Māyā Mridanga, a thinly disguised account of his own early career in an Alkap troupe, because it preserves the original all-male form, now extinct. Director Rakesh Ghosh researches it almost as a living documentary on Alkap, contrasting the competition between the real Jhaksu Ustad and a younger group, with fine syncretic moments incorporating songs by Lalan Fakir and Tagore. The magnetic Shyamashis Pahari and Ghosh himself as the rival masters, their leading boys (Aninda Roy and Ranjan Bose respectively) and the whole cast, including the few women like Jhaksu’s wife (an irrepressible Sampreeti Chakraborty), perform exceptionally.

However, Ghosh unnecessarily melodramatizes the parallel plots of sexual jealousy. And, as in most Bengali revisitations of female impersonation, he ignores the fact that we must accept the practice only as a phase in theatrical evolution; for to advocate it today means to continue discriminating against actresses by denying them sufficient stage opportunities. Also, he glosses over the gurus’ habitual transgression of the sacred teacher-pupil bond in exploiting their power over innocence and initiating physical relationships.

In 1976, Ajitesh Bandopadhyay of Nandikar was among the first to raise the plight of retired Jatra heroes in his Saodāgarer Nauka. Appropriately, Sansriti’s revival featured on the opening day of Nandikar’s National Festival. But in spite of director Debesh Chattopadhyay’s utmost efforts to make it relevant, time does not treat it kindly. The plethora of deeper plays since then on neglected Jatra artistes renders Bandopadhyay’s work rather simple in hindsight. Even Debshankar Halder in the lead cannot find the role challenging enough to characterize it distinctively from the dozens of similar sentimentalized parts he has essayed. Sujan Neel Mukhopadhyay has more flexibility as his son, torn between filial love and anger at his own inability to alleviate their penury.

(From The Telegraph, 23 December 2017)