Bohurupee celebrated its 69th birthday this month with its customary annual festival, featuring a new production (which always premieres on this occasion) and two invitees from neighbouring states. We hope that next year’s unprecedented milestone receives worthy preparations well in advance on a grand scale, spotlighting the group’s pioneering contribution to Indian theatre.

Alakh Mukhopadhyay’s Medal bears a very tart Brechtian premise. A veteran thief, Bishu, proud to belong to a hereditary lineage of thieves, gets an offer from the government that he cannot refuse: to tweak the old proverb, it takes a thief to stop other thieves. In a scenario somewhat too reminiscent of the Pink Panther, the government must host the display of a world-famous diamond, an obvious target for professional purloiners, to guard against whom, the authorities hire Bishu. Not only does Bishu fulfil his duty to protect the jewel, but in order to honour his family reputation, he steals it himself (substituting it with a fake), leading to a merry chase.

The dramatic ironies keep us engrossed, even though the plotting raises many doubts relating to credibility, noticeably lax security arrangements and the practical development of the case. Debesh Raychaudhuri does not convince as much in his direction of the high-profile and jet-set scenes as he does in the rustic episodes, but as always, he stands out in the lead, conscious of living up to the impeccable standards of thievery set by Bishu’s forefathers, smearing oil on his body in the hallowed old tradition, and attaining an apotheosis of mental satisfaction at the end. Krishna Ganguli provides good support as his wife.

Natya Chetana, from their rural theatre hamlet 30 km outside Bhubaneswar, presented Nian (Odia for “fire”), which dramatist-director Subodh Patnaik told me he based on real-life incidents from the experience of one of his troupe members. An Adivasi woman loses her husband, mistaken as a Maoist, shot in an encounter. To survive, she finds work as a labourer for an urban contractor engaged in dubious construction on forest land near her home. He promises to marry her but sexually abuses her instead. The extremists take up her cause and that of the villagers; she joins them and becomes an ace sharpshooter.

In the trademark Natya Chetana style of easily mobile theatre, assembling exclusively natural material (even for props like guns) and using their flexibly sinewy human resources, Patnaik visualizes this typical trajectory of indigenous forest inhabitants coopted by Maoists, and does not hesitate to point out their double exploitation at the hands of both government and other outsiders as well as insurgent insiders headed by commanders from outside. He has also found a talented young actor, Lucky, to carry the mantle of the more senior performers in the collective.

Among the few trunks still standing in the once-sprawling canopy of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (the establishment of which predated Bohurupee), the Patna unit remains active. It brought Bhikhari Thakur’s Gabarghicharan ke Māi in the original Bhojpuri, expanded and directed by Tanwir Akhtar. We have seen Bhikhari Thakur’s prototypical Bidesiya plays previously. Here, Akhtar starts with the standard Bidesiya situation of a Bihari man leaving his young wife to procure a job in Calcutta and not returning; he then suffixes this short script which reveals a remarkable resemblance to Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Presumably, Bhikhari came to know of Brecht’s classic late in life, or he might have heard one of many similar folk tales from Judea to China.

Thus, the lonely wife has an affair with her husband’s friend, who has always fancied her, and she gives birth to a son. The prodigal husband eventually returns and asks about the boy’s paternity, which leads to claims and counter-claims. The panchayat has to resolve the issue of parentage, with a formidable executioner in the background for good measure. Akhtar’s adaptation adds novelty to the tried-and-tested Bidesiya formula, and the ensemble plays multiple characters and musical instruments interchangeably. Piyush Singh and Swet Priti enact husband and wife capably, though the latter’s singing voice (much in demand in the folk form) sounds strained at times from the pressures placed on it. The headman, Ashutosh Mishra, has greater virtuosity, and consequently faces no such musical stress. Nirbhay Trigun relishes the part of the opportunistic friend.

(From The Telegraph, 27 May 2017)