Swapna-sandhani celebrates their silver jubilee this year — a milestone for an initially small band of youngsters, who pursued their commitment to autonomy by discovering off-the-beaten-track venues to break out of the perceived Bengali theatre circuit, and then, despite alignment with the political change that occurred in 2011, had the courage (unlike many others) to criticize and dissociate when their conscience demurred. To mark the special occasion, they have premiered two new productions: very significantly, of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children titled Nirbhaya, and in keeping with that anti-war classic’s internecine conflict, of Manoj Mitra’s shorter drama, Ashwatthāmā.

As the world faces multiple dangerous military conflagrations between and within nations, plays like Mother Courage become important in increasing public awareness about the futility of aggression. By placing it during the Thirty Years’ War, and foreseeing the devastation of World War II, Brecht underlined the absurdity of Christian denominations fighting each other and the constant changing of flags as each side registers temporary victories. Against this larger backdrop, Mother Courage lives off the war, following and selling goods to soldiers; Brecht thereby targets capitalism, which flourishes under these conditions. Each time she haggles for a better deal, she loses one of her children, till left all alone to pull her wagon while hostilities continue.

Ratan Kumar Das’s adaptation cleverly reverses Brecht’s stipulated “alienation effect”. He locates the text in contemporary India, with “Nirbhaya & Co.” blinking in LED lights. Although thus rejecting Brecht’s distancing of dramatic action in the past, he resorts to alienation by a framing device of Brecht himself and Ruth Berlau, his collaborator and photographer archivist, introducing, interrupting and concluding the play. Das should add to these interventions more of Brecht’s own ambivalence: the ironies that Brecht, sympathetic to Communism, did not consider the USSR as a safe haven when fleeing the Nazis, and his application for Austrian citizenship after the war. Other than that, Nirbhaya retains Brecht’s script relatively intact.

Koushik Sen directs immaculately. Avoiding the Indian predilection to sentimentalize “poor” Mother Courage, he ensures a cerebral approach for us to think, as Brecht wanted. Reshmi Sen puts her own acting prowess to serve this objective, depicting Nirbhaya forced to cope by survival instinct. Monalisa Pal as her speech-impaired daughter, Shankar Malakar as her impulsive elder son and Ali Akram Parvez as the honest younger son portray their parts individualistically. Nabonita Basu Majumder delivers “The Camp Follower’s Song” with panache, and Ashok Ghosh makes a dissolute cook. The priest, however, demands a more opportunistic characterization.

The final phase of the Kurukshetra carnage, which wiped out the next generation of cousins on both sides, forms the subject of Ashwatthāmā, in which Manoj Mitra showed the last of the Kauravas — the dying Duryodhan, Ashwatthama, his uncle Kripacharya and Kritavarma, the latter three undertaking the meaningless slaughter of the Pandava boys sleeping at night. Death stalks the bleak skeleton-strewn battlefield designed by Sanchayan Ghosh, where Riddhi Sen enacts an impressionable teenage hero misguided by his elders, Koushik Sen as Kritavarma egging him on to revenge, and a memorably restrained Surajit Bandyopadhyay as a Kripa sick of all the killing. The warriors’ costumes by Weavers Studio bring a welcome variety to Swapna-sandhani’s army uniforms, which often repeat camouflage fatigues in seeking immediate relevance.

We saw an English version of Mother Courage, too, by QTP (Mumbai,) one of the Aadyam Theatre productions of this year, brought here by Sangit Kala Mandir. Evidently sensitive directors think alike, in this case Quasar Thakore Padamsee, who rendered Eric Bentley’s translation scrupulously, even inventing a Brechtian subtitle, “Everybody loves a good war”. Most strikingly, he cast a team all of whom can sing, the prologue in chorus making a wonderful start. In spite of the fidelity, however, the spark was missing. Perhaps too respectful (though, like Koushik, he set it in India today), Quasar could not capitalize on the pervasive humour — Brecht maintained that to keep ordinary theatregoers engaged, one had to entertain them, and he employed sardonic wit for this purpose. And the stark white screens upstage gave too sanitized a look; besides, they rarely came into use.

Arundhati Nag’s outstanding performance in the lead defined this production, supported by her children (Bhavna Pani, Abhishek Krishnan, Junaid Khan). Like Reshmi Sen, she negated emotions and conveyed a weary pragmatism instead. Her wagon created a magnificent centrepiece, its diverse but functional parts meticulously fabricated by artist Abir Patwardhan.

(From The Telegraph, 23 September 2017)