For the second year running, Happenings commissioned youth and university theatre from all over south Asia to join its Rabindra Utsav. I cannot recall any festival in Kolkata with participation from both Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, so we must applaud the organizers for this feat, while blaming Kolkatans for not turning up in sufficient numbers to prove their proverbial warmth and cultural passion. They missed the diametrically opposed renditions that Tagore received, from highly imaginative take-offs to straight, conventional presentations, nothing in between.

One of the most creative came from next door, the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, University of Dhaka. As its title suggests, Prakriti, Chitrā o Amaler Charalnāmā integrated Chandālikā, Chitrāngadā and Dākghar thematically as quests for freedom – from caste, gender and the material world respectively. Rather than any attempt at narrative of well-known material, Shahman Moishan painted an impressionistic and cross-referential “deconstructive” canvas with just eight sequences from the three plays, weaving in Bhojpuri as spoken by Dalits in northern Bangladesh, indigenous performance styles and a contemporary woman responding to Chitrangada. Moishan used his actors as hieroglyphs in his visual semiotics, with occasional pitfalls into realism (for instance, why blacken the Chandals’ faces?) and a gobbledygook director’s note that seemed to superimpose postmodern theory simply for the sake of intellectual fashion.

Two versions of Kābuliwālā displayed the completely distinct approaches at work. In fact, one wondered what Charcoal (Department of Performing Arts, University of Colombo-Sri Palee) had to do with Tagore at all, besides dramatist-director Thumindu Dodanthenna acknowledging inspiration from Tagore’s story. In his original Sinhala script, train passengers escaping an epidemic travel from south to north; one of two twin babies dies in the compartment; scared of the consequences on arrival, the passengers want to throw the body out; in the ensuing confusion, they throw out the living baby instead. The title referred to the unextinguished embers that might lead to a future conflagration in a country trying to rise out of ethnic strife. The individualized cast functioned as an ensemble, like the Dhaka troupe, both delightful to watch for their collective art. The evocation of a train interior, announcements and noises reminded me of the harrowing The Spirit of Anne Frank (2002), starring Zohra Segal and Shabana Azmi.

What more obvious a pairing than Kabuliwala staged by Kabul University? Dramatized into Dari, with English surtitles, this was the sentimental hit of the festival, its audience including local Afghans and the occasion serving as a platform for Indo-Afghan friendship. Given the precarious state of that nation and its rudimentary theatre, we must make concessions for the simplicity and rough edges of the performance. For the actresses to get permission to travel with their fellow students was itself an achievement. In such a context, we readily overlooked the team’s shortcomings in approximating Indian costume and other details. It may interest readers that the director, Ahmad Samim Farahmand, has researched Buddhism in Afghanistan and written on the importance of theatre there and why they must keep it alive.

Another contrast of perspectives spanned the interpretations of Bisarjan by two Kolkata companies. Mad About Drama’s Bengali-English reworking, Kafir, surprised even a seen-it-all cynic like me, by marrying Tagore’s tragedy with Brecht’s alienation effects. This apparent incompatibility of a believer with a Marxist can make sense when one realizes their common iconoclasm – after all, Bisarjan ends with Raghupati discarding his goddess into the river. Director Aritra Sengupta exemplifies better the “anarchic aesthetics” that Moishan from Dhaka preaches: applying clown (or Batman’s Joker) makeup on all characters, using Nazi armbands and gangster gear, before dimly-lit, blood-spattered, urban brick walls, to bring Bisarjan nearer us and update the violence perpetrated by state and religion. Admittedly, all these have appeared on the Bengali stage recently, but never on Tagore. Kafir may not suit everyone’s taste, but forces you to think.

In comparison, Rabindra Bharati Theatre Repertory’s Bisarjan reverted to a safe and conservative reading directed by Soumitra Basu. Because Tagore lovers have seen so many such standard productions of it over time, this one looked no different and, indeed, blander as a result of the tradition that precedes it. Like others before him, Basu did not have the radicalism to throw the deity into the water, tossing the sacrificial altar instead. But he contributed tight editing and intercutting that retained the important sections of the text while keeping to a two-hour duration. Otherwise, Bisarjan marks a slide for the Repertory after its dynamic Shakespeare, Phāgun Rāter Gappo.

(From The Telegraph, 13 February 2016)