SAOLI MITRA (1948-2022)

In spite of the facts that Saoli Mitra directed fewer productions compared to other personalities and withdrew from the stage long before she should have, she left a lasting impact on Bengali theatre. I don’t wish to reiterate her apprenticeship under her legendary parents in Bohurupee and the already well-known highlights of her career, but want to illuminate the three fields in which she made pioneering contributions: feminist, environmental and political, in the decades of the 80s, 90s and the new millennium respectively, before aligning with the Trinamool party.

Nāthabati Anāthabat (1983), which launched her group Pancham Vaidic, has become iconic. A two-hour one-woman show is challenging enough. But most people don’t know that Saoli did it in Hindi too, which I saw in 1991. To repeat such a success in a different language requires guts, not to speak of talent. In at least two key areas her Hindi-speaking avatar scored highly: the immense self-confidence with which she took on a tongue that was not her own (few actors can even act in a second language, much less do a full-length solo performance in it) and the astonishingly unexpected fluency in Hindi that she expressed. Usha Ganguli translated Saoli’s original Bengali script faithfully, down to such culture-specific allusions as the references to Kashiram Das, author of the Bengali Mahābhārat. Occasional usage of contemporary words of Urdu lineage aided Saoli’s purpose of bringing a postmodern woman’s perspective to bear on Draupadi’s sufferings. However, apart from this interrogation (which I felt could do with more vitriol) of the unfair treatment meted out to Draupadi in that male-dominated ethos, Saoli did not reinterpret the chosen episodes greatly—with the possible exception of the end where she imputes to Draupadi a deep realization that Bhim’s love for her is the truest of all, and her verbalization of this feeling for him. Tremendous hard work had gone into her role; she never stumbled over her lines (a phenomenal task over two hours); she delivered four or five speaking voices with consummate ease; and she sang competently as well.

Saoli titled her sequel Kathā Amrita Samān (1990) because she based it largely on Kashiram Das, who uses that phrase as a refrain. In addition, she conducted wide-ranging research in preparing her text, reading authorities on the Mahābhārata from Iravati Karve to Buddhadeva Bose. It was clearly a serious venture, in a class of its own but in a Kathakata style similar to Nāthabati: Saoli denied any influence of folk raconteurs of the Mahābhārata such as Teejan Bai. Where the earlier play dealt with Draupadi, the new work encompassed the full span of the epic, a formidable task. One had expected Saoli to present, if not a feminist, at least a woman’s perspective of the female characters. By not confining herself to such a concentrate she did something different for herself, but also lost an opportunity to be singularly original. She chose the stories of Satyavati, Amba-Ambika-Ambalika, sensitive interpretations of Gandhari, Kunti and her forte Draupadi, which show how fulfilment of desires is a double-edged sword, but Bhishma and Krishna as well, right down to incidents in the Mahāprasthān sequence. The contemporary relevance took three forms: explicit allusions to nuclear weaponry and warfare (by itself not an original insight); respectful references to modern scholars (particularly Karve); and an overall tone of questioning (though some questions did not seem worthy of investigation while others obviously have no answers and are meant to remain that way). When I asked her whether this was didactic, she replied it was up to us to judge. The theme, she explained, is the downfall of an age, by implication our own, for she thought the epic spoke to us today. Unlike Nāthabati, the narrative dictated over the dramatic, and though she acted many roles, the prominence of the Kathak detracted from the actual time given to playing other characters. Her singing, however, never faltered.

Non-Bengalis can read these plays translated into English and published in one volume by Stree: Five Lords, Yet None a Protector and Words Sweet and Timeless.

Photo: Pasupati Paul

For most people in India, and Bengal, environmental concerns remain “soft stories”—sissified matters which children may learn about in school but adults need not waste their valuable energy on when the catchwords are development and industrialization. Even most intellectuals and artists look down at environmentalists as a somewhat deranged breed obsessed with nature when, for committed persons like them, the real issue is human nature. It required courage, then, for a Bengali troupe to step outside the mainstream socialistic ideology of group theatre and hold up cudgels on behalf of green causes, for they faced the danger of not being taken seriously. Following the hallowed footsteps of Tagorean drama in Rakta-karabi, Saoli directed the young Supriti Mukhopadhyay’s Bitata Bitangsa (1996) about projected copper mines in “Damanpur” (shades of Yakshapuri), taking a brave green stand. As she tucked in her ānchal to fight vested corporate and political interests in her role as the environment officer newly transferred to Damanpur, we witnessed a tough but just (and grossly delayed on the Bengali stage) struggle interrogating the definition of “progress” and urbanization at the expense of village life. Her vulnerability due to setbacks in her personal history combined with her fierce resolve to protect the environment, producing a fully rounded and thoroughly human characterization.

Even though Bohurupee had staged Sartre’s Dirty Hands as Nindā Panke in 1990, Saoli directed Arpita Ghosh’s new translation titled Rājnaitik Hatyā? for Pancham Vaidic in 2004. Sartre had written it about Communist commitment post-World War II, but it remained relevant in our own political existentialism, without codes of conduct or morality, where unscrupulous opportunists rummage for spoils. Not surprisingly, the line where Sartre says that involvement in politics means getting one’s hands dirty received spontaneous applause at the performance I saw. He felt that we encounter many choices, and must create personal standards to act by, regardless of others’ “values”. Mindless conformism is robotic and immoral, neither human nor responsible.

And this philosophy must have influenced Saoli to make her political and personal choices afterwards, to fly with the winds of hope that the grass-roots party harbingered, and to retire from regular theatre activities other than the occasional revival. I have no business to read her mind, but I can imagine that many events since 2011 must have disillusioned her strong ethical core enough to retreat from public life further into seclusion. Don’t we all feel like doing this at times when we see how human beings behave? We’re just not as strong as her to do it.