Group: Theatre Workshop

Dramatist: Utpal Dutt

Director: Ashok Mukhopadhyay


With RRR now the highest form of entertainment, Raja Rammohun Roy’s sestercentennial came and went without the fanfare worthy of such a yugāvatār—not surprising, perhaps, in these historically revisionist times. But why did West Bengal herself, so fond of festivities, remain relatively mute? Why did Bengali theatre pay just scant respect to this “Bengal Renaissance” Man who effected sea changes in our politics, religion, society, languages and literature? Theatre Workshop’s revival of Utpal Dutt’s Agnishajyā stands out as the notable exception.

Ashok Mukhopadhyay had done something similar when he enacted Gandhiji in Dutt’s Eklā Chalo Re before the pandemic (read my review). Now for his own group, he directs rather than acts. Like Dutt’s practice in Eklā Chalo Re as well as his other biodramas on Bengali rebels of the early 19th century (Jhar on Derozio, Dānrāo Pathikbar on Michael Madhusudan), Agnishajyā covers only a few years, and not all of Roy’s multifarious achievements—as the title indicates, just the aim of abolishing sati. In fact, Dutt repeated characters from Jhar: obviously Roy himself, the conservative Radhakanta Deb, Dakshina Ranjan Mukerjea who saved a widow from sati, and villains of the type of her brother-in-law who supported sati for their personal gains.

The play’s straightforward trajectory cannot compete with Dutt’s complex masterpieces. Nevertheless, Debasish Roychowdhury (as Roy) and Sumitro Bandyopadhyay (as Deb) embody the conflict between liberals and the orthodox, the former conveying our hero’s thought processes facially. The most unexpectedly vivid portrayal comes from Suranjana Ghatak as Snehamoyee, the widow who initially follows Roy’s guidance but then does a volte-face at the eleventh hour and enters the pyre (see photo), signalling his failure: Dutt depicts Hindu society realistically, as rejecting Roy’s reform at the outset.

Mukhopadhyay’s direction makes no attempt to improve the text (except to insert a couple of pertinent lines from Brecht’s Galileo), and instead serves its purpose of educating viewers about the abominable condition of women 200 years ago that one man ultimately transformed. He must rectify the inaccurate draping of the French flag (blue white and red, not the other way round), use the correct monosyllabic pronunciation of “brougham” and do away with the anachronistic word “okay”. Before the NCERT erases Roy from the curriculum, schools and colleges should support Agnishajyā as part of their history classes, followed by discussion.