One positive outcome of Banga Natya Samhati’s festival celebrating 150 years of Bengali professional theatre is the rediscovery of obscure texts that nobody has staged in a long, long time. These include two self-declared “tragedies” from the 1870s: Apurbba Sati, co-written by one of the earliest women dramatists (my emphases for the sake of accuracy), and Jamidār Darpan, by probably the first Bengali Muslim playwright. Their historic pioneer status consequently overrides their quality.
Apurbba Sati has attracted considerable scholarly speculation in recent decades, without any resolution of its enigmatic origins. Composed by the actress Sukumari Datta (Golap) and the unknown Ashutosh Das in 1875, it may have been performed by the short-lived Indian National Theatre that year. Before discussing Ushneek’s production, let me point out some mistakes in their souvenir. The oldest Bengali play by a woman, albeit unstaged, had already appeared in 1866: Urbbashi Nātak by Dwija Tanaya (nom de plume of Kaminisundari Devi), who went on to author at least two more in the 1870s. Apurbba Sati was published in July (as per the official Bengal Library Catalogue, not August as the souvenir says) in the Bengali year 1282 (=1875, typo-ed as 1882 in the director’s note). Finally, the souvenir states that Sukumari last acted at the Aurora in 1901, most likely confusing her with Golap (Junior), who had joined there.
The director, Ishita Mukhopadhyay, captures the play’s brave spirit drawing on Sukumari’s firsthand knowledge, of the tragic death of an aged prostitute’s teenage daughter who loved going to school and fell in love with an educated young man. Mukhopadhyay undercuts the sentimental plot with a colourful picture frame painted by Hiran Mitra (a refreshing change from his signature black-white-and-red designs) and live singing to accompanists on stage. She casts accomplished actors in key parts to buttress the star-crossed lovers (Mauma Naskar and Subrata Sarkar)—not just the senior Chhanda Chatterjee as the mother, but also Subhasish Mukhopadhyay (both of them in the photo) in a triple satiric role worthy of Ardhendu Mustafi’s versatility, and Sharmila Maitra as both a maid and (spoiler alert!) a drunk man.
Mir Mosharraf Hossain holds a highly respected position in 19th-century Bengali literature covering works in all genres. His Jamidār Darpan (published in Chaitra 1279 =1873) figures among the many Darpan plays that proliferated in the wake of Nil-darpan to spread awareness about and protest against social evils. Reportedly written with the peasants’ rebellion in Sirajganj (Pabna) of 1872-73 in mind, it mirrors the atrocities committed by a Muslim zamindar on his own subjects, centred on his rape of a pregnant woman whose husband could not pay the exorbitant levy on him and her subsequent death.
Uttal, from Siliguri, produced this reformist though obviously derivative melodrama with sincerity, but more than the main storyline, the travesty of the trial in the last act wins greater resonance today. Director Palak Chakrabarti makes the biased judge sing in court with his arms swinging like a conductor’s, grab a random villager to complete the jury, and listen sympathetically to false witnesses lie about the zamindar’s character. Diya Datta (who has a strong voice) and Shubham Chakrabarti portray the lead couple’s abject misery.