In my last review, I praised Natadha’s Mahābhārat2 for concentrating on just one Parva of the epic. This time I must heap accolades on another take (from the Adi Parva) by a small new group, Samuho, whose Atha Hidimbā Kathā deconstructs the single, peripheral character of Hidimba. More dramatists and directors should reinterpret the many little-known figures who flit across the background, given short shrift by Vyasa.
Samuho deserve wide recognition because they consist of young yet accomplished artists whose commitment is not only evident but deep. Also, they describe themselves as a women’s and non-binary collective—emphasis on the last word, because while Kolkata does have a few all-women troupes, these don’t necessarily work as equal playing fields, usually relying on a senior’s directorial vision. Furthermore, Samuho want to perform in any kind of space, unencumbered by dependence on regular auditoriums. This production requires minimum appurtenances and continues to travel, since before the lockdown, from open-air grounds to intimate venues as well as proscenium stages.
In fact, the play opens with the ten-member cast pretending to be itinerant, disgruntled rural kathaks. They present a script devised through improvisation, taking some liberties with and even misreading Hidimba’s story in the source: for example, inserting a wrestling bout between her and Bhima to prove her prowess, whereas in Vyasa she falls in love with his physique at first sight; or suggesting that she told Bhima to kill her brother, before he attacked Bhima in fury when he saw them together. Their purpose is to expose the racism and sexism in the original: the labelling of Adivasis as Rakshasas, beastly non-Aryan others, and the scant regard paid to Hidimba, mother of Ghatotkacha, eldest son of the Pandavas.
The director, Titas Dutta, herself one of the actors, all of whom interchange parts fluidly and demonstrate exemplary energy and choreography, paints Hidimba in perfect harmony with the forest where the Pandavas have intruded. Suitably, the dominant motifs and techniques are colloquial language (with English tossed in), richly subversive humour, folky songs, saris drawn up and tucked in at the back, bamboo staffs wielded expertly, and a jute backcloth of trees and humans drawn in aboriginal style. Hidimba proudly remains in her homeland at the end and reclaims her narrative on her own terms.
Last year I had gone to Manali, which has the most famous temple to Hidimba, and found it very easy to imagine the Pandavas as interlopers in that tall, cool, pine forest where her tribe may have once lived, human and beautiful, though non-Hindu. I wish that Samuho perform Atha Hidimbā Kathā there in broken Hindi, to their own delight as well as that of the local community.