Among the Bengali groups who premiered new productions with alacrity soon after theatres reopened following the first lockdown, two Sanghas located just outside Kolkata put on full-length originals featuring strong social consciousness.
Bengali-medium schools should invite Durgadas Smrity Sangha (of South Garia) to perform Dhrubapada—it offers truly inspiring educational and historical content for audiences who do not know of the revolutionary work done by Jotiba (Jotirao) and Savitribai Phule, from the “low-caste” gardeners’ community in mid-19th-century Maharashtra: girls’ schools, Dalit upliftment, health clinics, widow marriage. Tirthankar Chanda has written a thoroughly researched drama about their altruism, deliberately highlighting the contributions of Savitribai (after whom the University of Poona renamed itself recently), her feminist sister-in-law Sagunabai, and her friend Fatima Sheikh (the first Indian-Muslim woman teacher), the three remarkable ladies who implemented many of Jotiba’s ideas. And they did this braving ceaseless casteist opprobrium and lack of resources. See the play to find out for yourselves.
Prokash Bhattacharya directs with a fine touch, admirably compressing their lifetime achievements into a little over two hours. I would not have minded sitting through another hour to see the several important episodes left unrepresented. Understated commitment and compassion mark the acting of Sanjita as Savitri (most touchingly expressed in her diffidence about her own poetry), Sarbani Bhattacharya (Saguna) and Poulami Banerjee (Fatima). Even Ananya Shankar resists any urge to portray Jotiba heroically—all of them epitomize karmayogis in the truest sense. One must mention Tulika Das’s period Marathi costumes (see photo), down to the horizontal kumkum that Savitri liked to sport.
From Howrah, Shilpi Sangha’s Tarurāg, written and directed by Kingsuk Bandyopadhyay, deals with college ragging and its brutal consequences for a freshman resulting in his hospitalization. His life hovers in the balance; his parents fret whether they should have taught him how to handle such situations instead of the values that they did. The theme is indeed relevant, but its development and direction follow formulaic melodramatic patterns, frequently way over the top. The silver lining in the cast comes from Shankar Ghosh as the garrulous nosy-parker family friend.