With students back physically in school, can young people’s theatre stay locked down? Two Bengali groups feature their welcome-back workshop-driven plays as part of a double bill, both directed by Kingsuk Bandyopadhyay, a veteran of children’s theatre.
For Howrah’s Shilpi Sangha, he takes up Swapnajoy Ganguly’s Kathāmālār Deshe, based on Vidyasagar’s Kathāmālā, retold from Aesop’s Fables. This gives scope for a large-scale costume musical and much youthful enjoyment, though I felt a great deal of concern about the kids having to get into a sack as their entry to and exit from animal land. Much more alarmingly, the play ends with the assassination of the tyrannical lion king. At a time when all progressive schools teach their wards to respect and protect wildlife, we cannot condone the regressive message here. The creators lost the chance to reinterpret outdated narratives by making the lion see reason and achieving a bloodless resolution/revolution. The dramatist-director partnership had attained superior heights on their previous effort, Birpurush. But Ganguly himself excels as the mysterious Galpa Dadu.
Bandyopadhyay wrote Durgadas Smrity Sangha’s Khelāghar, about an idealistic couple who start a school for poor teenage villagers illegally employed in stone-quarrying, and teach them basic rights in addition to formal subjects through playschool methods. Vested interests ensure that things don’t go smoothly, particularly for the dedicated teacher (Nilanjan Ganguli stands out in this part). However, Bandyopadhyay repeats an overused stage device guaranteed to rouse patriotism, by ending with a sudden unfurling of the national flag from the flies, to the strains of Janaganamana. What he does not realize is that without the Ashoka chakra, the tricolour by itself does not become the national flag—indeed, purists could well argue that such a display disrespects our flag. Another wrong signal sent out to the young artists and viewers.