Group: Sansriti

Director: Debesh Chattopadhyay


Sher Āfgān

Dramatist: Pirandello

Adaptation: Ajitesh Bandopadhyay

Recommended: ★★★★


















Dramatist: Karnad

Translation: Sankha Ghosh


Sansriti has reached a major milestone, their thirtieth anniversary. It seems just the other day that I criticized some of their early productions, but under founder-director Debesh Chattopadhyay they have grown from strength to strength. A Sansriti production today guarantees stimulating thought as well as attractive mise-en-scene, and quite often, Chattopadhyay’s choice of classics amplifies the former, as in the cases of Pirandello’s Sher Āfgān and Karnad’s Hayabadan (Hayavadana), using respectively Ajitesh Bandopadhyay’s Indianization of Jyotirmay Basu Ray Chaudhuri’s translation and Sankha Ghosh’s translation, both exciting Bengali texts in their own right.

Ajitesh did an exceptionally creative job on Pirandello’s Henry IV, finding a Bengali equivalent for the Holy Roman emperor and reconstructing the Mughal historical context for the “virtual” charade to be enacted precisely to satisfy the protagonist. He made the accidental head injury in Henry IV metatheatrical by stating that it happened backstage at a show of Nur Jāhān. Chattopadhyay, an Ajitesh devotee, treats his source reverentially, even down to keeping two intermissions separating Pirandello’s three acts. At the same time, he updates it by referring to comparative emoluments in group theatre and TV serials during the exchanges among the hired actors.

Rajatava Dutta’s stage comeback sharply delineates “Sher Afgan’s” changeable psyche, expressing Pirandello’s near-philosophical meditations on madness and illusion in Act 1, then apparently switching to normalcy abruptly in Act 2, yet leaving ambiguous how premeditated was his sudden homicide in Act 3. Reflecting this instability, Chattopadhyay shifts our viewing perspective of his room in each Act by repeating his favourite scenography of mobile platforms, and instead of two wall portraits, uses warped metal frames holding plain white fibreglass on which the lighting distorts images (see photo). I suggest that he replace these with straight frames after the first Act, to symbolize the protagonist’s return to sanity.


Unlike Ajitesh, Sankha Ghosh followed his source meticulously. Bengali audiences have seen his translation recently as Ghorāmukho Pālā, staged capably by Kathakriti. But Kathakriti (and most other groups) omit portions, which Chattopadhyay, true to his process of late, does not, except for the very significant third stanza of Janaganamana specified by Karnad. My questions raised by his interpretation relate to implementation of Karnad’s fine balance between folklore and psychology.

As with Henry IV, the success of Hayavadana lies in the leading role—that of Padmini. Karnad gives us precious little by way of clues to her motivation; even her hurried transposing of the men’s heads could be a genuine mistake, a Freudian slip or a conscious act. In her first appearance, does she feel instantly attracted to Kapil, or is her flirty manner just a natural trait? Thus, every actor moulds Padmini in her own fashion. But here, Monalisa Chatterjee hasn’t found a handle on the character, no “through line” via the Stanislavskian “magic if”, nor governed by rasa/bhāva aesthetics or overwrought folk emotions. Confusion may be Padmini’s nature, but Monalisa’s technique should not become equally jumbled up.

Chattopadhyay’s direction of Debdatta and Kapil (Tathagata Chaudhuri and Abhra Mukherjee) in the second half also puzzles. Kapil indicates that after their transposition, their minds managed to turn their alien bodies back to their original physiques. Chattopadhyay makes the colour of their respective kurtas signify their bodies; but, having exchanged these colours, they never return afterwards to the prelapsarian scheme. Effectively, then, both remain incomplete men, whereas Karnad wants them revert to whole again.

Chattopadhyay applies devices from the Khan (rhymes with “con”) form of Dinajpur, such as animal and human masks. But puppets as the catty dolls do not work as well as expressive performers for these parts (I remember the Industrial Theatre Company from Mumbai 20 years ago), humanizing the inert like Karnad always favoured. The singing, especially of Jayanta Mitra as Sutradhar, and choreography are superb. However, the sturdy two-level wooden set stretching almost wing to wing hardly interacts with the cast, not gelling with the fluidity of both personality and folk form. As for lighting, it is all-important that Padmini re-attaches the fallen heads in relative darkness: her dialogue goes, “Can’t see a thing.”


18 March 2023