Celebrating its golden anniversary this year, Rangroop has grown from strength to strength, a different trajectory from many Bengali groups who have reached that milestone. Starting off as a small unit that produced only four plays in its first 13 years, it developed gradually into a more established presence, and has now become one of Bengali theatre’s foremost flag-bearers, especially in woman-centric drama. At this turning point, a group must find and nurture future directors, which, too, Rangroop has accomplished with the elevation of one of its senior actors, Jayanta Mitra, into direction under the guidance of group leader Sima Mukhopadhyay.
Sonāi Bibi, their latest, also has the benefit of the increasingly mature hand of young playwright Sounava Bose, author of Rangroop’s earlier success, Abyakta. He has dramatized a long story by Sunil Gangopadhyay, Kirtināshār Epār Opār, based on 16th-century Bengali history. It is a must-see, belonging to the recent clutch of epic medieval historical drama that includes Rangapat’s Chatushpāp and Bohurupee’s Kathā Nālandā. The sociopolitical upheavals in Bengal during the 300 years between the decline of the Senas and the ascendance of the Mughals, which Gangopadhyay and Bose have explored to paint a richly layered canvas, offer uncannily disturbing parallels to our times. Besides, the period happens to be among the most neglected in our education.
Ostensibly an inter-faith love story, Sonāi Bibi takes place against the quasi-historical backdrop of the Baro Bhuniyas – the twelve (often more) overlords who ruled regions of Bengal, fought, but frequently united in a confederacy to stave off invaders, notably Akbar’s forces. The powerful Bhuniya, Isa Khan, saves the heroine, Swarnamayi, widowed daughter of fellow Bhuniya Chand Ray, from dacoits and they eventually fall in love. After marriage she becomes known as Sonai Bibi. When he dies, she takes charge of his army and leads them into battle. Unlike the folk ballad collected by Chandra Kumar De in the East Bengal Gitikā, which lionizes Isa, our authors grant primacy to Sonai. The play presents struggles for personal and political independence, though Bose may have romanticized admittedly hazy facts (most accounts say that Isa abducted Swarnamayi).
Mitra shows no weaknesses in his directorial debut. He depicts a vivid demographic landscape, employing Tarun Pradhan’s ethnic choreography to create a sense of community activities, while giving equal attention to the needlessly bickering Bhuniyas: the Rajas Pratapaditya, Lakshman Manikya and Kedar Ray the most famous among them. Costume designer Poulomi Talukdar may wish to consider Dineshchandra Sen’s observations on period attire, which apparently favoured “Persian saris” for aristocratic Muslim ladies. The acting standards we have come to expect from Rangroop remain uniformly very high, but one must highlight the talented young lead pair (see photograph): Amrita Mukhopadhyay’s transformation in personality as Sonai, and Apurba Saha’s heroic Isa.
(From The Times of India, 8 February 2019)