Subhasis Gangopadhyay uses the drama-within-drama format to tell a story of courage in the face of oppression

Kolkata-based stage director and writer Subhashis Gangopadhyay is a serious artist who treats theatre not as a mere means of entertainment but as a way for humanity to confront the darkest and most catastrophic moments in human history. His recent play, “Rajar Chitthi -1942”, which was staged by Renaissance, Kolkata, at the Kamani auditorium in New Delhi last week, is a brilliant illustration of his artistic vision. A part of Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the production brings alive the dark and the brutal Nazi ideology that shocks and evokes a deep sense of anguish. Here, in the midst of destructive forces, stands a lone man to save humanity. Here children of an orphan home, to be exterminated soon, stage Rabindranath Tagore’s internationality celebrated play, “Dakghar”.

The protagonist of the play is Janusz Korczak (1878-1942), a children’s doctor, writer, journalist, child pedagogue and, above all, a great humanist and social activist. An officer in the Polish Army, he sacrifices his life for the sake of the children in an orphanage. As the dark shadow of war and extermination of innocent men, women and children looms, Dr. Korczak, known as Old Doctor, endeavours towards the all-round development of children.

Dedicated to create a theatre that gives voice to the oppressed and marginalised, Gangopadhyay’s production of Tagore’s “Rakta Karabi” staged at the last BRM featuring a visually challenged cast was widely appreciated. To capture the vast canvas of “Rajar Chitthi – 1942”, he structured his script as a drama-within-drama format. To provide the stark realism as a background for the action, he has introduced the elements of multimedia. So the production has three layers — the enactment of “Dakghar,” the terror in which the inhabitants of the orphanage live, and the backdrop of the extermination camp.

Gautam Mukherjee has imaginatively designed the set to capture the ambience for the action that takes place on various spaces. Upstage there are barbed wires where Jews are kept as prisoners. Through projection on the screen, images of naked humans led to gas chambers are shown. On the centre stage “Dakghar” is enacted by the children of the orphanage. The enactment of the play is frequently interrupted by Nazi soldiers whose attitude is humiliating and intimidating. Possessed by the madness of the killing spree, a Nazi soldier kills his own son.

We watch a number of scenes from “Dakghar” with Amol, protagonist of the play. Forced to remain confined to a dark room isolated from society, he watches the outside world through his window with great curiosity and an ardent desire to be part of the activities of the people. He pines for the freedom to experience the ecstasy of living. One of the characters that he perceives through his window is a little girl called Sudha, who has a tender empathy for Amol. The world of Amol, which is symbolically part of the world of the inhabitants of the orphanage, is constantly mocked by Nazi soldiers who tell him in a threatening tone that he is definitely going to receive a letter from the king — Rajar Chitthi — and a post office would be opened soon.

(Defying the threat of imminent death, the children enacted “Dakghar” on July 18, 1942, and were taken to the gas chamber on August 15, 1942. Only one performer, who played the role of Sudha, survived.) The writer-director displays consummate artistry in composing powerful visuals by juxtaposing live scenes with projected images. Elements of music and subtle lighting contribute to make the production intensely engrossing, exuding pathos, horror and a ray of hope in humanity’s determination to confront dark forces with fortitude.

Kamal Mishra as Dr. Korczak strikes an emotional chord with the audience. His Doctor is not a Jew and is not a target of the Nazi who gives him several chances to escape from the orphanage and save his life. But his life-long commitment to serve the cause of the children of the orphanage is so deep and abiding that he refuses to leave them. His Doctor lives with children, works for children and finally dies with them and the staff of the home in the Trebinka extermination camp. Sujata Lala Ghosh’s Steffa works with Dr. Korczak, sharing his mission, and dies with him. Rajesh Singh as Abbrassah (Amol) and Pratiki Sanyal (Sudha) give impressive performances, full of longing to live in this wonderful world.