Harrowing images “Naachni” brings to the fore the dancing girls’ life of violence, privation and sexual exploitation, and society’s hypocrisy.

A prominent Kolkata-based institution of theatrical art, Nandikar presented “Naachni” as part of Bharat Rang Mahotsav at the Kamani auditorium recently. The production brought alive the social landscape that condemns young girls to work as sex slaves, entertaining their clients with dance performances. Ironically, titled “Naachni” (the nautch girl), the production is replete with songs and dances depicting violence, guilt, poverty, grief and sexual exploitation, exposing a system controlled by degenerate men known as rasiks. It shocks, disturbs and pricks the conscience of the audience to observe that such a sordid practice still prevails in some parts of the country. The lives of these talented singer-dancers are stigmatised and they are treated as outcasts.

Adapted from Subrata Mukhopadhyay’s novel by Parthapratim Deb who has also directed the play as well as composed its music, the play revolves round four characters — Dhrubakumar, Kusmi Bai, Bijulibala and Pandabkumar. Young Bijulibala is sold to a dacoit by her mother who was once a naachni. Her old age has deprived her of her livelihood and she now lives in abject poverty. However, Bijulibala is rescued by her married lover Pandabkumar. Despite his love for her, he makes her his naachni to earn money. Being a young and talented dancer and singer, she attracts clients.

Through the confrontations between old-timer rasik Dhrubakumar, his aging naachni Kusmi Bai, and Bijulibala, the dramatic conflict gets momentum. The old rogue that he is, Dhrubakumar makes every effort to make the young naachni his own commodity. Isolating her lover, Pandakumar, he attempts to rape her. Deeply hurt, the aging Kusmi Bai confronts Dhrubakumar, which culminates in a catastrophe.

The action is set in a vast social milieu. In one space we watch Bijulibala with her mother and on the opposite side the main action takes place, involving the family of Pandabkumar, Dhrubakumar, Kusmi Bai and the accompanists to the dancer-singer. The centre stage is mainly used to perform group dances, featuring a large number of performers. The set in drab colours tends to be in tune with the ambience in which degenerate human beings live. These are the people socially and economically marginalised. They nurse bitter memories of the past staring at a hopeless future. Their link with the outside world is through their lecherous clients. In such a society, girls are like a commodity to be sold and bought. Despite their miserable existence singing and dancing are part of their lives. These provide them brief moments of happiness. The production is embellished by several group dances and a powerful chorus to reflect community celebration even in the midst of decay and squalor.

Since the action is set in a remote rural area, the choreography and music score are drawn from tribal and folk forms of Bengal and Chhattisgarh. Elements of Chhau also form part of the group dances which are marked by variety and vigour. To give a larger dimension to the space, the director has used some space in the hall meant for the audience — juxtaposing the miserable existence of naachnis in the acting space with groups of young people raising slogans of “Inquilab! Zindabad!” in the auditorium. The director wants to give the idea that despite various movements taking place in the mainstream Indian society, the world of the naachnis remains unchanged. Some of the vital action takes place in the midst of the audience, especially the one in which Kusmi Bai displays her violent protest. The mass scenes where characters assemble to watch shocking events that have taken place is a device for collective manifestation of grief over a tragedy.

The climactic scene in the production is most shocking. Exploited all her life and finally betrayed by Dhrubakumar, Kusmi Bai commits suicide. Her body lies on the ground covered with a dirty piece of cloth. Custom does not allow a naachni respectable last rites. Condemned as the source of all evil, her body becomes untouchable. The whole community stands by at some distance from the body. There is silence. A man comes with a noose, throws it round Kusmi Bai’s feet to drag her body that will be thrown to wild beasts and carrion birds. Bijulibala removes the noose, puts the body on a bamboo carrier, and takes it away.

The cast includes some of the most talented and experienced performers of the Bengali stage. A dynamic theatre personality and the force behind the growth of Nandikar, Rudraprasad Sengupta plays the role of Dhrubakumar, enhancing the value of the production. Swatilekha Sengupta, senior artist of the Bengali stage and Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, as Kusmi Bai and Sohini Sengupta as Bijulibala invest their portraits with emotional depth, anguish and indignant protest, demonstrating their fine acting and singing talents. Debsankar Halder as Pandabkumar brings a lot of vitality to his portrayal.