Two plays featuring recipients of Sangeet Natak Akademi honours at the just-concluded festival delved into the lives of the common people with the sensitivity of art

Subarnalata

One of India’s most popular and prolific storytellers, Ashapoorna Devi, a Bengali novelist, has a vast fictional universe peopled by characters drawn from the Bengali middle class with special focus on the struggles of women against a cruel world. Subarnalata is the protagonist of her well known trilogy on women’s defiance in a scenario dominated by in-laws. The eponymous play was staged in Hindi version at the Shri Ram Centre as part of the festival of Music, Dance and Drama organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi this past week.

Directed by Kirti Jain, a recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award 2011 for her contribution to Indian theatre as a director, the production is remarkable for its fine austere design, uninterrupted flow of action in time and space with intense emotional undercurrent.

Kirti had produced this play 12 years ago for Kshitij theatre group headed by Bharti Sharma. The production under review was by the same group, featuring some of the same cast as in the earlier production. Both Kirti as a senior faculty member of the National School of Drama and Kshitij, a professional theatre group, are known for their insightful productions of novels on the stage, investing them with interpretations to reflect the aesthetic sensibility of contemporary audiences.

Set in early 20th Century Bengal with reformist and nationalist movements as the backdrop, the play opens with Subarnalata in a playful mood, conversing with dolls in an intimate tone. Muktokeshi, her mother-in-law, appears. A terror, she runs the joint family on her own terms. Soon it becomes clear that the tender aged Subarnalata is a daughter-in-law with no liberty. Through her interactions with her husband and the son-in-law of the family she gives manifestations of deep rooted desire to free herself from the clutches of her stubborn and domineering mother-in-law and to live in freedom and wander in the wide open world, to see the vast sea, to watch people and interact with them. She wants to read books, considered taboo for women in conservative middle class families those days.

Undaunted, she continues to resist the oppressive dictates and asserts her right to express her opinion. A stage comes when the conflict between Subarnalata and the family led by the mother-in-law becomes irreconcilable; her husband throws her out of the house. She goes to her father’s houseIronically, this is her first visit to her parents’ home since she was never allowed to go earlier even on auspicious occasions. Subarnalata’s struggle for freedom and a dignified and meaningful space continues.

The stage version is written by Gitanjali Shree with an eye on most dramatic events from the original work with a vast canvas. The director and the cast create a tense atmosphere that enables the performers to reveal the characters’ inner dilemma. The use of meaningful pauses at places intensifies the conflict. Costumes by Disha Sharma and Devas Dixit enhance the vitality of the performances as well as evoking social ambience. The dream sequence in which Subarnalata is shown in conversation with her mother gives eloquent expression to the fact that the condition of women has not much changed qualitatively despite the talk of empowerment of women.

The acting style is realistic; there is nothing superfluous in terms of gestures or delivery. Tannishtha Chatterjee creates a subtle portrait of Subarnalata. Her Subarnalata truly lives her character. She is bold generous, ambitious and has a vision of a truly liberated womanhood. A sensitive and imaginative theatre artiste, Bharti Sharma as Muktokeshi, the stubborn domineering mother-in-law, gives a convincing performance. Her restrained acting effectively brings to the fore the inhuman traits of her character. Suman Vaidya as the spineless husband and Mohit Tripathi as Kedarnath, the compassionate son-in-law of the family, act admirably.

Karimayi

A veteran Kannada poet, novelist and playwright, Chandrasekhar Kambar’s plays are viewed on the Hindi stage with great admiration as works of innovative art based on the form of Bayalata, the folk theatre of Karnataka. Honoured with most of the prestigious national awards, he has been selected Fellow of Sangeet Natak Akademi 2011 for his contribution to Indian Theatre. The SNA Awards Festival 2011 came to a close at Shri Ram Centre with the presentation of Kambar’s play “Karimayi” based on the novel by him.

Directed by eminent director B. Jayashree — currently a nominated Member of the Rajya Sabha — “Karimayi” deals with conflict between city-bred people, who treat Goddess Karimayi as a gold-fetching god, and the rural folk, who have immense faith in the Goddess. Karimayi is the centre of cultural and social life of the villagers with Gowda as their spokesperson. The play indicts the cunning selfish and manipulative urban-bred people with modern education.

There are lots of twists and turns to the narrative that intensify the element of suspense. The myth of Karimayi being the centre of harmony of the social and religious life of the naïve villagers stands shattered on a tragic note.

Imaginatively designed sets capture the folk ambience. The production is remarkable for its vigour, soulful music with tonal range reflecting a whole gamut of human emotions, and for its humour tinged with pathos. Some of the significant actions take place in the midst of the audience, which offers rare moments of immediacy of theatrical viewing. The most thrilling experience is offered by the chorus headed by B. Jayashree. In a way it is total theatre, which is possible if a production is inspired by a folk tradition rooted in the soil and in the social consciousness of the people.