BHARAT RANG MAHOTSAV The National School of Drama’s annual theatre festival got off to a thought-provoking start with “Atmakatha”

The 15th Bharat Rang Mahotsav opened with the presentation of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s “Atmakatha” in Hindi version by Padatik, Kolkata, at Kamani auditorium this past week. Two shows of the play were staged on the same evening, witnessed by a jam-packed hall. In the leading role Kulbhushan Kharbanda, the veteran stage and film actor, was the cynosure of all eyes. He acts in a restrained manner and almost imperceptibly enters the inner world of his character. He looks back laconically at the past, his achievements as a novelist, his participation in the public protest against the Emergency and above all his painful, bitter and remorseful relationship with his wife and his sister-in-law. The portrait Kharbanda creates of the leading character moves us deeply, conveying the message of the play: what we observe on the surface claiming to be objective is nothing but the tip of the iceberg.

“Atmakatha” is a complex specimen of the art of play righting which explores multiple dimensions to deal with the relationship between the art and society and the responsibility of the artist towards society. It examines the commitment of the artist to burning social issues and his ability to analyse various conflicting interests from a distance to give an objective assessment of the social, political and economic forces at work.

The play opens in the house of acclaimed novelist, Rajadhyaksha(Kharbanda). A young lady researcher Pradnya is working on the biography of the novelist. Through the device of researcher’s penetrating questions on his work and social life and his contemporaries, a fascinating world opens up before us. She also discusses the relationship between his fictional characters and the two women — his wife and sister-in-law — in his life. Now a recluse, the elderly writer is confronting emotional turmoil caused by the publication of his letters by his estranged wife as an answer to his own unsavoury portrayal of her through the fictional character, Urmila.

Since much of the action deals with the novelist’s past, the play is logically structured on the alternation of two different time levels. One level deals with the present in which the researcher and the novelist interact in the room and the writer makes timid and agonised efforts to connect his estranged wife on the phone. The second level brings alive vividly the past of the writer through flashbacks, a reflection of the writer’s memory. The action moves between these two time levels. The writer’s separated wife Uttara feels her husband has betrayed her, insulted her because of his extramarital relationship with her sister, 25 years younger than him. She considers this a sign of moral degeneration of a creative person. Her bitterness and sense of loneliness become all the more painful as she is childless. Vasanti, Uttara’s sister, who has come from the village to stay with her sister, is forced to leave the house after the scandal. Dev Dutt, a writer who gave her shelter, is no more. Her sister rates her as an average dancer. The writer is the cause of the misery of both the sisters.

At another level the researcher feels a deep undercurrent of love for the aged novelist which brings about marital discord in her own life.

Director Vinay Sharma, who has also designed the sets, uses sound and screen images to recollect ideas, thoughts and events that have taken place long back. The projection of shadowy, abstract images on the screen is an attempt to depict memory — this appears to be the novelty of the production. Through the telephonic conversation between the writer and his estranged wife, the elements of alienation, loneliness and hopelessness of the aging are heightened.

Chetna Jalan as the elder sister Uttara, and Sanchayita Bhattacharjee as Vasanti, the younger sister, find the right intonation and body language to reveal the bitter sibling conflict which remains unresolved till the end. They both make some of their scenes dramatically tense and absorbing. Anubha Fatehpuria as the young lady researcher makes the climactic scene with the novelist moving, poetic and memorable.