Rabindranath Tagore’s theatrical imagination blended with his political convictions, the ideals of democracy and the nature of ideal governance, was penned in the form of the play ‘Raja’ as early as November 10, 1910. It was published in January, 1911, and performed in March the same year when Tagore played the roles of the Raja and Thakurda. The double role worked as the Raja did not appear on stage; only his voice was heard.
Tagore wrote an English version of this play titled ‘The King of Dark Chamber’ (published in 1914), which was staged in England, Ireland and other places in Europe. He also re-wrote a shorter version of ‘Raja’ and called it ‘Arup-Ratan.’
The English production directed by singer and scholar Debashish Raychaudhury was recently staged at Gyan Manch in Kolkata. A combination of the three texts translated afresh by Basant Rungta, it was made more accessible to a larger audience, at home and abroad, with mellifluous songs, multimedia and a cast comprising senior actors from theatre and television. British poet and Tagore scholar William Radice played the Raja.
The play revolves round the King who remains in his dark chamber, his unhappy queen Sudarshana, who has never set her eyes on him (they converse in the dark) and wonder what he looks like, her maid Surangama, Thakurda, who suffers because of the King, and the clever Vikrambahoo.
Surangama’s life is ruined in a gambling ring run by her father. The King saves her by exiling the father which enrages Surangama as she actually enjoys her past life and freedom, and dislikes being in the palace. Gradually realisation dawns on her and she begins to adore the King.
This seminal play runs on two parallel themes: good governance in 1910 and talks of democracy which is quite relevant in the present time, and the philosophy of life itself. The play interprets the Raja-King as God and life itself, through the principal characters and final transformation and realisation of the Queen and Vikram as Surangama and Thakurda already know the Raja. The King finally decides to open the door of his ‘dark chamber’ and tells the Queen to walk out with him in the ‘Light.’
The play unfolds with Surangama narrating her past to Queen Sudarshana. Barun Chanda’s narration is a strong point in direction for better appreciation for those not too familiar with the plays of Tagore.
The songs have been retained in Bengali but the fine singing made up for any unfamiliarity of the language. Almost the entire cast sang. The solos as well as the well-rehearsed chorus brought a fresh appeal as they are sung without instrumental accompaniment.
Rohini Raychaudhuri, who has a wonderful voice, made a convincing Surangama with her lion’s share of songs. Nivedita Bhattacharya, a seasoned actor from Delhi, was compelling as Sudarshana as was Bobby Chakravarty as Vikram. Sujoy Prasad Chatterjee as the imposter King was likeable as Subarna. Debshish Raychaudhuri, the director-performer- singer captured the pathos, humour and physicality to the theme. His fine structuring and sense of utilisation of the horizontal stage space by his cast especially the folks of the kingdom, who showed good team work, need special mention.
The hard work by Basant Rungta in translating the three texts into a cohesive one, showed and needs to be lauded.
But the star attraction was William Radice, who had specially flown down for the production. His captivating and deep voice and dialogue delivery lent a rare dignity and spark to the production.
A striking aspect of the play were the pauses every time before Sudarshana speaks. This, by Radice’s own admission, was deliberate, in order to give Raja’s character a disembodied aura. Radice commented that ‘Raja’ had the panoramic vista of a Shakespearean play.