Manish Mitra’s Urubhangam, a concise version of The Mahabharata, was created around a common Indian theatre language

During the five years it took to create Urubhangam, Manish Mitra and his troupe travelled across different parts of the country, observing traditional theatre practices and the similarities among them. “We decided to depict The Mahabharata in the form of a physical narrative. And to do that, it is important to understand the body. We were looking for a common Indian theatre language. It wasn’t easy to find it in such a vast multi-cultural country. But during our journeys, we found several similarities. The Indian body is different from the European body, it has a unique language. Yakshagana in Karnataka maybe different from Chhau dance from Purulia, but they also have many similarities. Indian theatre, in any form, is a celebration of the bhavas and rasas,” says Manish, who was recently in Bangalore for the staging of the play, presented by Kasba Arghya, at CGK Rashtriya Rangothsava at Ravindra Kalakshetra.

Manish initially began with Bhasa’s Urubhangam, but deviated from it, to make the play a concise version of The Mahabharata. “We only retained the title, Urubhangam. We later realised that Urubhangam is basically formation of a power centre. On closer analysis, it also explores how the seeds of the power centre getting demolished are embedded in the making of the power centre. Urubhangam is not about the breaking of Duryodhana’s thighs after the war, but the breaking down of the pillars of a power structure.”

In these times of short attention spans, Urubhangam, performed primarily in Bengali, a little bit of Sanskrit, and some English, was staged as a six hour-long production, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., to 25 full-house shows in Kolkata. The decision to stage an overnight production was a considered one. “At night, there’s isolation from mundane activities, and there is silence. People are away from their mobile phones, noise and other distractions. We had a continuous shifting of the journey from the formal to the informal spaces, which had the audience engrossed. During the intervals, there were performances outside, at a time when the colour of the sky changes that led to the play intensifying.”

The audience, Manish says, was drawn to the performance, despite it having no star cast. The cast, in fact, is national in character, with each member trained in different Indian theatre practices. “The fact that TV serials these days have up to four commercial breaks, we thought it would be difficult for the audience to sit through the play. But after the success of Urubhangam, we understood that consumerism and shopping mall culture are only a superficial layer, what is common to every Indian is the soul.”

Manish lives together with his actors in a theatre commune. They share a close relationship. But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for them. One of his recent plays Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes—Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello…invited controversy. “It’s a production that connects to our present-day tragedy through William Shakespeare’s tragic heroes with the backdrop of the Greek Tragedy. In one scene, the actor who plays the role of Othello becomes nude after killing Desdemona. It was the first time male nudity was portrayed. People who didn’t watch the play objected to it the most. We performed only three shows, but had to stop staging it because of the protests against it. But we have received many mails asking us to come back with this play.”