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The compelling joy of timeless tradition

Take two on "Kathokatay Agomani" presented in New Delhi this past week.

In Delhi's theatre world all of us are familiar with Ashish Ghosh's work primarily with children and the youth. Stretching over a period of nearly 20 years he has been searching for what we may call a universal language of theatre.

While watching his "Kathokatay Agomani" in Bengali at the India International Centre the other day, one's thoughts went back to some of his other plays like "Raja ki Khoj", "Gabadjhala" and "Kisse" that one had seen. There was a good deal of commonality in the performance styles.

Folk forms

Take for instance the Katha Vachan, the style of story telling, the use of rhymes and tales from the `kissas' in the presentations mentioned earlier and "Kathokatay Agomani" that Ashish had written some time back and performed many times. But it was not seen by most non-Bengali knowing audiences. Here was a rewarding effort in creating new norms and grammar for devising a universal language of theatre.

The title of the presentation "Kathokatay Agomani" means nothing more than the names of two folk forms of West Bengal. From what we saw, Kathokatay is a narrative style interweaving songs, drama, stylised movement and story telling.

Ashish Ghosh says, "Kathokatay is rendered in many different ways, it differs from performer to performer. Some would use a small musical instrument, tell the story, sing and play different roles."

And this is exactly what Ashish did. In short, if Kathakatay is story telling, Agomani is singing of songs composed by the saint poets of Bengal in the 18th and 19th Century. By and large these songs blend the human and the divine "to provide the moments of longing and joy, pathos and every day emotions. The singing is genetic and is known as Agaman."

The presentation using the two folk forms, Kathokatay and Agomani, is built around a mythological story: Maneka has had a bad dream that her daughter Uma has lost her complexion and turned dark (a Puranic reference that Durga has turned Kali). Maneka blames her husband for her daughter's marriage to the penniless old and drunken Shiva. Ashish Ghosh draws direct parallel to social conditions in the 18th Century Bengal when little girls were married off to elderly Brahmins.

The presentation is a mix of the two forms of Kathokatay and Agomani. Agomani arguably has been rendered in Kathokatay style for the first time. If that be so, Ashish Ghosh has opened up new possibilities in Indian dramatics. Yet another remarkable feature of the presentation was Ashish's interweaving of narration to role-play and from speech to a song and breaking the narrative in Kathokatay for interpretation and comments. Another element of immense support to the presentation was Choti Ghosh's vocal support that added yet another dimension to the presentation as a whole. She indeed has a beautiful voice.The absence of any non-Bengali speaking theatre professional in the audience particularly from NSD, was very disappointing, .

The presentation is a rich pedagogical source material that must be used. Incidentally Ashish Ghosh's earlier rhythmic play "Gadbadjhala" has already been published together with a cassette by Central Institute of Education, Delhi University as source material. Surely a live presentation of "Kathokatay Agomani" can be excellent teaching tool and as intangible heritage material updated for today.


BACK TO TRADITION Ashish Ghosh performing Kathokatay Agomani at Indian International Centre

Like the Hari-Katha Kalakshepam of the South or Katha Vachan of the North, the Kathokatay is the narrative genre of Bengal, interweaving song, drama, stylised movements and storytelling. Themes from mythology, particularly the Puranas and epics like Ramayan and Mahabharat, are told by the troubadours called kathakas, who at times use little instruments to tell the story, singing, dancing and playing roles, making Kathokatay into a total performance.

Agomani means homecoming of Goddess Durga to her mother's place `maayaka,' coinciding with the Durga Puja. Bards in rural Bengal sing these songs, moving from house to house, just before the Durga Puja. Blending the human and divine, these Agomani songs were composed by the saint poets of Bengal mostly in the 18th Century. People find hope and redemption in these songs because they capture the moments of love, longing, joy and pathos in human relationship, specially the intimate moments of affection between a mother and a daughter. Musically they are strengthened by the use of Hindustani classical ragas, talas and styles like thumri and tappa, etc.

A rare combination of these two genres was presented in "Kathokatay Agomani". In doing so Ashish not only combined but simultaneously revived the two almost extinct traditions of Agomani and Kathokatay. He captivated the audience with his versatility in telling the story of Devi Durga's homecoming interweaving narration and role play that flowed from speech to singing, dancing, interpretation and impromptu improvisations.

Discerning audience

The story starts with welcoming gunijan the discerning audience, in Himalaya, Uma's parental home, depicted with stylised snow covered mountains in the background, where Menaka (Uma's mother) worried after a bad dream requests her husband to go to Uma's sasuraal (her husband Shiva's abode mount Kailash) to fetch their daughter home. The song kushopon dekhichhe Giri.. sung in typical kirtan style along with the sweet sounding khol, the percussion instrument, created the mood from the very beginning.

Then comes `jao jao Giri..' a song in raga Lalit a lovely contrast, proceeding to daadara in Khamaj, a thumari in Kafi, a bandish in Hamir that went `Elo Girinandini..' in teentaal, another composition in Jhaptaal set to raga Adaana, a Chautaal composition that sounded like a Dhruvapad and many more, with vocal support by Choiti Ghosh.

Ashish's soulful singing could convey emotions effortlessly, his dancing was a natural outburst of joy and his dramatising was enhanced with creative and thoughtful handling of simple properties like the chanwar or the conch shell.

The orchestral support by Sudhir Chandra on harmonium, Dipankar Das on percussion and Ashit Pal on effect percussions that included even a nalatarang added immensely to the mood and appeal of the presentation, conceptualised, scripted and directed by Ashish Ghosh himself.


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