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Feminine Vanguard of Kolkata theatre

December 18, 2019

Femme Fatale has usually been a pejorative term in the English language. But in the Dionysian world of theatre - first celebrated for the god of wine in ancient Greece -- Femme Fatales could very aptly describe the brave feminine front that has emerged in the two theatre-conscious metropolises. In Delhi, this critic knew the quartet of fiery female directors from the charmed circle of NSD: Neelam Mansingh, Anuradha Kapoor, Kirti Jain and Tripurari Sharma who have, together, created virtually a creative storm in the world of avant garde theatre in Hindi, and Joy Michael of 'Yatrik' in English theatre. In Kolkata, following the exemplary footsteps of the iconic Tripti Mitra - whose directorial oeuvre, beginning from Dakghar (1957), her solo classic Aparajita (1971), her Hindi ventures Guria Ghar (1980) and Sanjh Dhaley (1985), up to her last direction, Sarisrip (1987) had created waves among the cognoscente -- the suave Sohag Sen appeared and there has been no looking back ever since.

If one attempts a very brief recapitulation of the thirteen major women directorial talents active today in the Kolkata drama scene - in no particular chronological order -- whose impact on Bengali theatre has been nothing less than an artistic Tsunami, Sohag Sen would stand foremost, with her forte in depicting urban middle class. Having directed plays by dramatists as varied as Mahesh Elkunchwar and Botho Strauss, her association with theatre and allied media spans a period of almost sixty years. As an actor, she started her career under the guidance of the legendary Utpal Dutt in the year 1969 and her latest directorial venture Chhota Chabi (reviewed in these columns), was very well received in 2019.



Saoli Mitra would come then, carrying the formidable theatre legacy of her parents Shombhu and Tripti Mitra, beginning her career as a child actor and majoring into first acting, and then directing, a significant theatrical corpus. After the highly appreciated Bitata Bitangsa on environmental issues, her magnum opus Nathabati Anathabat explored the epic tragedy of Draupadi, from flaming birth to Himalayan end, and in the process added to our understanding of both the Mahabharata and the society which spawned that saga. Other directorial projects included Katha Amrita Samaan, where she plays five women from the epic—Gandhari, Kunti, Ambika, Ambalika and Satyavati—besides donning the mantles of writer, director and narrator.

Jayati Bose would be third, as an eminent theatre actor and director, active from the seventies as an actor, and as a director from the mid-nineties to the end of the decade. As an actor, she worked with some of the most prominent names of Bengali theatre of the seventies and eighties such as Bibhas Chakraborty and Manoj Mitra. As director, Jayati Bose directed a number of plays such as Protibimbo, Baki Itihas, Robot Kupokat, Jhakkas, Bhagabati Gai, Amio Superman and Care Kori Naa, as her successful works. Her abiding contribution has been the introduction of GRIP'S Theatre (from Berlin) in Bengal that features adult actors donning experimentally roles of the child characters.



The fourth stalwart would be Usha Ganguly, striding both the Hindi and Bengali dramatic scene, although her early career was that of a dancer. Her group Rangakarmee today spearheads the Hindi theatre in Kolkata with 43 productions in its repertoire. Having performed under her baton in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Germany and USA, other than India, Rangakarmee's oeuvre has included Mahesh Elkunchwar's Holi and Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage; the epic saga of mourners Rudali, up to the Indo-Pakistani fare Sarhad Par Manto; other than the Bengali plays, Mukti and Manasi, among others.

The fifth in line would be Sima Mukhopadhyay, who appeared on the drama scene armed with a Masters degree in Drama Acting from Rabindra Bharati University in 1985. She began as actor, assisting her late husband Shubhasis Mukhopadhyay and then took over Rangaroop after his demise. Together and alone, she has directed some twenty plays, including many favorites like Aaborto, Jalchab, Abyokto and the classic Takhan Bikel (reviewed in this column). She has been a formidable force in the Kolkata theatre scene.



In the middle range of seniority would come another six eminent women directors. Ishita Mukhopadhyay has been active in Bengali theatre for more than three decades, with her first directorial venture as an adaptation of The Room by Sartre. Her group Ushnik was formed in 1984. Diligently active as writer and director in the theatre industry, she has been known for her work in plays like Kamal Kamini, Gauhar Jaan and Kallumama, among others. Adrija Dasgupta, who studied theatre at Rabindra Bharati University and specialized in acting from National School of Drama, New Delhi, has been a creative director of Uhinee doing theatre for over a decade. A quintessential group theatre worker, she holds very definite political views which she tries to express through her works. Under her baton, Uhinee stands out in comparison to other Kolkata based groups in conducting workshops and performing plays in small towns and villages in West Bengal. Some of her acclaimed plays are Antigone, Muktodhara, Ananta Keya Bikel, Falguni, Beje Othey Panchom Swarey, etc.

Arpita Ghosh, actor-playwright-director of theatre on one hand and an ace politician on the other, dramatized and directed Poshu Khamar (based on Orwell's Animal Farm); Tolkolosh (based on Ronald Segal's eponymous play); Narokiyo (promoting anti-violence); A-parajita (compiling three short stories by Tagore); Ghare-Baire (based on Tagore's eponymous novel); Ebong Debjani (based on a Mahabharata episode); Achalayatan (adapted from Tagore's eponymous play); Astomito Madhyanhalay (based on Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon); and Streer Potro (based on Tagore's short story), performed solo. Her latest directorial oeuvre has been Duto Din, Karubasana (based on the poet Jibanananda Das's eponymous novel) and Maachi (based on Albert Camu's eponymous play).

Abanti Chakrabarty - with a Masters in Applied Linguistics and Translation Studies from Hyderabad Central University, Fellowship at Yale School of Drama, and Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar from Sangeet Natak Akademi - has her directorial ventures as Troy, Tin Kanya, Choitali Rater Swapna, Ichchher Oli Goli, Medea, etc. Her translations include Anton Chekov's Three Sisters, Girish Karnad's Nagamandala, and Tennesse Williams's A Street Car Named Desire.



Tulika Das was associated as actor and then as director with Bohurupee, Kolkata's iconic theatre group founded by Shombhu and Tripti Mitra, and grew to rare heights for 28 years. This critic recalls her Rajar Khonje (based on Tagore's Dakghar, set as re-enacted in the unprecedented venue of a German concentration camp during World War II) and Nero. She left Bohurupee later and is at present with Bohuswar where she has directed Bhanga Bhanga Chand (based on Girish Karnad's Bikhr Bimb) and Agnipak (based on Mahesh Dattani's Seven Steps around the Fire), among others.

Suranjana Dasgupta, director of Kadambini now, made a tremendous impact in Madhab Malanchi Koinya as a singer-actress and, later, in Kanan Pisir Japomala. She has done workshops with Peter Brook in 1989, Marcel Marceau in 1986, Jean-Guy Lecut in 2006, and a playwright's workshop with Alan Brody in 2007. She has written many original plays like Manada Sundari, Tukaalaam urganaam and Wheelchair. Her current science-fiction solo-acting in and as Mrs. Udgarica has created a stir.

(Dolly Basu has been a renowned actor before she directed Dui Tarang. She is at present running a children's organization and is not included here as she is no longer active in theatre direction. Swatilekha Sengupta, another actor of great eminence, was active in Nandikar and showed her prowess in directorial ventures like Dulia, Madhabi and Aadharmoni. Due to physical indisposition, she has not been active in theatre direction now and is excluded from this list.)



From the younger generation, comes Swatilekha's daughter, Sohini Sengupta, groomed in acting by their noted theatre group Nandikar and then moving into meaningful directorial effort with Bipannata, Alipha, Rani Kadambini, Mrityunjoy, and now the highly successful Panchajanya (raising universal issues from the epic Mahabharata, using very young actors) and the bi-lingual Manush (on psychological change in diehard villainy). Another successful young director is Alokparna Guha who combines her Kathak dance career with drama. Her very varied fare has been Hridimanthana (based on Natya Shastra Nayaka), Rakhahari Allarakha (on communal violence), Maa (based on Gorky's Mother) and Taser Desher Nagarik (on today's education that produces zombies).

Post-Tripti Mitra, these courageous women directors have been making waves with their determined foray in ever new directions, while frequently producing their own play scripts. Although feminism - let alone radical feminism with its sexist orientation - has not necessarily caught all their attention, a new kind of "Social Theatre" is decidedly emerging over the last half a century. They visualize, with a clearer insight than their male counterparts, the delicate human relationships as well as the usually ignored problems of femininity -- suppressed in every way - under a very pronouncedly dominant patriarchy in this part of the world. This critic would strongly advocate an in-depth socio-literary study on the oeuvre of these "Lucky Thirteen", especially to assess their contribution to an understanding of the vulnerable half of the Bengali society.


Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.



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