Review of a Bengali play Sri Sambhu Mitra
Produced by Natyta Ranga
Play by Surajit Bandyopadhyay
Title Role played by Surajit Bandyopadhyay
Directed by Swapan Sengupta
Writing a review for the play Sri Sambhu Mitra is a daunting task, not merely because of the man the play is named after. The latter counted amongst the greatest of stage actors Bengal had produced, known not only for the originality of style he introduced Bengali stage to, but also for the supreme skill he imparted to the art of acting. Anyone who undertakes the task of representing Sri Mitra on stage, as was the case for the playwright as well as the principal actor in the play under review, is probably inviting upon himself a task no meaner than the one Atlas was burdened with in Greek mythology.
One cannot quite ignore the Greeks when discussing Sambhu Mitra and that not merely on account of his immortal production of Oedipus Rex (Raja Oyedipaus). Every now and then the Greek notion of Fate keeps rearing up its head in the play Sri Sambhu Mitra as well. The play is all about an uncompromising pursuit of purity and perfection sitting in a world where vulgarity rules the roost. Ultimately, it is Fate that decides how much one must succumb to pressures that lead a person astray.
One way to appreciate this fact is to quote from a handout prepared for the play. On its very first page one comes across a line – “from life towards a search of Shivai”. After watching the play and ruminating over its structure, one cannot help concluding that this quote from Sambhu Mitra’s own play Chand Baniker Pala (Merchant Chand’s Drama) probably constitutes the central pillar for the play. Sambhu Mitra never staged the play, but he read it out to audiences on more than one occasion. Mitra informs the audience in the last of the recordings that although he never took the play as far as the proscenium, he was ending up with the fond hope that if someone in the future finds it to his liking, the reading could possibly help him actually stage the play.
Chand Banik is a well-known character from Bengali folklore (Manasa Mangal). It is the story of a disciple of Shiva, who refuses steadfastly to visit the alter of Manasa. The latter punishes Chand mercilessly and finally destroys his youngest son Lakhinder. Lakhinder’s wife Behula refuses to accept widowhood, following her dead husband’s corpse all the way to Yama’s abode to seek justice. Manasa agrees to restore undo all her mischiefs on condition that Chand consent to worship her. Chand gives in. Manasa releases Chand from her curses and the story ends happily.
Sri Mitra’s version of the story is significantly different. Chand, as in the original story,remains unmoved in his devotion to Shiva even though Shiva does not come to his rescue during any of the tragedies that visit him. At the very end, when Behula returns with Lakhinder with the message that Chand accede to worshipping Manasa, he is a frail, old and broken man. He agrees, except for the defiance he shows by the use of his left hand to perform the rituals.
In the meantime, Behula informs the audience that she had to sacrifice all her womanly virtures to extract the promise from Manasa to resurrect her dead husband. She had no innocence left in her and Lakhinder too discovered the truth. They decide to commit suicide together unable to bear their humiliation. When Chand returns after appeasing Manasa, he discovers that he had compromised in vain. All his life, he remained a faithful devotee of Shiva, who merely tested the strength of his purpose. At the end of his life, when unable to reach his goal he finally climbed down to the mortal world of compromises, he found out that it was emptiness alone that awaited him there as well.
Ultimately therefore, Sambhu Mitra’s own version of the Chand story is a reflection on the absurdity of human existence. Alternatively, it could be a loaded message that one’s faith does not command a material reward. Faith itself is its own reward, however painful the surroundings may be for the faithful. It is exactly here that one detects an aura of the Greek notion of Fate in Chand Baniker Pala.
There can be little doubt that Chand Baniker Pala does act as a solid pillar on which the Natyranga play rests. This is clear enough as soon as the curtain rises following a short, pleasing overture (the score for which is written by Swatilekha Sengupta). The semi-dark stage reveals a simple but elegant set designed by Koushik Sen. There is a sailing boat in the background, a circular ring sticking to the wings on the front stage right and three objects on the front stage left. An angular structure leaning on the wings, a letter box on a stand and a round but twisted clock reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s much acclaimed painting The Persistence of Memory.
The last of these is significant, since it promises to invoke memories, memories that stand deformed probably, misunderstood perhaps, yet malleable and possibly susceptible to re-interpretation. The triangle (or the sharp angle) and the circle facing each other appear to symbolize a self-contradiction, between total surrender and dogmatic defiance. The letter box is probably not a part of the symbolic message as should be clear from observations that will follow. However, the large boat in the background draws most of our attention and has a Greek Prologue like appearance, even if silent, to prepare the audience mentally for the subject matter of the play. One must assume of course that the audience is familiar with the play Chand Baniker Pala.
As one’s eyes get adjusted to the semi-darkness, one detects several people sitting on the stage in different postures. There are three slightly elevated platforms, one in the front centre and the other two in the two front ends of the stage. The central platform, partly surrounded by the characters, conjures up a séance like atmosphere, the platform itself resembling a pyre on which a service for the departed had possibly been performed on an earlier date. A dear one is no more and the family appears to be mourning.
Once the characters begin to speak, however, a new dimension is added to the scenario. They are all picked out of plays Sambhu Mitra had produced and each one, including Ballavacharya and Beninandan (from the Chand play), seems to be in a state of dilemma. They have questions for their Director. Some of these questions relate to their own relevance today, but some relate to the Director’s personal life and beliefs too. At this point, one cannot help travelling several years back (and Dali could be relevant here too) to the days when Nandikar produced Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Like Pirandello’s play, the characters seek the Director to complete their tales.
There is a difference this time of course. The Director himself is no more. One needs to communicate with his spirit. The characters have begun to entertain doubts about the Director’s own credibility and hence the meaning he infused into their lives in the plays. As in a séance once again, they call out to him to reappear from the Kingdom of Pluto as it were and resolve their confusions. There is one more reason why Pirandello’s relevance for the present play cannot be ignored altogether, given that Sri Rudraprasad Sengupta, who was one of the chief architects of the Nandikar production, is involved with the present play as well.
Sri Sengupta’s participation is important in yet another way. It was he who was instrumental in bringing together several theatre groups and assemble them around Sambhu Mitra while he was still alive and produce two plays Mudrarakshas and Galileo. These unforgettable productions have still not faded from public memory and, now that Sambhu Mitra is no more, incidents concerning the earlier plays are related by Sri Sengupta’s voice. Besides, as was true for the Sengupta’s previous effort, the new play too has received the blessings of a number of active drama groups in the city.
Sri Sambhu Mitra responds to the calls and appears aboard the ship in the background. Symbolically, this raises him to the status of his own Chand Banik, the rebel whom Fate had forced to surrender. Repeatedly through the play, Chand Banik keeps cropping up in reply to the multifarious questions raised by the characters and the final conclusion that the resurrected Mitra comes to is that, like Chand, he knew his purpose, but not the way that led to its achievement. The purpose, needless to say, lay in artistic excellence, but the real world demanded compromises with coarse reality.
His compromises, as far as one could make out from the play, did not leave a mark on his art. But it did affect him as a man of the world. Given this approach, Natya Ranga needs to be commended for not trying to raise Mitra to the status of a Prometheus. He was a great artist, but when compelled by Fate, was as commonplace as any man on the street.
One wondered of course if the deep philosophical issues that Chand faced needed to be mixed up with Mitra’s personal matters bordering on pettiness. To the public at large, Mitra was certainly answerable for the art he practised, but was he expected to answer questions relating to his personal life? The fact that Mitra did not sign on an appeal to release Utpal Dutt from police custody comes up in this connection. His characters raise this question. More questions come up, some relating to his closeness to the Congress government of the time. And even his personal life with Smt Tripti Mitra is brought up. She is praised for bearing the financial burden of propping up Sambhu Mitra’s unflinching rejection of the commercial stage. However, the reason forwarded for his separation from her sounds almost hollow, though this is presented with true theatrical finesse. It is here that the letter box mentioned earlier plays a part.
Towards the end of Putul Khela (A Doll’s House by Ibsen), where Tripti Mitra comes up with her immortal recitation of Tagore’s ami poraner sheathe khelibo ajike, apparently Sambhu Mitra began to twirl a key ring on his right index finger during a rehearsal. It is exactly at this point of time that the postman delivers the dreaded Putul Khela letter and the letter box lights up in unison. The letter box is used as a fascinating tour de force helping the shift from the abstract to the concrete. Tripti Mitra objects to the twirling of the key, since this was not the way Sambhu Mitra played his role in the past. Sri Mitra reacts however by telling her that the essence of the situation lay in the key itself and it was he who was the Director of the play! Upon this, Tripti Mitra leaves the rehearsal in a huff!
After all the talk about Oedipus’ relentless search for truth, of the role of Fate (comparable to Greek tragedy once again) in Chand’s story, this utterly childish interaction between the real life husband wife pair being brought up in the play comes as a disappointment, especially since this incident is linked up with their eventual separation. What is worse is that the actress (probably Anindita Bandyopadhyay) who recites the Tagore poem during the enactment of the scene is either too young to have heard Tripti Mitra’s rendition, or, if she is aware of that goose flesh inducing recitation, then she failed in her job. This part stands out poorly in contrast with the rest of the play.
Refusing entry to Sri Dharani Ghosh and Samik Bandyopadhyay to watch Sri Sambhu Mitra’s performances is brought up too. Sri Rudraprasad Sengupta’s voice explains why they could not be allowed to destroy a monumental effort that was on to bring Bengali theatre together. The explanation sounds like post facto rationalization, carrying little conviction, for no such amalgamation actually took place. Besides, the audience is told that Samik Bandyopadhyay had actually not even shown up (so that he could not have been thrown out), leaving unclear the Dharani Ghosh part of the story. Was it necessary though to reveal these tabloid style scandals in the context of a man who was obviously being taken to symbolize Chand Banik or Oedipus? Things are not helped either when Sri Sambhu Mitra declares that he did not own a car! There is a clear lack of balance here, in so far as pettiness mingles with supreme refinement.
On the other hand, and as already pointed out above, these issues could have been deliberately brought in, simply to impress upon the audience that the play was not about elevating a human being, however talented, above humanity.
The quality of acting throughout the play is mediocre at best. This shows up particularly in the poor quality of voice control on the part of almost all the actors. Sri Surajit Bandyopadhyay did impress at times, but only when he was not playing Sambhu Mitra the actor par excellence. There were more than two occasions when he adopted the hoarse artificial voice Mitra employed in Oyedipaus as well as Galileo. Bandyopadhyay’s effort rang a bell, but the words he spoke remained unclear, possibly on account of the use of a hidden microphone. He failed to carry it off. His Christ like postures on the top of the ship were unconvincing too, as was the agitation he tried to communicate in a somewhat spread eagled manner on his arched back across the central platform on front stage. This is not a reflection on his acting skills. It probably means that these actions did not mix too well with the context.
The side characters too did not impress, particularly so when they stood between the spot lights and co-actors casting shadows on faces that were supposed to be lit. This is a minimal lesson that stage actors are supposed to learn, viz. ensuring the lights to fall on their faces when necessary. More importantly, pronunciation of Bengali words using compound letters needs to be improved. It is almost certain that Sri Sambhu Mitra would himself have paid more attention to the matter. There was a set of mime artistes too that failed to leave any impression at all.
As one watched the play, one could not help asking if Mitra, like Wilde, believed that “An artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” Utpal Dutt’s voice and finally the juxtaposition of their portraits on the stage with each one philosophizing about his respective position could probably have been done to contrast their approaches to the theatre. However, the final conclusion that the play reached in this connection was somewhat unclear.
At the abstract level, the play is interesting, but execution wise it leaves a lot to be desired. And this is partly on account of the questionable standard of performance by all actors except the prinicipal character. Partly, the play disappoints also because of the manner in which the divine is coupled with sundry trash , even if this was intentionally brought in. After all, Behula too had to bow down to the level of a common nautanki in the Sambhu Mitra version of the Chand story. Finally, one must give it to the Director that he keeps an element of hope alive in so far as Sri Sambhu Mitra sends off his sailors to start rowing the stalled boat again. Also, the play announces in unequivocal terms that politics and art are strange bedfellows.
With more performances, the quality of the presentation will surely improve. Sambhu Mitra’s spirit laments that while actors such as John Gielgud have been analyzed by art critics, little has been done about Sishir Bhaduri or Manoranjan Bhattacharyya. Stage acting has not grown up as an institution in the country. A few Sambhu Mitras, Utpal Dutts and Ajitesh Bandyopadhyays have definitely cropped up on their own in Bengal, but they have not been able to leave indelible footmarks for future generations to follow. In fact, the amateurish performance of most of the artistes in the play Sri Sambhu Mitra demonstrates this all too clearly.