– Sukla Basu (Sen)
The seventies of the last century saw a heavy influx of European and American drama on the Kolkata stage in translated , adapted or transplanted forms which were the products of fast-growing drama groups in the city. Original Bangla plays by local playwrights were too few to satiate the thirst of group theatre activists and the ardent following many of these groups commanded called out for more and more new plays to be performed not only in the metropolis but also in some of the more culturally conscious cities all over Bengal. The instance of the actor, film star, director Utpal Dutt, an innovative and refreshing playwright himself, proves to us how inviting the prospect of enacting plays from abroad was to theatre group and audience alike at this time. On the occasion of Shakespeare’s four hundredth anniversary, Dutt’s group performed a series of the Bard’ s plays in the original (seven including Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), yet Dutt found it imperative to translate certain plays into Bangla, sometimes twice over, for the demands of the audience and the demands of the till were equally strong for the next two decades.
At first glance it would seem that European plays in French, German or Italian, even Russian, translated into English into Bangla, then adapted, have found greater popularity on the boards rather than those written in English by the American writers. In a sense this is true, for the heartfelt acceptance by the crowds of Tin Paysar Pala or Natyakarer Sandhane Chhati Charitra have overwritten the impression that simultaneous productions of Aagshuddhi or Chiriakhanar Golpo left on the public mind. Also, it would be true to say that the greatest European plays were put on the stage by the greatest theatre groups operating in Kolkata, like Bohurupee and Nandikar and the lesser groups went directly to the easier-to-perform American plays closer in time and therefore without the luxury of having earned a venerable legacy. Whatever the reason, American drama, while being well represented in this milieu, has attracted less critical acclaim than European plays in adaptation.
I shall be talking a little arbitrarily about the better known productions in translation or adaptation first and then go on to mention the less known yet important productions in Kolkata and elsewhere.
Speaking first of Bohurupee’s Mister Kakatua in 1987, proclaimed as a one-off playon life and society was based on Mary Chase’s Harvey. This fact was not acknowledged fully. Writer Prashanta Deb had been called the playwright who had only followed the idea of a “foreign” play. At the centre of Chase’s play is a drunkard, the protagonist, Mr. Ellwood. He has for his companion an invisible rabbit. In the Bangla adaptation, there is Maniklal Sorkhel and his invisible friend Arindam who is a three and a half feet high grey cockatoo. Maniklal talks to it, walks with it and takes along articles in pairs, like two hats, two umbrellas, two mufflers etc., all the time, inviting the ridicule of his family. He is ultimately taken to the psychiatrist who declares that the mental condition is not of Maniklal but of his sister Binapani, who has brought her to him. In the original, Ellwood wishes everyone good night in the closing scene, now that he has been declared condition-free and here Maniklal too does the same. The opinion of the drama critic, Indranath Bandopadhyay, is that, this play is a straight transplantation of the American original rather than a mere “shadow following” that the group confessed to . However the success of the play lay in direction – of Kumar Roy and in the acting prowess of the other players of the group. A person who was noted for bringing on stage the varying dimensions of classical tragedy had now delivered a play of such humorous , playful magnitude that it surprised the audience, exposed to the gravity of Bohurupee productions, into accepting a pro-life comedy of interpretative value. Another critic also praised the production’s basic human values which transcended barriers of geographical space and time. Maniklal and Arindam together became the mirror to contemporary Bengali society and here in lay the effectiveness of the adaptation.
A better known playwright was Clifford Odets whose play Waiting for Lefty, is a representation of post-Depression Communist sympathies of the literati. It has enjoyed a long run in America for the positive ways in which the working class has been portrayed. The ex-Chief Minister of West Bengal , Buddhadeb Bhattacharya indigenised the play as Bijoyer Apekshaye which was produced by Theatre Commune in 1996. The director, Neelkantha Sengupta, known for his left sympathies and stark portrayals of reality on the stage ,made it into a successful production , lauded profusely by the Left minded intelligentsia of the times Prof. Ashok Mukhopadhyaya, himself one of the strongest actors and himself director of one of the better known groups, The Theatre Workshop, reviewed the play as a new symbol of political theatre in Bengal in Aajkaal 4. 9. 1990. The play focuses on the dilemma of workers who confront the decision of effecting a strike before their factory. Their personal crises get intertwined with the external crisis they face as a body. Everyone looks out for Bijoy (the name synonymous with the Bangla word for ‘victory’), the man who is to show the way out of the dilemma, yet like Godot, he fails to come. But the workers seem to have the spirit of Bijoy in their own personas. Therefore the non arrival of Bijoy is no great loss at all. The workers have learnt to take their own decisions. This is indeed victory. Mukhopadhyay praised the stage setting and utilisation of stage space by the actors although acting itself was often seen to be faulty, lifeless and mechanical. The critic also drew attention to a lack of rhythm in the larger movements of scenes but hoped that future productions might get rid of all the awkwardness present in the earlier shows .As a play meant to highlight Marxist ideology in action, the play had limited success in the theatre in spite of being the work of a group that took pride in its productions. Prof Pabitra Sarkar praised the adaptation by Bhattacharya, who, he remarked, took a few liberties with the script, yet in the intermixing of Bangla, Hindi and English had been able to posit it credibly in the contemporary social milieu.
Speaking of Prof Mukhopadhyay, his team, Theatre Workshop had five years earlier done a brave job with the production of August Wilson’s Fences as Bera. For the very first time in India, an African-American play had been staged in translation or adaptation. On being asked, “Why Wilson?” he had answered that it was time we shared the experience of an African-American to find out the similarities that existed along with the obvious differences, in their lives and ours. Bera was a very successful production with sets by the great Khaled Choudhury and lighting by Tapas Sen. Mukhopadhyay himself played Troy Maxson and Maya Ghosh , Rose. It had to be a straight translation, Mukhopadhyay explained, and not an adaption, because there exists nothing like the issue of race in Bengal and parallel situations would have been impossible to find if the play were to be transported into the fifties Bengal. Not even an East Bengal- West Bengal divide would suffice for representing the Black-White divide in America. Successful as he was as an actor-director, (Prof Ananda Lal reviewed his play favourably in The Telegraph), his frank transcription of Troy’s colourful language was panned by locals as being too strong for a professor of English to mouth. This confusion of illusion and reality does not do the Kolkata public proud as Theatre Workshop had quite stringently placed the characters as cultural “others” by acting in blackface .The production remains an example of visionary theatre activity.
Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire have found popularity on the Kolkata stage in Bangla and Hindi adaptations. Indrashis Lahiri wrote for the group Chenamukh, Icchhe Gari which, once staged, put to rest all disbelievers in ‘foreign’ themes played out in local drama. The decadent South here is presented here as decadent Lucknow from where Henna/Blanche comes to seek shelter in sister Dolly/Stella’s small living quarters in Kolkata. Ronnie/Stanley is a garage mechanic who begins to hate Henna for being an unwanted presence in their little household as also for cheating them of the funds that should have come in from the sale of the Lucknow mansion. Much of the denouement is like that of the original play although the public did not take kindly to the rape scene, not because of what was obviously crude, but because of the very idea that rape could take place in a (low-middle class) gentleman’s home. The critic, Somesh Bhuinya, is also of the opinion that the play stumbles on this score! As a “big” production, this one had all the markers such works carry. The most powerful stage (later film) actresses of the times, Anusyua Majumder as Henna and Laboni Sarkar as Dolly ,Chandan Dey as Ronnie and the whole directed by one of the most charismatic directors, Ramaprasad Banik- – the compound was heavily loaded. Yet it did not make waves as did plays by Kumar Roy, Ajitesh Bandopadhyay or Rudraprasad Sengupta.
In June 2002 Little Thespian presented Kanch ke Khilone in Hindi in Kolkata, directed by S.M. Azhar Alam. This was not an adaptation but translation of Williams by Rashi Bunny. The critic (probably Lal), in The Telegraph dated 18.10.2002, says, “The deceptive simplicity of this modern classic often defeats even accomplished directors. They present it naturalistically at the expense of Williams’ characteristic heightened realism, which illuminates wishes, dreams, symbols and internal life rather than external reality. S.M. Azhar Alam does not fall into this trap, but neglects the frame commentary and projected captions – essential devices that detach us from the overwhelming emotional impact of broken illusions. Williams wanted us to think, not cry.”
Himadri Sekhar Choudhury of The Times of India however bemoans the lack of deep melancholy in the production, which a reading of the play ensures but not the Thespian production. He also talks of the audience not being able to relate to the theme of the play.
The group produced the same play in 2009, but this time not as a translation but as an adaptation , called Patjhar. This particular play apparently attempted to universalize the lot of common people, cutting across the borders of space and time. The play is set in Darjeeling. The play deals with multiple themes of hope ,expectation and disappointment, of imagination and reality, also of escapism. This second effort by the group with its change of method shows a healthy sign of the director’s coming to terms with audience expectation and indigenising of this classic for an Indian reception. A reviewer in Jansatva praised actors and director for creating a meaningful theatre experience. Patjhar did improve its performance with later shows for the reviewer in The Telegraph writes in 2010 that “The characteristic feature of the play is that it cuts across boundaries, castes, cultures, spaces and brings us face to face with the countless middle class families of the world. Their insurmountable will to live life against all odds, their hopes and their feelings will touch the hearts of the audience.”
In The Telegraph of 12.04.2008, Prof. Ananda Lal wrote, “Now that Bengali theatre has ventured out of its socialistic dogma to explore popular domestic themes, it has begun to practise greater ‘glasnost’ with respect to American drama. Two such classic – and classical – family tragedies have found their way on to the Bengali stage: Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning becomes Electra and Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. The latter was adapted by Ashok Mukhopadhyay as Matir Gabhire and produced successfully by Theatre Workshop in 2008. The scene is moved to suburban Bengal. The play puts across “sordid realism” in the representation of a family with elderly parents and their equally unappealing adult sons. Lal praises Mukhopadhyay for keeping intact the terrifying denouement reeking of death everywhere, till the very end. The actors too did an excellent job of preserving the macabre mood of family disaster throughout.
Aarshi’s production of Raktagandha used the first two plays of the trilogy in Indrashis Laharry’s much edited translation. Director Abanti Chakraborty somehow failed to make an impact though she located the play in modern times, where in the original it is the days of the Civil War, mainly because she stopped short of the total theatre experience of four-hour–plus plays in which O’Neill tried radically to stretch the limits of local theatre. Sioban Antolioni’s stage setting of two huge mobile pillars and costumes in primary colours did not help to give depth and intensity to the play. Swapnasandhani’s Kolkatar Electra would later achieve just these qualities when in addition to Buddhadeb Basu’s text they would add scenes from Aeschylus’s original in a dream sequence with the help of Sankha Ghosh’s poetic genius, supported by a very able cast, including director Koushik Sen himself.
In his centenary year Tennessee Williams was remembered in Kolkata by Aarshi in Abanti Chakraborty’s Ichher Ali Gali, translated rather than Indianized, from A Streetcar Named Desire. The title exhibits a certain freedom from literal translating but it preserves the intensity of desire in the text. The setting tries to be faithful with a lot of details going into the design of the sitting room and the inclusion of drapes between it and the bedroom. The acting seemed to be ambitiously ferocious, going beyond the physical atrocities associated with Stanley’s behaviour. However, the actress playing Blanche completely disintegrated at the end. This final impression of Blanche goes against the intention of Williams who would have her maintain her image and dignity till the very end. The two productions based on Streetcar, divided by a gap of many years, show how the theatre going public have looked forward to plays by Williams, a playwright who also has figured in university syllabi since the inception of American Literature as part of English Studies. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, adapted by Rudraprasad Sengupta as Ekti Feriwallar Mrityu in recent years has also won critical acclaim. Sengupta as Willy and Swatilekha as Linda acted to the limits of their potential, leaving the audience in no doubt as to the honest theatrical intentions of the group Nandikar. The way the play contemporised the socio-political Indian situation made it easy for the audience to identify with the protagonists.
It is not easy to say if translations work better in Bangla than adaptations. It probably is a strange compound of factors which make any particular play a success. Why some foreign origin plays blossom on alien soils when others do not is a question no one would dare to answer with confidence. In the eighties, the American way of life perhaps seemed more distant to Bengalis than the classical representations of life in European plays. The indigenisation of Brechtian drama was brought about single handedly by Nandikar and the theatrical vigour of the group prompted others to follow suit. With globalisation in the nineties perhaps has ensued a lively interest in American drama which continues with professional and amateur groups trying their strength first with acceptable indigenous versions of familiar plays and then perhaps adventurously with not so familiar ones. The practice, however has enriched local theatre and made it more cosmopolitan.
I call such plays ‘satyr’ plays for a good reason. Satyrs were often deemed wise as they had in them the power to use the riches of mother earth in ways that could benefit human beings. The combination of human and beast seemed a potent one to the ancient Greeks and when arbitrators tried to think of bridging the unbridgeable, they invented the satyr play to intervene between tragedy and comedy. American plays, indigenised through translation or adaptation are just this – a combination of western ideas of life adapted to eastern modes of living and in such capacity, the cultural bridge between two schools of thought. Plays other than those mentioned here also deserve consideration, but a short paper like the present one has little scope for further discussion. The contribution of my students, Somjit Halder and Sumanto Gangopadhyay, to the information compiled here, must be acknowledged and we hope to see in future some serious research being conducted on the subject.