In the editorial of Journal of Bengali Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring Issue dated 27 March 2013, which focuses on Bengali Theatre: Bengalis and Theatre, the editors write,
“Theatre in Bengal was a part of the country lifestyle and the rural folk culture taking the form of Jatra, Pachali, Kabigaan, Tarjaa, Akhrai etc. With the advent of British rule in India, theatre got confined inside the auditorium in a true European blackbox style. However, it was only after the initiative of Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev that Bengali theatre got an entry into it. Since then, the mainstream force of Bengali theatre has been, working in European proscenium style. There have been occasional exceptions where people have experimented with text and form, but by and large, through ups & downs and several metamorphosis, Bengali theatre has been able to carve a niche for itself, as a medium of education and entertainment, specially among the elite and middle class educated Bengalis.”
I’ve seen many Bengali plays when I lived in Kolkata, but I realise I know very little about Bengali theatre. Therefore, the editorial excerpt cited above (which I found on the internet) gave me a quick pointer in the right direction, though I must acknowledge I had not heard of Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev’s name before. Now living in Mumbai, with zero involvement in local Bengali communities, the chances of catching up on Bengali plays is remote. So, it was with much pleasure that I found an old copy of two of Manoj Mitra’s plays in English (published by Seagull Books): Banchharam’s Orchard (translated by Sangeeta and Ranjan Ghosal) and An Encounter With Royalty (translated by Ranjan Ghosal).
Manoj Mitra is an eminent Bengali playwright, actor and director, having written a hundred plays (as far as I know) and performed on stage with them thousands of times, mostly with his own theatre unit called Sundaram. He and his plays are loved by Bengalis of several generations and are popular “among the elite and middle class educated Bengalis.” Mr Mitra has also acted in films for some of Bengal’s and India’s famous film directors like Satyajit Ray, Tapan Sinha, Basu Chatterji and others, and on television, and won the Sangeet Natak Academy Award and the Asiatic Society Gold Medal for contribution to dramatic literature. A most distinguished career indeed.
The theme that runs through both Banchharam’s Orchard and An Encounter With Royalty is death – or, more correctly, cheating death. Banchharam’s Orchard (Sajano Bagan), first performed in 1977 and made into a very popular film by Tapan Sinha titled Banchharamer Bagan, is the story of a poor old and ailing farmer, Banchharam, who owns an orchard which many people have their eyes on. They wait for old Banchharam to die so they can stake their claim on it but, by God’s blessing, Banchharam simply refuses to do so. No amount of cajoling or trickery seems to work and Banchharam finally outlives his detractors to retain his beloved orchard.
An Encounter With Royalty (Rajdarshan), first performed in 1982, is the story of a selfish angry old beggar Brahmin called Lambodar who wishes to get rich quickly by accepting a handout from the king’s treasury which the ailing king is expected to donate to the Brahmin who can diagnose the king’s illness on an auspicious day. Unable to travel to the king’s palace by himself, Lambodar bullies and persuades a simple village blacksmith, Abhiram, to carry him there. When the king dies unexpectedly, Lambodar prays to God and receives a boon by which he dies and his spirit enters the dead king’s body.
The dead king comes to life much to everyone’s astonishment, and Lambodar as the resurrected king, plans to steal his share of the wealth from the treasury. Not only is he unsuccessful in this caper but, by a change in circumstances, he sets off a flood, a war and the wrath of an old hunchbacked palace maid who kills him. Thus, Lambodar’s spirit returns to his own body back in the village where Abhiram, out of loyalty, had been waiting for him with the dead body. With Abhiram’s urging, Lambodar comes to his senses, realises his folly, and decides to follow a path of honesty.
Both plays are comedies, centred on old men and village life, but with diverse storylines. In Banchharam’s Orchard, the old man shuns greed and chooses to live simply in the face of death, accepting whatever he has got. In An Encounter With Royalty, the old man, swayed by greed, enters a make-believe life, and then, upon facing death, realises his folly and returns to a simple life accepting what is truly his. This simplicity of storytelling involving simple characters from villages is one of Manoj Mitra’s greatest qualities as a playwright. He has been able to enchant the Bengali theatre-going audience with this philosophy for decades.
[Citation: 1. Journal of Bengali Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring Issue dated 27 March 2013, Bengali Theatre: Bengalis and Theatre, Issue Editor: Sourav Gupta, Asst Issue Editor: Rishi Ghosh, Editor: Tamal Dasgupta, Asst Editor: Mousumi Biswas Dasgupta. 2. Banchharam’s Orchard and An Encounter With Royalty, plays by Manoj Mitra, Seagull Books.]