Imagine a play with not much of a plot. Imagine a play with characters who are more embodiments of ideas than representation of identifiable human beings. Imagine a play that draws chief sustenance – in theme, in form – from the works of a major early/mid-20th century Russian theorist. Imagine a play that seeks to be subversive and sensitive, ungrammatical and structured, boisterous and gloomy. Kolkata Praxis’ Bakhtin Bakhtin is such a play, intended to deny the spectators the usual satisfaction derived from performed texts, and instead, compel them to think. Written by Chiranjib Basu and designed/directed by Gautam Sarkar, Bakhtin Bakhtin demands from the audience a certain theoretical/literary literacy and a willingness to intellectually engage with the performance. The play will be labelled difficult, obscure, academic, elitist – but approached with an open mind, Bakhtin Bakhtin should provide to the audience various takeaways, mainly in the form of food for thought. In fact, the play, in its refusal to dumb things down and by not taking the audience as a set of passive-consumers to be pacified with ‘meaning’ – neatly packaged, made easily digestible – thrown at them, actually achieves three things. It positions itself squarely against the pervasive culture of non-thinking reception/consumption of texts; it empowers the audience by giving them agency to become producers of meaning; it frees itself (the play-text) from the pressure of attempting to please, to satisfy, thereby allowing it to become disturbing, irreverent, dissonant.
All this is not to suggest that Bakhtin Bakhtin, whatever else it may be, is not theatre. For instance, the sequence when Julie/Anamika/Champa (played by Indu Dipa Sinha) passionately draws upon the myth of Icarus to recount the cutting short of her ambitious flight of life, is a moment of sheer theatrical brilliance produced by a near-perfect blending of elements of conception, design, performance and execution. There are other similar moments in the play, centered especially on the female leads of the play, Indu Dipa Sinha, Ipsita Debnath and Rimi Majumder (who all are Julie/Anamika/Champa at various points of the play, objects and victims of male lust) that are powerfully effective performance moments.
While an element of minimalist restraint informs the use of lights (Sudip Sanyal), music (Drono Acharya), computer-aided graphics (Tanay and Siddhartha) and set design (Hiran Mitra), there is an unbridled profusion of words in the play, so much so that words become a palpable presence. This is not surprising in a play that seeks to explore how words become a stratifying force in society – how people who can and use words, who deal with and in words, who create and monopolize words dominate and marginalize those who do not, or cannot, or will not. Even as the characters produce words, the words produce the characters. True of all the characters, this is most evident in the case of Bakhtin, played with unflagging energy and great skill by Gautam Sarkar. I would like to believe that he has deliberately woven into his performance references to texts as diverse as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Herbert.
The ribald, loud and crass singing and dancing which starts right from the lobby of the auditorium before moving inside creates an action space rich in the possibility of ridiculing and subverting structures of authority and power, a possibility which the main body of the play, unfortunately, does not fully capitalize on. The length of the play, is to my mind, an issue too; the tail-end added after the sequence where Bakhtin collapses, with words and letters of the alphabet dropping like dead leaves in the background, just did not wag for me and seemed too stretched out. There are areas in the departments of acting, singing and dancing that can bear improvement.
The makers of Bakhtin Bakhtin, I believe, know that their play will not be a roaring success, in the commonest sense of the term. But that has not deterred Chiranjib Basu, the playwright, Gautam Sarkar, the designer, director, lead actor and all other members of the production team in reposing unwavering faith in their project. It is important in the practice of theatre to have alternative visions, voices and aesthetics; to put it analogically, it is important to carve out a space for the theatrical equivalent of a Kamal Kumar Majumder alongside the Sunil Gangopadhyays. As today’s Bengali theatre is gradually beginning to lean towards glitzy, glamorous, big-budget productions (which is not a bad thing by itself), Bakhtin Bakhtin, a unique carnivalesque of melancholia, provides the necessary counter-weight. Therein lies its success.
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