Satyakee D’Com Bhuyan’s ‘Who is Manto?’ and ‘Park Bench Blues’ enthrall city theatre lovers
On the 11th to the 14th of October last, Surjya, known for its bold experimentation and innovation in the region, enthralled a coterie audience in its exclusive theatre, with two plays, Who is Manto?, based on three stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, and Park Bench Blues,inspired by Ayckbourn.
Adapted, designed and directed by Sattyakee D'com Bhuyan, both performances were a fitting tribute to the pioneering theatre and film personality, the late Dhiru Bhuyan in whose memory the plays were performed on his birth anniversary.
Founder Director of D' Passion Collective and active Surjya member, Sattyakee D'com Bhuyan continues the legacy of his father in his astutely designed presentation which transcends mere stage craft and the thematic design presents the essence of the genius of Manto. 'Who is Manto', the title itself, is the assertive thematic intent.
The presentation of the first play takes radical innovation in its stride because three of Manto's stories were presented in the form of monologues, while in a play the determinant had always been dialogues. This is what kept the audience's attention in thrall.The obtrusive entry moving the audience to stand on their feet of the researcher on Manto offers an analytical yet passionate account of his writings and the actual hinterland of experience which informs the rich emotional response.Manto sees life in its stark wholeness and recreates the realities without embellishments. The historicity of Partition runs in his fiction and discursive writing as the ruddy vein of contemporary life in heavy clay.
The first of the monologues based on the story "License" narrated by a chit of a boy, Hrishit Agarwal, tells the story of Neeti who finds it difficult to make ends meet after her husband is incarcerated for child marriage. What Manto, and subsequently, the young narrator highlights isnot what one would conventionally expect, the man's 'crime' but his wife's travails as she finds herself prey to the men around her once she is widowed and attempts to earn her daily bread through driving her husband's tonga, something unheard of. She is at the receiving end of a barrage of taunts, unwanted advances and insolent suggestions to earn her living the only way a woman at that time could, by selling her flesh. The young actor Hrishit convincingly expresses the pain of the woman in the story at being denied a license to drive a tonga while a license for prostitution is all too easily accessible to her. The license ubiquitous in its presence is stood on its head and an understated tragedy betraying the situation of women folk is presented with the lissome movement of the tonga which was denied to the protagonist so ably represented by a kid listener.
In the western parlance the Indian independence is now referred to only as 'the partition' which recreatesnot only the pain and anguish but the blood and gore of what was a kind of holocaust. But Manto's attitude and the narrator Jit Chaliha's representation of the reality bring the people closer to the agony with an immediacy that the story and the writer considered personal experiences. The clacking of the keys of a typewriter, the bottle of dark liquor kept on the desk and the immaculately white kurta that the character dons give corporeal form to the writer Manto whose last days in Lahore were characterized by poverty, alcoholism and censure by others for writing what was thought explicit content. But his fitting response to charges of obscenity against him was, "if you find my stories ugly, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth." What Sonia Bhattacharya a Manto researcher from the University of Heidelberg (In Character) had narrated at the very beginning of the performance is capably carried forward by Jit Chaliha, who has incidentally made a comeback to the stage after alonghiatus. He provides a telling picture of Manto, the man, expressing why he writes the afsaanein that he does. The powerful sounds of an approaching train signal the beginning of the story "Khol Do" [The Return], which the narrator playing the part of the writer reads out to an audience that latches onto his every word, as engrossed in listening to the tale as he is in recounting it, as part of his writings. The story talks of a man in desperate search of his daughter Sakina, who he was separated from while they, along with thousands of others, were herded into trains like cattle and taken to refugee camps where their lives would be at lesser risk than in their homes which they had to flee. It is Sakina's dopatta in his pockets which forces him into the present.Her mother was raped and disemboweled and she just managed to shout to her shell-shocked husband, 'leave me, take Sakina away'. The climactic words "Khol do!" and the response that it elicits in the girl returned to her father stuns the audience with unsettling finality.
The redoubtable Mala Goswami, presenting and living the 'Kali Salwar' with consummate ease, eschews distancing and shows a raw slice of life from Manto's through the first person chronicle of a prostitute who makes no bones about her profession but gives vent to a woman's simple longings thwarted by society but ironically and fatefully mitigated, the casual ghungru keeping the beat steadily.This monologue in Assamese, with the earlier ones in English and Hindi respectively, seems to cater to a polyglot urban audience underlining the plurality of modern living.
The unobtrusive sound and music by young debutante Gyaan D. Bhuyan(T'mok)manages an inclusive minimalism and the consequence is a disarming intimacy which has been ably represented by each of the perpetrators.The thematic design is underplayed but in consonance with the dramatic design it achieves the right cognitive and aesthetic distancing. The audience is supreme in this, captivated throughout by the performance unfolding before its eyes.
The second play, decidedly on a lighter vein, refrains from offering a blatant critique, but succeeds nonetheless in lacing with humour droll scenes of domestic violence or perceived harassment by men or even loneliness consequent upon the death of a spouse. The quotidian actualities of tensions and conflicts which inhere in ordinary living are represented by chance encounters on park benches in the surprisingly comical "Park Bench Blues".
This is precisely what makes the play endearing in its ability to sail through all of this with a sort of amusement that is made palpable by the reactions of the person who waits for a chance to tell his\ her own tale, even as they undergo the terror and torture of forced confessions of their contingent neighbour on the bench.Rohan Das as the divorcee who likes the fact that women are good listeners, Hiya Bordoloi as the battered wife who has finally decided to leave her husband and sits with a letter in her hand pooh poohing his gumption to call her back despite everything, Pinyadrith Tarafdar as the Italian widower who has the audience in splitswith his exaggerated accent makes a clever exit, (quoting from "Hamlet", no less), Sonia Bhattacharya, as the canine- loving and man-hating elderly woman who is paranoid about being assailed by all men around her and Dr. Chinmoy Chakravarty who exchanges his dentist's coat for a prominent beret and the tone of a husband fed up with routine conjugality, give applause-worthy performances even as T'mok's adept management of the background music manipulates the audience into laughing as they deftly make their exit with one liners.Throughout the evening's presentation, the lighting by Dhanjit was unobtrusive and natural with casual highlights.Overall, a perfect delight weaved by Sattyakee D'com Bhuyan.