THE SNAKE-HEADED GODDESS                               Up

For close to a year now, a very powerful adaptation of a play by Manoj Mitra has been drawing impressively large crowds to the new-look-old-feel Minerva Theatre - renamed Minerva Natya Sanskriti Charcha Kendra - on Beadon Street (now Utpal Dutta Sarani). Debesh Chattopadhyay’s production “Debi Sarpamasta” is a novel production in contemporary Bengali theatre by the Minerva Repertory Theatre group. It follows the almost obsolete “paala – gaan” pattern of theatre of rural Bengal.

The story is simple with the central theme revolving around debi sarpamasta, the snake-headed goddess, who was usurped from the hilly rustic area of Purulia-Bankura from the tribal group which worshipped her and was brought to Simhagarh by the ruling zamindar. This simple folklore inspired the production which is almost a musical-on-stage.  The actual conversation/ dialogue is limited and maybe a little over-played , but the beauty of the production lies in the unfolding of the plot through excellent musical score and equally effective choreography. The stage craft and props are creative and effective. Simple props are moved and re positioned within the body of the play by the actors and  included in their song and dance. Furthermore the stage is set into three or four levels starting from the floor to a high backstage and every level is fully utilized to depict action in different timelines. This kind of stage craft and utilization of space is indeed rare in Bengali theatre.

The actors particularly the young prince and the Debi Sarpamasta (with the interesting human name of Icchey) have strong singing voices and use their feet very effectively through expert dances. The debi almost slithers like a snake and the young prince plays the role of a weak and effeminate prince with such strength that the contrast is striking. The play has all twenty-four repertory members acting, singing, dancing, and playing folk instruments — dhamsha, madol, flute, kendri and dotara. The action is spread over the entire performance area, from the catwalk to the aisle.

The story, though folklore  appears convincing because of a strong historical leitmotif of the Doctrine of Lapse and the tyranny of the British Raj. Also, the culture of the foresters is depicted carefully and without much deviation from the truth. The entire group of foresters and their leader, the Dahuk , exhibit a certain macho-ism ( bare-bodied , and simple weaponry) which comes out very strongly in the play particularly when a  bit of acting is done with the actors facing away from the audience , and yet, the thread of the plot continues through dialogue and songs. At no point of time does the audience feel alienated from the story that is being told on stage.

The song “ O debi tor kemon pa/ Dhula laagey na/ Dhulay gora putuli/ Dhula jhorey na” is catchy, tunefully sung and also speaks volumes about the simple faith of a simple society in a simple goddess.  “Debi Sarpamasta or the snake-headed goddess of the forest tribes is to me a symbol of nature that is beautiful, desirable and at times dangerous. The urban, educated and privileged classes have repeatedly used the nurturing and healing powers and strength of the otherwise forgotten and deprived people,” says Manoj Mitra of his compelling production.

Nandini Dutta
THE TALE OF “SWEENEY TODD”                               Up

It all began with a not-so-simple idea between friends.

We had built up enough resolve to create a new theatre company but we were still pondering over what our maiden production should be. After spending many months discussing scripts and eventually discarding them, we finally hit upon an idea which we stuck to quite firmly. At that time, of course, we were filled with a mixture of tremendous excitement at the prospect of something so challenging. This was tempered by anxiety and skepticism over whether a fledgling, independent theatre group set up by college students would be able to stage a musical of such great complexity, let alone ensure that it would be a successful venture. The theatre company in question is Paper Faces and the chosen musical was Stephen Sondheim’s biting satire in a tale of vengeance, “Sweeney Todd”, an adaptation of which went on to stage at Gyan Manch. We were overwhelmed by the entire experience, and even more so by the tremendous response we received

To put it simply, Paper Faces is an endeavour by three friends who, with a little help from their friends, have set out to do what they love to do. The three of us were fortunate enough to have received our education at one of the premier educational institutions of the city and thu the exposure we received, together with the fond memories attached to the realm of theatre and the stage, gave us the confidence and the ability to pursue our passion of setting up an independent production house. Of course, this involved many experiences which we had not anticipated – searching for sponsors willing to provide financial backing to a new company with no previous credentials to vouch for it, setting up the company officially where we were drowning in a sea of bureaucratic paperwork in order to set up a bank account, as well as receiving various clearances and attending meetings to ensure media coverage, booking of the venue and other matters pertaining to the entire process of producing your own play. Our adventures not only added to our experience for future ventures but also made us realize the magnitude and significance of the project we had decided to undertake. Needless to say, we knew that we had our work cut out and that nothing but our very best efforts would suffice.

Rehearsals are always the most enjoyable phase of any play. Having enjoyed many fun experiences as actors or stage managers in school productions, placing ourselves on the other side of the divide as directors and coordinators proved to be more of a challenge than we expected and we began to truly appreciate what it must have been like for our teachers and directors. The added challenge of an exceptionally difficult musical score did not make things any simpler. However, through hours of practice and sheer power of will, we were able to navigate our way through the script until we could recite dialogues and sing entire songs as though it were second nature, aided largely by a fantastic ensemble cast that brought out the various shades every character by getting into their very skins.

We also had the very best of technical talent in our midst. From lights and sound design to costumes, make-up and especially music arrangement, everything was efficient and presented a fantastic end product. The backbone of any good theatrical production is the backstage crew and stage managers, and we were extremely fortunate to have a group of talented, determined and committed people working silently behind the scenes though their work and presence was felt in every scene. In the course of the near four month rehearsal time, we managed to put together something which we could truly be proud of. We had incredible fun in the process of course, and we gradually bonded to form a group determined to do our very best.

Nothing can ever come close to our experience on the day of the show, though. After two full days of technical rehearsals at Gyan Manch, busy with setting up the stage, balancing sound, fixing lights, settling costumes and make-up and attempting to retain enough of our sanity and sense of balance to ensure the show went on, it was suddenly time to show our eager audience the result of months of effort. As we did a few last-minute warm-ups and focus exercises just before stepping on to the stage, I must admit that I was a tad nervous but overall just excited to be there, living the dream. As it happened, everyone gave their utmost and we put up a really spectacular performance, pulsating with energy throughout. The audience on both evenings of the show responded to our efforts and we were humbled and deeply touched by their gesture of giving us a standing ovation on both days. Indeed, the clamour for tickets on the second day was such that we were forced to declare that we had sold-out to full capacity! Such a splendid response bodes well for the future of theatre and we look forward to putting up many more productions in the years to come.

At the end, we were glad in having achieved our objective of paying our tribute to theatre. It has always been a source of our most treasured memories and proudest moments and “Sweeney Todd” was our own way of giving back to theatre for everything that it has given to us. We have learned much from our experiences, including the value of the support that we have received from parents, mentors, friends and well-wishers without whom none of this would have been possible. Above all, we learned that if we give ourselves a chance to dream and achieve in the name of the best within us, then no dream is too big and no rainbow too far.

Sujoy Chakravarthi