a directorial hangover: an article by janardan ghosh

Janardan Ghosh strongly believes in his theatre practices as a path to moksha and speaks here of the need for multiple perspectives, influences and experimentation for the realization of the self.  He also makes some important points about the comparative state of experimentation in theatre from Gujarat & Bengal.

I am definite that this theatrical rendezvous is holy… and it is so… because it allows empty fullness and full emptiness. The performance shelters the opposites on the same platform. Therefore the end is blurred… Janardan Ghosh

In an article for Times of India, Kolkata (July 5, 2017) Greg Wilford, writes: “Religious people are more tolerant of different viewpoints than atheists, according to researchers at a Catholic University”. A study by psychology researchers at the University of Louvain, Belgium, claims that religious believers “seem to better perceive and integrate diverging perspectives”. While I read the article, I kept thinking about some of my recent engagements, which endorsed Wilford’s viewpoint. My personal research on Sri Ramakrishna (1836) has provided abundant instances to prove that it is the religious who show more openness, contrary to the common perspective. As a common man, we tend to incline towards the opinion that religion and closed mindedness are synonymous. However, when Sri Ramakrishna says, “Jato Mot Tato Poth,” (As there are a number of beliefs, there are a number of ways) we are struck by the novelty of the divergence and expansion of his world view. Since then, Sri Ramakrishna’s religious pluralism and his idea of religious harmony have generated new trust towards the sensitive world of the sacred and the spiritual. On very similar lines of philosophic understanding, grew and lived another pious soul about hundred and fifty years ago in the extreme western part of this nation. An invisible thread of commonality, apparently, united the eastern and western flank of the land. Srimad Rajchandraji, a Jain saint born in late 19th century Gujarat (9th November, 1867) shared a strong similarity with the cross religious ideas of the Bengali saint. He attained self realization at a very early age and was incessantly absorbed in the ecstatic bliss of the immortal Self. Like Sri Ramakrishna he too influenced and guided innumerable seekers towards the path of truth and enlightenment. A lesser known episode in Srimad Rajchandraji’s life was his encounter with the father of our nation, Mohan Das Karamchand Gandhi (1869). Gandhi himself wrote, “This man has won my heart in spiritual matters and no one else has ever made on me the same impression.” Gandhi, who was a practicing Vaishnav, had been influenced by this extraordinary Jain poet-philosopher-saint. Apart from his autobiographical note (a chapter in his popular book My Experiment with Truth) he exchanged more than 200 letters with the saint. The letters were pregnant with potent spiritual concepts and expanded ideas of tolerance and non-violence. Herein, it is noticed that Shrimad Rajchandraji an unprejudiced realized soul accepts the truth of all the religious paths and never ever suggests Gandhi to adopt or pursue Jainism. Rather, the open-minded Shrimadji reveals the inherent resemblance of diverse religious faiths and he insists Gandhi to hunt for the truth by being faithful to his own religion itself. The composed and calm saint relentlessly brought equanimity in the restless heart and mind of Gandhi, who was perturbed by the dreadful socio-political situations in the country. It can be presumed that Gandhi was able to shape his political ideology and social demeanour under the guidance of this obliquely known saint. While we have extensively discussed Tolstoy and Ruskin’s influence on Gandhi, we unfortunately forgot to look at an indigenous or native portal to Gandhi’s philosophic apprenticeship. This year seemed to be a relevant year to unravel the veiled tale of Gandhi and Shrimadji. The story lost in historical obscurity was almost ready to see the light of the day.

The year 2016-17, is the 150th birth anniversary of Srimad Rajchandraji and Pujya Rakeshbhai, the founder of the Shrimad Rajchandra Mission, Dharampur and an ardent devotee of Shrimadji, ideated a full-fledged theatrical presentation of the Gandhi-Shrimad affair: An affair that allows a deep understanding of Gandhi’s iconic philosophy of non-violence and honesty. Pujya Rakeshbhaiji insisted that the play shall evolve with the twin purpose of re-evaluating the matrix of Gandhian ideology and also to fathom the depths of Srimad Rajchandraji’s spiritual perception. Hence, on 14th of November, 2016 a play named Yugpurush: Mahatmanu Mahatma was produced in Gujarati by an extremely proficient team that included popular playwright, Uttam Gada, theatre director Rajesh Joshi, light designer Bhavatesh Vyas and other prominent Gujarati theatre practitioners. The play won innumerable accolades for its brilliance and artistry and eventually got reproduced in five other languages with seven different teams all over the country. The play travelled across the globe and has achieved phenomenal response from the audience.

Later, I was approached in the month of November when I was attending a theatre workshop (ACT; Actor Chorus Text) conducted by Anna Hellena (UK), to do a Bengali version of this popular play. Since, Anna was not only deconstructing our body dynamics but she was also breaking our set theatrical concepts, hence, it was really difficult to accept the responsibility of such a mainstream work. The spiritual flavour of the play was the only incentive for me to say yes. However, we hired some of the best actors from the Bengali theatre fraternity and started our workshop followed by designing of the play. The design of the Gujarati production though glamorous and extremely creative, initially, seemed to be a revival of the naturalistic Bengali plays with drop scenes and heavy sets. It appeared that we were reviving an early theatre practice that attempted to create an illusion of reality through a range of dramatic and theatrical strategies. Contemporary theatre in Bengal has moved a long way from Girish Ghosh’s Great National Theatre to Badal Sircar’s Third theatre. Moreover, it is well known that Gujarati theatre has always avoided alternative approaches to performance for their huge success of the mainstream theatre. An article published in a newsletter titled “Theatre 4 U” that was distributed during the Prithvi Festival of 1997 claims, “There have been fewer attempts at experimentation in Gujarati as compared to Marathi, Bengali and Hindi theatres because there is no consistent movement along with the mainstream theatre.” (This is a very interesting time to discuss and compare the theatre of the two states when their politics are highly being compared with each other.) So, with a priori and a prejudiced mind we were attempting to redesign the play for the Bengali audience. There was an interesting wrestling of ideas and propositions from both, Joshi’s team and our team. I reckoned the line with which Peter Brook had started his book, Empty Space: “I CAN take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged” (7). And here, we were talking just the opposite: The glamorous world of heavy silk curtains, spot lights, weighty dialogues, laughter, incessant music, theatrical gimmicks, cumbersome sets suspended between realism and symbolism and the superimposed messy images. Yet, we were desperately trying to create a balance between the cinematic theatre and the sacred theatre that I believe in. I felt that it is so funny that while we claim cinema is killing theatre, we put our best efforts to make theatre a replica of the cinema, a “theatre of box office”. The conflict was taking us to a no progress zone. So, finally, I thought of confronting my resisting mind and tried to approach the production with a fresh perspective. In a moment of “Wordsworthian tranquillity”, I thought that the Gujarati theatre known for its Bhavai and rich Parsee Natak Mandali must have something new to offer and thus we must open our hearts to the original design keeping the Bengali ethos of performance intact. Bhavai, the folk-theatre of Gujarat flourished since the 14th century but the western elements entered Gujarati theatre in the 16th century. It was as late as 1850 that we had a modern Gujarati play, Dalpatram, written by Lakshmi based on a Greek comedy Plutus. I was also reminded of the great playwright Ranchhodlal Udayaram Dave who is also known as the father of modern Gujarati theatre. The most peculiar thing about Gujarati theatre is that it flourished more in Bombay (present Mumbai) than in the land of Gujarat itself.

Nonetheless, the Gujarati home front had seen some extraordinary work in recent times and one of them is Karl Marx in Kalbadevi a fantastic comedy written by Uttam Gada and directed by Manoj Shah. College competitions held in the late eighties and early nineties gave rise to some young playwrights like Prakash Kapadia, Mihir Bhuta and directors like Rajesh Joshi. Joshi known for his production Code Mantra provided some interesting theatrical design for us to explore in this play. Eventually, we felt more inclined to explore the successful world of professional Gujarati theatre. We gradually started looking at the performance from a much unbiased window. Keeping the design we tried to add a fresh life to the performance. I consciously encouraged my actors to nurture a questioning mind and helped them to reach a convincing state of honest vision. The actor is a witness to what s/he is and through the process of self exploration and enquiry, creates an opportunity of possible salvation. I, indirectly, would provoke them with thoughts to help them voiding of thoughts and usher them into absolute subjectivity and assist them to travel from one reality to the other. Their expressions and internal approach to the characters were a free ground for me to work with, wherein I tried to find something “beyond language”, the Vedantic Turiya of performance or may be an “anthropocosmic quest” as explored by Nunez.

The biographical characters like Shrimadji, Mohan and Bapu required a patterned set of gestures and postures, wherein we were helped by Nihar Joshi. Our actors were initially groomed to explore their physicality by Sri Deb Kumar Paul. Rajib (Shrimadji), Sanmitra (Bapu) and Sarnajit(Mohan) had offered their body, mind and soul to relive the history. Their rich experience in theatre helped us to re-create the believable act of the past. Soham, Sylvia, Nabanita, Vidyapati, Deepak, Tapan, Debabrata, Subhendu, Parimal, Anirban and Avinash had readily moulded themselves to fit in their multiple roles. The gargantuan task included an interesting merging of the professional Gujarati and experimental Bengali theatre practices eventually creating a novel experience for all of us. Sachin Jigar’s music and Subhash Ashar’s set design had given an extra leverage to our exploration.

Yugpurush: Mahataar Mahatta, is not a mere copy of the Gujarati play it is the Bengali interpretation of the Gujarati play in a Gujarati format. The loyalty maintained to the original design and script has not dwarfed the performance, rather has opened a new doorway for the Bengali theatre. For me it was an introduction to the world of Gujarati spirituality and Gujarati theatre, a union of two interests of mine. I have always desired for a transformation through my performances, in which the actor and the spectator should have a sense of completeness, wholeness. I think I have somewhat achieved it here in this performance and the process. Therefore, I am definite that this theatrical rendezvous is holy… and it is so… because it allows empty fullness and full emptiness. The performance shelters the opposites on the same platform. Therefore the end is blurred…

And finally, I rest my faith in what Pujya Rakeshbhai says, “Everything is going to be okay in the end. If it is not okay, it’s not the end.”….

Janardan Ghosh

Director

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