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Theatre || Hashuli Baker Upakatha (Classic in Monochrome)

Compressing a 280 page novel into a 140-minute drama is no mean feat, neither is its execution. Even more so if it happens to be a cult classic such as Tarashankar Bandopadhyay’s ‘Hashuli Baker Upakatha’. In only his second major directorial attempt, Koushik Kar manages to pull off both the tasks with elegance, introducing changes one and plenty which, surprisingly, only add to the rich tapestry of the narrative.

Billed as ‘black and white theatre’, the curious move to present the majority of the performance in monochrome costumes and props lend the play much more than a reminder of the distance past. It is but a past for the survivors at the beginning of the drama too, who can only dream of the hashuli bak that once was – a bend in the river like that of a maiden’s hasuli necklace.

The set, an assemble of a bamboo thicket and the colourful, musical characters therein dotting the countryside, is a mix that only a Tarashankar novel could provide. Where there is the conservative yet good-hearted Banwari, the chieftain of the ‘criminal tribe’ Kahars, there lies his foil in the form of his protégé Karali (Kar himself), the representative of the new blood who prefer seeking greener pastures to giving in to their present, leaving the village to work in the factory against the express wishes of the head of the village Banwari.

The clashes are between conservatism and chasing fate, between oppressive feudal overlords at home to getting the better of them away from it. The superstitious hearts of Hashuli bak do have best interests in them, but it is the fear of the wrath of God that brings out the devil in Banwari, whose all too human dilemma between indulgence and obedience manages to tear apart the fabric that held the village together. The pied piper, represented by Karali, is but the allure that drives the destiny of many, including Banwari, for whom and the rest of the village, the distance hiss of a snake is enough to drive them towards imagining ill portents of the future.

Set in the year 1941, as the ‘foreign war’ begins to disrupt life in the quaint Hashuli bak, there are forbidden romances, murders, curses, drunken wedding fiestas dotting the ‘Upakatha’ (folk tale).

The superlative performance of Shantilal Mukherjee as Banwari must be the talking point of the production. Even though he is a veteran actor of stage and screen, Hashuli bak explores and exploits his potential to unseen terrains and the play is a must-watch simply to re-discover the fine Bengali actor.

Kar, as Karali, is noteworthy but due mention must be made of Suranjana Dasgupta, portraying the eldest scion of Kaharpara and the torchbearer of its ancient religious history and beliefs. Gambhira Bhattacharjee, portraying the cross-dressing Nasubala, deserves special mention as well.

A live musical troupe, led by the direction of Abhijit Acharya, complement the musical characters on stage and the catchy rustic tunes of Hasuli bak refuse to ebb, long after the curtain call.

The set design, lighting and choreography blend seamlessly into Kar’s directorial vision, the erudition of which is evident in nearly every scene of the play, from the desolate prologue to the complex mise-en-scene during the cyclone episode or the harrowing beheading of Kalososhi, a sharp deviation from the source material but dramatically noteworthy nonetheless.

Purba Paschim’s latest production is a laudable effort indeed, tilling the stage for a promising dramatist and a veteran thespian to cultivate their craft, promising ‘colourful’ times ahead in the Bengali theatre fold, much like the final scene before the curtain drops for good. []

Drama: Hashuli Baker Upakatha
Group: Purba Paschim
Year: 2015
Based on the novel by
Tarashankar Bandopadhyay
Adapted and directed by
Koushik Kar
Language: Bengali

First Published: CultureCult Magazine, Issue One: October 2015