If Rabindranath Tagore was writing his masterpiece ‘Bisarjan’ today, would he have written it in the exact same way? If your answer is yes, Kafir will scar you. And honestly, theatre is not for the weak.
If you possess an intelligent mind which understands the need for change with time, you would be spellbound for 90 minutes as a great work by our literary genius is unfolded under the deserving light of the present.
Kafir might make you angry or you might just go ‘Exactly my point!’ But Kafir will tantalizingly slip in through the cracks of your psyche and leave footprints. Now, it’s up to you to measure the success of a play and we are not here to discuss that.
We are here to explore M.A.D.’s Kafir and we have found the best possible person to help us with our goal. Meet Aritra Sengupta, the writer and director through a short conversation which will try to bring clarity to what happened at Gyan Manch last Sunday.
BongRong: So how did ‘Kafir’ happen to you?
Aritra: The starting point of the idea of re-imagining ‘Bisarjan’ …to tell you very briefly, throughout my history as an audience member, not just as a theatre practitioner or director – I have always seen that whenever someone approaches a Tagore text today, be it a play, be it a poem, be it a song – there is a tendency of forcibly modernizing it and in the post-copyright era, trying to modernize Tagore is not a big deal anymore. However, what most people do not realize is that the man himself was far more “modern” than most of us, and he seems “archaic” to some people today because the nature and style of performances have remained archaic.
The way it was performed 20 years ago, the same essence remains and I saw not one attempt that really moved me. In all the Tagore productions I have seen so far, I didn’t see an attempt which changes the very aesthetics of performance itself. It was always modernization by changing the context, by adding a lot of modern references, by changing Tagore’s words and I felt that kind of beats the point. If you have to modernize then you have to change the form, the treatment, and the politics of performance.
And that was the starting point. Specially because ‘Bisarjan’ was one of his earliest, I saw a lot of inherent scope in the text – lot of possibilities that could be explored by adopting a completely different performance style and aesthetic than the ones that we associate with Tagore’s plays. Not by reinterpreting, not by deconstructing but by re-imagining the text itself. What if the world of ‘Bisarjan’ was different? Hence, we used another modern master to evaluate Tagore, and by using Brechtian alienation, we managed to explore the raw, visceral and gritty undertones of Bisarjan.
BongRong: From the audience we saw you Conducting a play rather than Directing it, because you were also on stage making all the pivotal changes in Kafir’s plotline. With great power comes great responsibility. What responsibilities did you carry with you when you went up on stage that evening?
Aritra: Because we were performing Tagore’s text in Tagore’s homeland, there was this added burden that I wanted to do away with. I have always felt that while doing a Tagore text we should approach it as organically as we do a Shakespeare or a Brecht or a Miller or a Bernard Shaw.
The entire point is, if we have that emotional and sentimental bias towards the author, it will be reflected in the performance. We will never be able to negotiate Tagore properly. Obviously, there was a sense of responsibility. But it didn’t come from the fact that, ok, I have to do justice to Tagore.
The point of doing a timeless text or adapting a classic is raising new questions which might not have been explored in previous performances.
Sometimes, I feel you need not do justice to the author’s vision but re-negotiate and challenge the author’s vision, which Jaysingha does in our version of ‘Bisarjan’.
Obviously, whenever you are saying something, there is a responsibility. But we have always maintained it as a group that our responsibility is not giving alternatives or solutions to problems. A few audience members did ask what the possible alternative to Jaysingha’s death is. Our responsibility as an artist lies in raising pertinent questions. Our job is to simply point out what’s wrong, not give solutions. Because that becomes preaching.
Now we will leave it to the audience to decide whether the questions which we raised were right or wrong and what’s the answer to them. At the end of the day when they go back home, they will think about it. They might agree or disagree with the questions. But the point is to simply create an atmosphere of proper discourse, that’s what epic theatre eventually wants to achieve.
BongRong: What is your perspective on religion?
Aritra: If I talk of religion at a personal level, I have always felt that when religion becomes something regimented, something very structured, it takes away the very essence of faith.
For me religion is very personal. I feel if religion becomes something organized, structured and regimented, it destroys the spiritual form of expression that one’s faith is supposed to be. For example the idea of Hinduism has been eroded so much that now it has been reduced to a set of make believe rules; it’s fundamentally a very deep philosophy. That philosophy has been converted into something very forcibly structured.
One can practice Hinduism without practicing rituals. One can practice Hinduism and pray to their own personal God without having to adhere to a set of principles or rules. Somewhere that choice is missing in how we interpret religion today. That is my problem with religion. I do not have a problem with someone believing in something. That is perfectly alright. But for a lot of people, their faith is completely dependent on their social conditioning, and it’s no longer a personal choice.
BongRong: You have somewhat answered our next question. But we will go ahead and ask you anyway. If we look back at our history, do you see a prominent line which differentiates between organized crime and organized religion?
Aritra: That was one of my basic starting points when I was deliberating on the treatment of Kafir. When I see the dynamics in a gangster film and when I see a film about a fundamentalist group, I can’t find any basic difference.
Over the years, the basic power dynamics and the basic ideologies of organized crime and organized religion have come to reflect each other. So, nowadays, we see religious fundamentalism becoming equivalent to terrorism. On the other hand criminals, mafia lords, and gang leaders are using religion as an excuse. It works both ways. So, somewhere the line of difference between organized crime and organized religion has become more and more blurred.
In both cases, they rely on the blind faith of people towards them. Both of them propagate this faith by creating an atmosphere of fear. Religion creates fear by saying that if you do not follow this, God will punish you. And organized crime says the same thing. It says “if you don’t follow my rules, you are going to get hurt real bad.” I think both the power structures have come to resemble each other so much that it’s impossible to distinguish between the two in today’s world.
BongRong: In the socio-political context of today’s India, if we have global economic progress on one hand and freedom of expression on the other, what will you keep and what will you throw away?
Aritra: I think one of the major problems of post-globalization India is, we are very in-between. We still refuse to accept economic progress wholeheartedly. In today’s time, when there is an almost unipolar world with American hegemony looming large over us, the choices are very difficult.
I think we need to stand on a firm ground where we accept that economic growth is inevitable and we shouldn’t hamper progress. The hard-line left politics has hampered the growth of economy in several parts of India. You cannot just neglect the fact that globalization has several positive effects too.
But, we must try and counter the cultural hegemony of the American State by maintaining a firm ground. We must use globalization to our economic advantage and social advantage and make sure development happens. And at the same time also ensure that the development is sustainable. It’s very important for the people of India to be aware of how the economy is going to change in the next 10 years so that we can hold a firm stance and not be caught in-between.
BongRong: Where do you feel the need of evaluating a genius of the past under the light of contemporary times?
Aritra: We have created icons out of geniuses. There is this one voice-over in the play where I have actually written that Tagore was a mad scientist. And when we turn mad scientists into icons which they never wanted to become, we strip them of their very essence.
I have loved and appreciated Tagore so much…. only when you analyze and examine the genius of that man that you realize we might not have explored all the possibilities. In Britain they are doing it with Shakespeare, in Germany they are doing it with Brecht. If we can’t evaluate our own geniuses, if we turn them into gods and become blind followers we will be doing grave injustice to Rabindranath Tagore.
If we truly believe in his genius, we will consciously make it a point to negotiate with him, to negotiate with his vision and to challenge him. You can only challenge a person you appreciate, understand and have great respect and admiration for.
And that is why I think we shouldn’t keep Tagore in the make-believe shrine that we have created for him. May be we should bring Tagore to the streets and negotiate with his vision, re-examine his vision, reconstruct him, deconstruct him, re-imagine him and only then, down the line, will we be doing justice to Tagore.
The point is to create an atmosphere for debate. We accept with all humility that people are free to disagree with us. We are simply trying to create the atmosphere for debate and in my humble understanding of Tagore, he was trying to create that all his life – an atmosphere where people will have passionate disagreements and have passionate debates and not just accept every thing blindly.
BongRong: Thank you for those mind-boggling 90 minutes and finding time to talk to us afterwards. We hope after this chat our readers will have a better understanding of your version of ‘Bisarjan’. We might agree or disagree with your ‘Kafir’, but we will always remember the evening when Kolkata theatre took its first step away from blind Tagorism. It was our privilege to be among the audience. Until next time then….
>>> Moments from Kafir <<<
Please follow BongRong on Facebook to stay updated on the Contemporary Theatre Scene of Kolkata.