Stifled voice of an outcast finds space on stage

He was made controversy’s favourite child by a certain authoritative institution who claimed to be the staunch custodians of the bard’s pristine poetry and music.

He was put in the dock for meddling with the notations and instrumentation of the Nobel Laureate’s celebrated songs and the decks were still not cleared for him when he breathed his last on August 18, 1980. Time and again, efforts were made to stifle his voice but his passion for Rabindrasangeet egged him on to sing with a full-throated ease and strong emotional expressions. Debabrata Biswas was the most hounded man on Bengal’s musicscape back in the 1960s, when Gurudev’s varsity Visva Bharati took objections to his style of rendition via the code of conduct, set by its music board.
Three decades down the line after his demise, this Tagorean exponent is still remembered by both his contemporaries and the succeeding generations of Rabindrasangeet vocalists and avid listeners.
Also fondly nicknamed as George, Biswas will always remain a colossal figure as a singer of Rabindrasangeet through his array of immortalised renditions.
Chronicling the life and the turbulent times of everybody’s Georgeda on stage, leading theatre troupe Kalindi Bratyajon recently presented the 113th show of its one of the most critically-acclaimed productions — Ruddhasangeet — as part of the just-concluded second international theatre festival hosted under its banner. Lodging a standing ovation in the end, the play was performed on the penultimate day of the drama-fest. Directed by Bratya Basu, the saga of Ruddhasangeet is a masterstroke executed on stage.
The play was originally conceptualised to mark the centenary year of the Rabindrasangeet maestro in 2011. The flurry of bitter-sweet experiences that Biswas had undergone by far reflects the reality and subsistence of the Bengali community widely witnessed in the post-Independence era. And this aspect largely forms the crux of this play too. Albeit his brand of Rabindrasangeet was written off by his detractors, converting it into “ruddhasangeet” or being “stifled as an outcast among the so-called orthodox purists”, yet his voice could never be muzzled in the court of common masses. Not only did he take the brickbats in his stride but also touched upon an impressive chord amidst the most discerning Bengali music-aficionados of the period. He had even stimulated the die-hard Tagore-adherents then. Such was his deep impact from the word go. The artiste’s involvement with and severance from the Gananatya Sangha, his renunciation of the communist party, differences with the music board of Visva Bharati University and his inexorable rise to fame, his opposition against the generally accepted norms and a socially-renowned establishment, all echoed through the multiple associations he had mingled himself with during his lifetime. These are some of the striking areas of focus within the many facets and levels of the play. Incidentally, Gananatya Sangha [Indian People Theatre Association (IPTA)] brings forth a significant historical chapter to the play, which was amply relevant in those times.
The play opens with a highly charged-up chorus song presented by the artistes of the People’s Theatre Troupe and a rhythmic dance-item in tandem with the sound-n-beat of the score. With Georgeda leading the choir from the forefront, his throw is visibly different from the usual soulful style and poise he adopts for his Tagorean tracks. This time, it is a drastic contrast as he moves on from a slow pace to a speedy cadence, his voice booming with his trademark baritone and the chorus picking up cues from his refrains. The jugglery of light and shadow is commendable and needs a special mention of light-designer Sudip Sanyal’s concept to highlight one area of the stage and fade out the rest only to help a few good characters introduce themselves one by one on the foreground with others being muted behind. This is how the other crucial parts from a very strong supporting cast comprising of a pack of superbly talented actors got unveiled gradually. So apart from the protagonist — Debabrata Biswas — etched out by one of the most sought-after stage-actors from the current-day Bengali natya-mancha, Deb Shankar Halder, the other fascinating characters in the play emerge as genius composers Hemanga Biswas, Salil Chowdhury, renowned filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, theatre personalities Shambhu Mitra, Bijon Bhattacharya, Tripti Mitra, poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay, communist leaders Jyoti Basu, Pramod Dasgupta, another well-known Rabindra-sangeet expert Suchitra Mitra, danseuse Manjushree Chaki Sarkar, reputed journalist Santosh Kumar Ghosh, et al. It goes without saying that this coterie too belongs to a big legendary league and represents the creme dela creme of the erstwhile cultural-circles in Bengal.
Noticeably, all these key figures of the times were by and large politically conscious and had embraced a certain ideology in their hearts. Hence, Ruddhasangeet as a dramatic piece offers a panoramic view to the lives of Bengalis in East India, thus mapping their social, economic and political ups and downs right through half of 20th century.
It’s unanimously confirmed that Halder is an illustrious name in Bengal’s theatre-circuit as his recent performances have earned him unmatched accolades from both the spectators and critics alike. So there’s nothing new to add to his credentials. But the surprise package of Ruddhasangeet is Krishnendu Dewanjee, the young promising actor with a great potential who essays the bohemian, alcoholic celluloid-maestro Ritwik Ghatak.

He erupts on the stage sloganeering in the name of Marx-Lenin when Gananatya is declared banned by the then Congress led regime in West Bengal and a brute force is launched by the state machinery to nab the party members on charges of sedition and insurgency.
Well, these moments are reflective of the present-day scenario when the country faces a cultural-emergency like situation wherein political cartoonists, film-directors, painters, writers and singers are brought under scrutiny and ostracised for good. They are intercepted for their “inflammatory, dubious” actions and are landed behind bars and sometimes, even gagged and sent-off to exile. Here in the play too, Ritwik faces the ire of another faction of hard-line communist stalwarts causing a rift within the party. He is showcaused, heckled and harassed. That is a scene-stealer to say the least! The uncanny resemblance of physical appearances, body-lingo, traits and mannerisms, voice-modulations make this younger lot of actors in the sub-plot a perfect fit for their prominent kirdaars.

The initiative to run a mouthpiece in the form of news-journal or starting a 24X7 channel to propagate a particular political party’s agenda is instantly reminiscent of the present-day political climate.
Also the factual phrase that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is boldly stressed upon in this play. When a party is democratically entrusted with people’s votes to the seat of administration, it enjoys its power-trip and being on the other side of the fence, it possibly forgets to be a succour for the common folks in gradual passage of time. For pundits of politics say that unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who actually possess it.

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