Andhayug: A Review
On May 17, 2020, Off-Kendrik members watched the Ebong Amra production Andhayug at a watch party on Facebook as part of a fundraising effort. On June 28, they met with the director via zoom for a conversation about the play and the group)
The group: https://www.facebook.com/ebongamra
Tepantar campus: Ebong Amra at Tepantar: http://toureast.in/destination/tepantar/
What is an epic? Simply put, it is a long poem in an elevated style narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures of a nation. That said, the most common attribute that seems to inform the generic reception of an epic is the notion of timelessness, because of its myriad reproductions and reenactments across millennia. This claim, however, can be tricky, if taken at face value. A more crucial yet understated factor is an epic’s stunning resilience that allows its deconstruction by a diverse range of representational modes of a culture, from such vernaculars as folklore and oral traditions to the most elite forms of literature and performance. It is due to this malleability that an epic’s symbols and subtexts become deeply embedded in a culture, making countless versions of Iliad, Mahabharata or Shahnameh speak to their respective audiences over generations. Therefore, instead of focusing on its so-called timelessness as a primary attribute of its greatness, it would be far more useful to understand an epic’s ability to accommodate itself to all forms of expression in a given culture in any specific era as key to its triumph over time. Further, before its universal appeal to humanity, an epic is unequivocally culture-specific: Shahnameh speaks most poignantly to the culture of ancient Persia, Iliad to that of ancient Greece, and so on. Both of these factors are important in this discussion of Andhayug (The Dark Age; 2017), produced by the theater group Ebong Amra.
Based on a provocative chapter of Mahabharata and originally written in 1953 by the Indian poet and playwright Dharamveer Bharti (1926-1997), the play has been adapted by Ebong Amra to contemporary social and political contexts. For a competent understanding of this production, it is crucial to begin with an overview of the group, before approaching the play on two fronts: its making and its substance.
The group and the collective
The goals and aspirations of Ebong Amra (…And We) are radically different from that of most urban theater groups in Bengal that operate in and around Kolkata. The group was founded in 1994 in Satkahonia, a village in the district of West Bardhaman and home to some of its founding members. Since 1999, Ebong Amra has been running a collective named Tepantar Natyagram (Wilderness Theater Village) on a four-acre property it owns in that village. It has actively involved the local population from various walks of life in its productions, including daily laborers and marginalized ethnicities. This community effort of more than two decades has contributed to the growth of a committed theater audience from across neighboring towns. Open-air plays are performed in an arena in the middle of a mango grove on the collective’s property, with the audience seated on both sides, like at a tennis-court. This space is also used by visiting theater groups. The first production, Bhoot (Ghost), was staged in 1994, followed by more than two dozen other plays, such as Mahakabyer Pore (Following the Epic; 2009), Khuneer Ma (The Murderer’s Mother; 2011), Apon Alo (Own Light; 2012), and Oedipus (2013). Even though Ebong Amra specializes in alternative theater, it has also staged proscenium versions of some of its plays, when invited to such a venue. The group has performed widely around the country.
Ebong Amra currently has about thirty members, twenty of whom are fully committed to the organization. Faced with an irregular government grant, the group supports its full-time members by generating revenue through local initiatives like fishery, poultry, and accommodation for visitors. In sum, while Ebong Amra began as a theater group, Tepantar Natyagram has gradually bred an entire way of life, where theater is organic to lived reality.
The production: making
Typically, a stage performance can be video recorded in two ways. One uses a static camera to document a play performed before a live audience. Without any control over ambience, this method would inevitably capture unwanted movements and sounds from the audience. The other option is to use multiple cameras to document a performance aimed specifically at recording, preferably without an audience. Camerawork in this mode would be more complex and integral to the play, operating partially in the movie-making manner. Writing a review of the version of Andhayug available on YouTube is tricky, because while overlapping both methods, it does not totally submit to either. On the one hand, this audience-free play is performed solely for the purpose of recording, where the primary goal of framing the stage-space is to enrich pictorial effect; with pitch dark on three sides, the framed space appears as a proscenium, which is not how the play is usually performed.* In addition, while the group does not normally use microphones, some are mounted on the series of short posts wrapped in red cloth around the periphery of the stage-space, because of the crucial role of sound recording in this instance. In other words, the goal is to ensure a performance –or rather, a picture of a performance— unhindered by ambient sounds or off-stage movements. Yet on the other hand, that pictorial frame of the single camera mostly remains static, without shots from multiple angles; only rarely does the camera cut off to close-ups. Thus, nuances of facial expressions that would be perfectly visible in a first-hand experience of this open-air play are mostly obscured. Equally unclear are details of physical interactions between characters, due to the spatial illusion produced by the stasis of a single camera. It is important to note that this discussion of the production attempts to work around this conflict between clarity and ambiguity of visual perception.
The darkness on the three sides of the stage-space, with entrances and exits on all four sides, appears especially dense on video. Characters emerge from and disappear into that dark with dramatic effect. Demarcating the stage-space with the posts is also a strategy of impressive simplicity. Though make-up and costume are minimal, the identical black costume on most of the male cast, with a contrasting waist- or headband, has its unique appeal. The only female performer rearranges her sari to play two roles.
There is no question that the highly innovative stage set and props are among the most notable components of the play. At the far end of the stage-space is a pile of sandbags before a row of trees, in front of which are two ditches. Characters come and go through both sides of the pile, while the ditches either hide characters that need to remain invisible in a scene, or become a liminal space from where they act. The props are drawn from two different sources. Masks and weapons appear rather traditional: long bamboo poles with spikes become spears, bows or sticks, as needed; animal masks borrowed from folk dances provide brilliant surreal effects; clay vessels with covered mouths are used as landmines. Such strikingly creative touches, needless to say, are fruits of the involvement of marginalized ethnic communities habitually creative with indigenous material.* On the other hand, gurneys, wheelchairs, motorcycles and mobile phones assert a more modern feel; the pile of sandbags reminds one of barricades and the ditches recall trenches of modern warfare. One example of a powerful role of these props is the use of gurneys to transport the casualties of the ancient war central to the epic, a strategy that causally guides one to connect the destruction of wars across time.
Music is dominant in all of Ebong Amra’s productions, for two reasons; first, whereas a dialog-based performance would have much less resonance in an open-air space due to the obvious issue of acoustics, music can efficiently engage audience attention; second, the use of music acknowledges the value of the involvement of ethnic communities, as it is at the core of local ethnic life.* What is more, music is especially relevant to this play because no one anywhere in India can imagine a production based on an epic without music. Selective use of folk drums, flute and horn forcefully capture the mood of each scene, with singularly impressive impact during moments of slowed actions or speech. The acting style is rather loud. Not only are dialogs delivered at a high volume with predictable pauses, but physical movements are also noticeably pronounced and intense. In fact, the style is reminiscent of jatra, one of the folk theatrical traditions of Bengal, where so-called overacting is norm. In light of Ebong Amra’s commitment to theater in a rural setting, jatra seems a relevant emulative source indeed. The intense acting style and choreography --the latter shaped with references from a variety of Indian martial arts traditions—join music to balance the problem of acoustics in the outdoor setting.* The loud acting style plays out most intensely in the case of the tragic character of Aswathama, whose exaggerated manner of speaking and equally flamboyant physical maneuvers effectively articulate the heart-wrenching anguish for which he is known in the epic.
The production: subject and content
Dharamveer Bharti’s Andhayug focuses on the last day of the eighteen-day-war in Mahabharata between two branches of an extended family, aided by numerous divine interventions. Remaining true to this segment of the epic, it powerfully underscores the aftermath of the war’s devastating destruction, filled with overwhelming grief and passionate yearning for revenge. Instead of focusing on the righteous rationalization of the epic war narrated in an earlier part of Mahabharata, Bharti boldly highlights its monstrosity.
This production, however, tweaks the end of the play to introduce contemporaneity, with an even more ominous message than Bharti’s. Kallol Bhattacharyya, the director, has had a long interest in the kind of experimental approach that defies the proscenium to take theater to the masses. Though his projects are not identical to the “Third Theater” made popular in Bengal by the influential playwright and director Badal Sarkar (1925-2011), they certainly draw on it, because Bhattacharyya has always been inspired by Sarkar’s boldness, simplicity, political awareness, and dedication to innovation. In fact, his deep commitment to these alternative avenues has been instrumental in his creative endeavors at Tepantar.* In the last half hour (roughly one-third) of the play, Bhattacharyya uses the epic’s lens to offer a glimpse of the here and now. While the names of most of the characters from the earlier segment remain unchanged, their roles are aligned with the contemporary context. Once Judhisthir, the eldest brother of the victorious Pandavas, is enthroned, as described in Mahabharata, the epic backdrop changes to a contemporary one. The king turns out to be no less callous and decadent than his predecessors, with all the signs of the corrosive influence of power. Helpless in the face of the righteous turning malevolent, even Krishna, the human incarnation of the divine, is unable to prevent the destruction of a hopeful future. The end of the play pushes the pessimistic note of Bharti’s Andhayug into one of post-apocalyptic dystopia.
The inclusion of contemporaneity is a brilliant strategy of testing an epic’s resilience; yet this segment lacks the captivating power of the earlier one. The profundity of dialogues from the earlier segment absent, the conversations in this part fail to sufficiently expose the complexities of decadent power, or the intensity of the resistance to oppression. A childish portrayal of the potentate and the frivolous derision of him by his subjects, rounded up by the dramatic suicide of a disenchanted follower predictably invite melodrama, which is categorically absent in the first segment (curiously, the exaggerated acting style that works so well in the first part becomes oddly melodramatic during Jujutsu’s suicide). The use of props has the same issue. While political thugs storming protesters on motorcycles is a brilliant choice that clearly echoes current political repression in rural Bengal, the role of the mobile phone (the king fiddling with it) is painfully banal. These shortcomings, however, can be rectified by revisiting the script to introduce more meaningful dialogues, rethinking the role of the mobile phone, and perhaps by making this segment a few minutes longer, so the intricacies of the contemporary predicament unfold adequately.
There is no question that despite the relative weakness of the second segment, the production, including the recording of it, is commendable. Its biggest accomplishment is its highly competent demonstration of an epic’s accommodative strength. Far from compromising the gravity and integrity of Mahabharata, the play’s radical shift to the contemporary, its oblique ties with “Third Theater”, eclectic approach to props, incorporation of local musical traditions and exaggerated acting style, not to mention its use of technology make new contributions to the living tradition of reinventing epics. In addition, experiment with the vernacular of the region, which is often done in the group’s productions but was avoided here to maintain the gravity of the epic,* can bear more rewarding outcomes.
The discourse of mainstream Bengali theater is often dismissive of Ebong Amra’s choice of theater, particularly its deliberate rejection of the kind of esoteric experiments that define the core of urban theater.* But the group’s success in building national and international outreach while remaining rooted in local creative potentials resolutely defies such condescension. The bond between life and theater that Ebong Amra has been able to establish in a village in Bengal offers a remarkably rich emulative model for theater enthusiasts everywhere.
- Sunanda K Sanyal
Professor of Art History & Critical Studies, College of Art & Design, Lesley University
Founder member of Off-Kendrik
*References cited from personal interviews with Kallol Bhattacharyya: June 16, 2020; June 18, 2020; June 28, 2020.