IFTR Conference Stockholm 2016 : Presenting the Theatrical Past,
Asian Theatre Working Group : Between Tradition and Modernity
in Asian Theatre.
‘Performing Narrative: From Tradition to Modernity’
By Prof.(Dr.) Tapati Gupta
Retired Prof. of Department of English, Calcutta University
Tradition and modernity both are very complex debatable terms
inviting pluralistic issues. This was obvious in our Singapore WG
Colloquium recently. Questions like
1 In the concept of Tradition, how much change is admissible?
2 Can Tradition be re-invented/ dissociated totally from its roots?
3 Should society conform to tradition despite its quest for
modernization? Is Tradition compatible with/compromised by
modernization? The meaning of the term modernization was also
My take on the issue is as follows :
1 Tradition is something living, and therefore not stagnant. Change
is admissible and desirable within a given structure. Even within a
culture there may be multiple traditions as in a country like India,
or the evolving culture of modern Singapore.
2 Tradition can therefore be readjusted to the culture of
contemporary societies. This is a way of perpetuating tradition,
making it live. If an art form is completely dissociated from its roots,
then it creates a new trend, a new sub-tradition within tradition. But
cultural history has shown that a civilization can forget its tradition
but not escape its deep-rooted influences. Our ethnic body itself is
part of our tradition, which involves customs and rituals, food
habits and dress, language and forms of address etc.
As a continuation of the research, and by way of investigating the
issues raised in order to formulate a theoretical basis for the role of
performance in the parameters of tradition, modernization and
culture, I was looking for a suitable example of performance that
would fit into this parameter. I think I have found a few such.
But before talking about it, I would like to remind you to read the
introductory part of my article, that those of you who came to
Singapore may already have done. It is here revised and shortened.
I would also like to remind you that the maternities of different
cultures are different, hence the rate of modernization differs also,
that modernity and modernization are flexible, relative terms linked
with historical points of time.
A basic Idea of modernity one finds in the following observation:
‘the idea of multiple modernities presupposes that the best way to understand the
contemporary world—indeed to explain the history of modernity is to see it as
a story of continual constitution and reconstitution of a multiplicity of cultural
programs and cultural patterns of modernity ... Western patterns of modernity
are not the only authentic modernities, though they enjoy historical
precedence and continue to be a basic reference point for others.” (Eisenstadt,
The Ancient Narrative Tradition/oral tradition
Theatre originated from ancient oral traditions of storytelling, singing of ballads,
incantations in ritual performances, etc. These were of course accompanied by
local music, suggestive gestures, facial expressions that would vary from culture to
culture, but the essential intention remained the same: entertainment, information,
moral edification, socially acceptable rituals eg. initiations, births, marriages, even
exorcisms. Language, both verbal and gestural, dance patterns and performance
styles varied according to audience reception, and cultural and social conditioning.
Theatricality therefore was an earlier phenomenon than formal theatre.
Speaking of Indian theatre, Varadpande points out, “ The dialogue hymns of the
Rig Veda2 are considered as the relic of ancient ballad poetry, which in its
performative aspect, became a kind of dramatic spectacle—a take off point for the
drama itself. Other literary material—mythical, historical, semi-historical and
religious—developed into epics. It is significant to note that the source of drama
and epic is the same.” He further points out3 “ …in the Rig Veda there are quite a
few hymns with pronounced story element in dialogue form. These are
traditionally known as Akhyana or Samveda hymns which had no ritual
Eisenstadt, S.N. 2002. “SomeObservationson Multiple Modernities” in D.Sachsenmaier, J.Reidelwith
S.N. Eisenstadt (eds.):Reflections on Multiple Modernities.Leiden, Netherlands,Brill, pp. 27-41.
The poetic and devotional hymns composed by the early seers were brought together in a comprehensive
collection known as Rig veda. Three such collections followed and were known as Yajur, Sama and Atharvavedas.
Literature devoted to ritual matters, philosophy, spiritual quest got evolved. All this early literature is collectively
known as Vedic Literature
Varadpande, Vol. 3 p.12.
application. They are in the form of dramatic soliloquy, dialogue and even chorus.
They are described as valuable examples of the ancient art of narration full of
dramatic power” And he gives a few pertinent examples, eg. the monologue of the
Repentant Gambler which is dramatic speech full of conflicting emotions. It seems
to have originated from a folk theme. Mostly secular in content it is not devised as
praise of a deity, nor is it derived from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. Here
we may find the germ of the modern solo performance which has become so
common and so popular on the Indian stage. A ready example is the performance
of a short story by the Hindi writer Premchand recreated in Bengali by the
contemporary actor Gautam Haldar as Borda . Here Haldar brings to life the tragicomic life of an Elder Brother, Borda, who never passes exams. Year after year he
repeats the same class. But despite his failures, he performs one ‘heroic’ deed,
catching a kite. Haldar enacts the story constantly sitting in a chair but with
gesticulations and leg movement in the style of the traditional kathak, but with no
musical accompaniment. He enacts the persona of Premchand the author and
speaks Bengali in Hindi accent. He even wears the costume of the author. Hence
we have double play acting. Haldar becomes the original writer while at the same
time he is Haldar the contemporary actor performing a hilarious literary text,
translated and adapted into another Indian language. He also uses modern
technology by using a camera to film and project his facial expressions by a lady
‘interviewer’ on one side of the stage. His face is turned to the interviewer but the
proscenium audience can see the frontal format of his facial expression. So we see
another dramatic situation has been woven into the narration: that of interview and
media publicity. Here is an example of modernization of tradition or rather reworking of tradition. Haldar has also worked with Western short stories, eg. one by
No doubt, like Haldar there are others who are experimenting with the monologue
Performative narrative and narrativised performance
In this research paper I am concerned with those narratives which did not
themselves develop into formal drama but retained dramatic and theatrical qualities
in the oral narration itself. In the Rig Veda the Frog Play has a chorus of frog
characters who croak like frogs in the rainy season (I am reminded of the chorus in
Aristophanes, Frogs.) The hymn is also interpreted variously. Some see it as
mockery of mantra-chanting Brahmins who are compared with a bunch of frogs
croaking in the rainy season. This is an interesting sidelight on the origin of
humour and may be linked with Greek drama… one potent source of humour is in
mocking irreverently at the great and sublime gods. But one great difference
between Greek drama and Indian dramatics is that while the former had tragedy in
its repertoire, in India there was only comedy and romance. Hence when we find
tragedy in Indian drama we must connect it with colonial ie Western influence.
Modernization in India was therefore a mingling of the colonial and traditional
Indian roots. This is at the core of our Indian modernity. Going back to the Vedic
Frog Chorus, Varadpande reminds us (Vol. 3, p. 23) that various frog rituals were
associated with invocation inviting rain. Hence as in Western classical culture, so
here too dramatic performances were intrinsically linked with real life. In modern
performances especially in city auditoriums such links are created only
theoretically as framed proscenium performances and dissociated from people’s
lives. Theatre has become just parallel to life and not part of life. Only in some folk
performances, all over India such links remain though even in the folk theatre there
have been changes in mode due to economic and cultural factors.
As in Vedic time so also in modern monologue performances there are instances of
two speakers speaking alternately or in dialogue form in order to break the
monotony ,eg. the late Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay in Nana Ranger Din, meaning,
those colourful days, which was an adaptation of Chekov’s Swan Song.
)here there is the character of the prompter who comes on stage off and on,
speaking to the actor who speaks nostalgically of times past and his present sad
plight. The fiction takes place in an empty auditorium after the play has ended. In
post-colonial times, Indian drama was quite heavily influenced by western
literature. Interestingly in this atmosphere of what I would call ‘dual culture’ there
was also a parallel search for roots. My ultimate aim is to examine how in modern
solo performances the narrative tradition remains, though of course the
performance style changes according to location, performance space composition
of audience and historical moment. The value of such a study is cultural-historicalanthropological and negotiates a multidisciplinary field. I must also point out that
the educative motive and the motive of social comment was very much part of
traditional narrative performance and it is there today also. Even where social
comment is inherent in the adapted text the performer may also include her own.
When the text is scripted by the performer herself, there is ample freedom to
include a viewpoint as Tripti Mitra does in her brilliant solo act of narrating and
enacting the tragi-comic life of a lower middle class Bengali woman whose
attempt at finding her self as an actor ends in the ignoble self-sacrifice of
surrendering herself to the lascivious director. The audience sees in it the
archetypal story of patriarchy, male power and a poor girl’s plight. The ancient
tradition of storytelling has thus moulded itself to historical realities of culture and
society. In the above mentioned examples a crisp and colloquial prose style is used.
Subject matter of ancient ballad recitals.
The most popular matter for the ballad singers in India were the two great epics,
Ramayana and Mahabharata. They were popularly known as katha (story). Those
who recited them had a typical incantatory tone. (eg. ‘Mahabharater katha amrita
saman/ Kashiram Das kahe shuno punyoban…)The singer of the kathas were
known as the kathak/kathakthakur. (Brahmins, the literate part of the population
were known as thakur). In the Singapore Colloquium I had discussed in detail and
by audio visual presentation a modern proscenium recreation of katokatha
(nathboti Anathbat) by the renowned Bengali actor Shaonli Mitra. Now I will
focus on Sohini Sengupta’s solo performance Bappaditya and Gautam Haldar’s
Meghnad Badh Kavya.
Audience conscious performance and consciousness of the audience.
In Vedic times different types of oral compositions were in vogue, eg. Itihasas
(history) Puranas( also a kind of history)gathas (for the mortals, written by mortals)
Akhyanas (story, tale, myth, account of previous events, same as the other
Vedic performers were conscious of their exalted position. In the courts of kings
narration would go on jajnyas (eg. Ashvamedha or horse sacrifice) or fire-sacrifice
days. Audience would be of different castes and callings on different days, eg.
princes, farmers, warriors labourers, etc. Subject matter would be chosen
accordingly. The ritual not the performance was more important. But there
would be cycles of performance in which the priest would act as the narrator or
Shutradhar, and the lute player would sing and narrate the story chosen to suit the
It is evident that there was a strong performance tradition of singing,
enacting the narrative verses, some even in dialogue form, in ancient India.
The Role of Dance and Song in Ballad recitals.
Out of the union of the Rajayas and Brahmana communities emerged who were
performers known as Suta (they are mentioned in the Anuushasan Parva section of
the Mahabharata. They inherited the spiritual literature of the Brahmanas and the
ballad literature of the Kshatriyas which they combined into the epics which they
used to recite.
Performance style of the Sutas.
On the basis of authentic texts (eg.Shatapatha Brahmana, and Tattriya Brahmana
it appears that the Suta was a bard/singer and Shailusha, an actor and were both
the singer and the dancer. All information given by these authorities may be taken
as valid but Bharadpande (p.86) thinks that the Suta was more of a singer and
Shailusha was more of a dancer. The Suta used to sing and dance the ballads,
rather, dance out the ballads. The dance performance was accompanied by a lute
player, a hand-clapper (to indicate the rhythm)and a flute-player. They must have
comprised the orchestra. The narrator was adept at the dramatic arts and was in
command of rhetorical prose and knew many languages.
So we find that in ancient India, narrative and its performance went hand in hand.
The narrative took a performative/dramatic turn and evolved into Sanskrit drama in
which the role of the narrator/ sutradhar became minimised. But performative
narratives held sway in rural areas. The narrative compositions generally remained
part of India’s performance tradition rather than the literary compositions.
Literature was transmitted via performances. Rather literature and its performance
were indistinguishable. The vast mass of floating literature was collected, edited
and put into well defined format by scholars called Vyasas and they were
preserved and carried forward by the performers including Suta, Kathaka,
Kushilava, Nata, and the like. Despite the dramatic hymns which formed part of
the Rig Veda and their enactments, despite existence of dramatic arts like singing,
dancing, playing musical instruments and mythical skits it took several centuries
for full-fledged Sanskrit drama to appear on the scene.
In ancient times story telling would often be accompanied by the narrator singing
and playing on the veena (In modern times we find Teejanbai doing pandavani
with a tambura in hand). He would also sometimes dance the narrative.
Varad[pande points out that in the Ayodhya Kanda of the epic Ramayana katha
and nataka are mentioned in a single verse as two distinct genres. Perhaps when
the Ramayana was composed the drama had already evolved from various styles of
narrating story literature--- Itihasa, Purana, Akhayana, Ballads, hero-lauds, etc.
The question of nomenclature in modern times. Today we find a surging
popularity of monologue performances which are modified and modernized
renderings of ancient Indian narrative performances. Should we call them drama or
performance? ‘Solo performance’, ‘monologues’ are the terms in vogue. Or are
they to be categorized as a new genre? May be as ‘self-contained integrated
performance’ When katokatha for instance is introduced on the modern
proscenium it is bound to be re-redressed and re-configured to suit the times and
the audience. The tradition therefore takes on a new form and that is inevitable.
(Vide my discussion in the Singapore Colloquium).
Narrativised performance is still a vibrant art
That narrativised performance is still a vibrant art is borne out by its popularity on
the modern urban proscenium performed by theatre personalities who do solo
performances simply for the pleasure of the challenge and not really due to any
research motive or revival crusade. That audiences are ready to accept these
performances show the vibrant life force of the ancient form. Nandikar’s
Bappaditya performed by Sohini Sengupta, directed by Gautam Haldar (first
performed in 2005) is one such ‘self-contained integrated performance.’ The story
of Bappaditya is a romantic tale of concealed identity, revelation, acquiring of
kingdom and kingship, and a pathetic love affair and tragic self realization of the
Rajput prince Bappaditya. It is part of the hero-lore and one may even call it
ballads in prose, called Rajkahini written by the artist Abanindranath Tagore in his
inimitable pictorial and poetic style. I had a telephonic interview with Sohini, on
She was very co-operative in the interview. She has a passion for theatre which
makes her enjoy theatre conversation. In Bappaditya, director Gautam Haldar
taught her how to utilize her body to the full. She herself has adopted (what I
would call) the ‘Sohini style’ of acting… anti- Stanislavsky,(method acting) proIndian. A blend of the Katokatha style and Brechtian alienation effect and Utpal
Dutt’s theatre dialectics She would be the character as well as survey it from
outside, objectively, even critically. Although we have modern terms for such a
style it was present in the performative storytelling mode of Indian/Bengali
‘kathakthakurs’ or narrators of katokatha.
My Observations based on the interview and my experience of the
The kathak thakur would sit on a stool, gesticulate and even sing. He would
comment on the characters and incidents and interpret the same . There would be
singers and musicians in the background comparable perhaps to a ‘Chorus’ .In
Bappaditya there were singers and musicians but Sohini herself sang a lot of the
lyrics. There were significant inputs of keertan4 (itself a medium that has high in
theatricality).But of course the application of this traditional art form in this case
was entirely secular.She even sang a bit of keertan on the phone! On stage her
action was mostly done in the standing position but she also used other postures…
sitting, even lying. The narrative flowed on smoothly, rhythmically modulated by
voice and body. Abanindranath’s story and language came alive pictorially and
theatrically,. Hence the parameter was what Abanindranath’s prose aims at.
Keertan : It is a popular narrative form which is prevalent in almost all parts of India under different names.
Varadpande, in History of Indian Theatre, Vol. 1,p.95 finds three distinct trends of the keertan tradition viz. namasankeertan, Guna-sankeertan and Leela-sankeertan. Nama-sankeertan means chanting of the name of god. The
keeratn tradition was fully developed by te 16th century in Bengal by the saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, progenitor
of the Bhakti movement. Guna-sankeertan enumerates the qualities and virtues of the god while Leela-sankeertan
narrates the myths, legends and stories related to the god predominantly Krishna and his lover-devotee Radha.
The performative elements of keertan are acting, dancing, singing and playing on musical instruments.
The audience of which I was a part was the urban middleclass. The space was the
proscenium. But Sohini had also performed in districts and villages, attuning her
performance to the tastes of the audience, not compromising her style nor the
logocentricism of the text. What was uniquely modern/modernistic about the
performance was how tradition was moulded by superb use of not only dance
movements but also subtle vibrations of the body, a flexible body vibrant in every
muscle. The restrictions of the proscenium imposed more stylization than was
found in the traditional community/village kathakota, while the solo performance
aligned it with that tradition and modernized and evolved a novel story telling
mode. It was a blend of logocentric performance and dance theatre5
Sohini sings, dances and recites the tale as only Sohini can do. There is
music and the use of a chorus,(equivalent of the jurigaan of jatra and katokatha)
She takes up all the character roles related in the tale and seamlessly transforms
Abaindaranath’s pictorial prose into rhythmic performance. What is remarkable is
the way Sohini’s body also flexes and vibrates to the tempo of the tale, expressing,
pictorially and through the vocality of muscle, sinew and expression what in the
text has been done through verbal art. It is no doubt a re-interpretation, a
translation of the written medium into the dramatic. It is also an interdisciplinary
solo performance since it incorporates song, dance and literature.
When I first saw it, in the years before I got into theatre studies, I thought
‘What a strange drama thing this is! Only one person narrating a story!’ Yet I was
dumbfounded. Today I would call this a ‘self-contained integrated performance’ of
a very high order. It has its roots in the tradition of ballad recital. This modern
ballad is in prose by a 19th century Bengali artist-writer who was also a
scenographer helping Rabindranth Tagore’s stage settings, a doyen of the Bengal
School of art who was aware of ancient traditions. But I don’t think he could have
imagined the possibility of this kind of dramatic transformation of his narrative!
In Kolkata at present, pure dance theatre is being created by Alokparna Guha whose group Pushpak
has produced one such show called Hridinandan She calls her work Anganatya or theatre of the body.
But traditional literary logocentricism coupled with dance and song is not found here. Hence Sohini’s
and Gautam’s performances are still unique
My next example of a ‘self-contained integrated performance’ is Gautam Haldar’s
magnum opus, Meghnad Badh Kavya, a solo enactment of the 19th century great
poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s great epic poem in blank verse of that name.6
The poem itself is a bold post-colonial re-creation of the story of Meghnad or
Indrajit, son of Ravana and a wily warrior killed treacherously by Rama’s brother
Lakshman and in collusion with his own uncle Ravana’s brother Bibhisan who
joined the enemy’s side. Michael’s unconventional sympathies were on the side of
Ravana whom he portrays as a good king. In fact Rama and Lakshman, the
traditionally elevated godlike heroes were shown to be unscrupulous and
dishonourable in killing an unarmed enemy. He also portrays as heroic a band of
Amazonian women warriors led by Meghnad’s wife Pramila who later commits
sati on her husband’s funeral pyre. The poet elevates Meghnad to the stature of a
tragic hero. The post-colonial interpretants see in Michael’s epic an allegory of
rebellion by the marginalized against the colonial power. We may even find
debunking of the Grand Narrative.
Gautam Haldar’s performance however is aimed at representing the theatrical and
performative power of Michael’s blank verse and the expressive power of the body
as will be obvious from the audio-visual material. Meghnad Bhattacharya, theatre
Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824—1873) Greatest poet before Tagore. A Bengal renaissance figure, he
imbibed the best of the culture of the West and the east. Although he embraced Christianity in order to escape from the
bigotry of diehard Hindus, he was a great patriot. Deriving inspiration from English literature he introduced the blank
verse into Bengali through his play Sharmistha. He later used it to good effect in his magnum opus Meghnad Badh Kavya
composed on the Homeric model of epic poem. Praising Dutt's blank verse, Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, observed: "As long
as the Bengali race and Bengali literature would exist, the sweet lyre of Madhusudan would never cease playing."He
added: "Ordinarily, reading of poetry causes a soporific effect, but the intoxicating vigour of Madhusudan's poems makes
even a sick man sit up on his bed." ‘Yoga’ in Mother India: Monthly Review of Culture, Volume 13 1961 In the words
of Sri Aurobindo:All the stormiest passions of man's soul he [Madhusudan] expressed in gigantic language. Sri Aurobindo
Ashram (February 1961). Mother India. p. 55.
scholar and director, in telephonic interview with me described Haldar as a
‘complete performer’ . I would also add that he presented the audience with a
complete or integrated performance. He uses his voice, gesture, body language,
dance, elocutionary power, music, acting powers, stage business, modern simple
choreography to bring out the ‘actability’ of a great work of literature. The
following is a synopsis of the story related in the performance which follows, with
slight omissions, the original epical sequence :
The Story Line
The performance opens with an Invocation to the Muses, of Devi Saraswati in particular, to
inspire the narrator with an inward inspiration that could make him sing a song of a lofty
theme describing the fate of a mighty hero. Michael followed the traditional invocation
with which Western epics, eg. Milton’s Paradise Lost opened.
The narrator, here equivalent to the kathak of katokatha , leads us to Lanka, to the court of
Ravana who laments the death of Birbahu, his son, who took charge of the battle and lost
it, with his life, after a valiant struggle. While facing a difficult position, the obligation to
answer for the loss of so many worthy war- heroes that is caused by the King’s abduction
of Sita, Ravana defends the deed with the zest of an indomitable Kshatriya, who would
rather stake everything to fight an enemy than to probe a cause. Instead of looking for the
next general he decides to go himself to lead the war. Meghnad, the most valiant of his sons
arrives, intervenes, and offers his service. Ravana, after some hesitation gives consent and
orders the ritual for Meghnad’s ablution, the act of “Abhsheka.”
The narrator then takes us to the celestial abode of Lord Indra, the God of the gods. We
find Indra shaken with fear for Meghnad who once made him accept a most humiliating
defeat in a direct confrontation. Indra devises to court the favour of Lord Shiva through
Devi Uma and win from him the Power Ammunition to kill Meghnad. Pleased with Indra’s
and Rama’s devotion Uma sets forth to tempt Lord Shiva to an act of wild love-making and
thus elicit from him a device for the slaying of Meghnad. Lord Shiva, even though seeing
through the design, could not help being enamoured by the charm of Parvati. On his advice
Indra is sent to Maya, the dark goddess of magic and illusion, who gives the weapons that
would see an end of Meghnad. The act of the winning of ammunition or “Astralabha” ends
With the narrator we now come to the Pleasure garden of Prince Meghnad where Pramila,
the Princess, is waiting for her husband. On getting the news of the siege of Lanka and his
army Pramila with the force of her warlike Amazons, sets forth to free Lanka and the
Prince from the enemy’s clutch. But before the majestic female troupe resplendent with the
glory of the heavenly powers, Rama reverently makes way for the army to enter the city of
Lanka. Pramila meets Meghnad and the lovers, while rejoicing in their union, prepares and
braces themselves for the fateful battle to come. The Lankan army is rejuvenated with a
youthful vigour and prepares for a battle that would be decisive. Hence ends the act of
meeting of the lovers or “Samagama.”
The narrator now comes to the act of ‘Preparation for the battle’ or “Udyog.” In both the
camps of Rama and Ravana, the preparation is depicted in great detail. Helped by Maya,
Lakshmana, brother of Rama goes deep in the heart of the forest and offers his devotion to
the War-goddess and asks for her blessings. It is granted to him. On the way he meets Lord
Shiva, protector of the Lankan dynasty, who also gives way to him. Heaven and earth join
hands to wreck Meghnad. Unaware of all these fateful designs Meghnad takes leave of his
beloved wife and parents and sets out for the battle. Only the shadow of an omen flickers in
the heart of the ‘sati’, the chaste Pramila, who perceives this could be their last meeting on
The fifth act, the slaying of the hero or “Badh” begins with Lakshmana and Bibhishana,
the traitor, brother of Ravana; Bibhishana leads Lakshmana through the secret passage to
the Nikumbhila temple where Meghnad, after offering his prayer, would attain
invincibility. There, unarmed and busy with the rituals, Meghnad is confronted by the duo
and challenged to a war. Meghnad asks their leave to collect his weapons, according to the
codes of war but Lakshmana declines, and empowered by Maya, kills him in an unjust
fight. Bibhisana also feels a pang of conscience over the fall of the mighty hero and laments
his own plight as a traitor.
In the eighth and the last act, the narrator leads us to the scene of cremation where the
pyre is lit for Meghnad. Pramila also climbs the glowing pyre of her husband and commits
sati. An armistice is declared by Rama for the funeral. The whole city of Lanka mourns the
death of the great warrior prince.
Goutam Haldar has, by dramatizing the great epic rejuvenated Michael Madhusudan
Dutt’s rather Sanskritised and academic blank verse lines into the liveliness of speakable
and stageble speech. So feels the famous contemporary Bengali poet, Snkho Ghosh. He has
made it contemporary speech, thus enabling us to re-discover a 19th century creation.
Although according to scholars the main strength of Madhusudan’s blank verse is its
movement, the potent rhythm of human speech, this viewpoint had so far remained just a
theory. Haldar has activated a concept, enlivened an epic through epical performance.
The performance has a lively stamp of indigeneity. He combine the tone and style of
kathakota, panchali and jatra. Combinig all these performance styles he has created his own
unique approach. He passes through a gamut of emotions, transforms himself into various
characters, both male and female by draping his scarf differently for different characters,
and modulating his voice to suit the gender and personality of the different characters. He
depicts different actions by powerful body movements. He creates a holistic performance in
which music, song, dance steps, postures and movements play an organic integrated role.
An epic is characterized by variety of characters, contrasted emotions, strong passions and
moral positions. Haldar has crystallized all these features within a concentrated and
singular performance, intense in its unitariness, yet varied in appeal. The action proceeds
seamlessly, his limbs create patterns of movement on the stage while the verse resonates
through the auditorium. His body speaks through each limb and energy is circulated in
every corner of the stage and into the audience. This dance of energy with all its
communicative power, is unthinkable in the darkness of a modern auditorium but it
happens and happens with great centrifugal and centripetal force. In today’s dance theatre
this sort of thing happens, yes, but here the structure of the original script, is kept intact
and there is no intervention of physicality in it. Yet the voice modulates along with the
body’s created diction. The verbal script is Michael’s, the physical script is Haldar’s and
Haldar’s elocution combines and harmonises the two. There is no intervention of modern
everyday language yet the meaning carries its force into the audience’s consciousness.
Michael’s Sanskritised language discards its insularity and homes into theatre’s
communicative corpus. Haldar’s voice lacks the bass and boom conventionally associated
with the somberness of Michael’s blank verse, but its unheroic-ness and musicality brings
it closer to life. The simultanaety of the presentation leaves the audience breathless but
Haldar is unfatigued. Chandan Sen, professor and theatre critic, while confessing he was
spellbound … “How can this be possible, this speaking, naturalising of Michael’s epic ? Yet
it is done,” … But he confesses he would have been more pleased if Gautam had discarded
the traditional intonation style and created his own style which he is eminently capable of
doing. (Telephonic interview, May 25, 2016) This last remark of Sen is an instance of the
modern intellectual’s dis-alignment with tradition. At the same time it is a hint at the way
tradition may be presented as novelty, and therefore made contemporary.. A parallel may
be found in our fascination with the antique. Prof. Sen also points out the beauty of
Haldar’s use of stasis and silence. As an instance he points out the how through silence
Haldar intensifies Pramila’s tragedy when the latter learns of her husband’s murder. The
anagnorisis and peripetia resolve in the cathartic self-sacrifice, the sati.
But I should say that for theatre scholars the performance has created a distinctive
discourse. Director Prof. describes Haldar as a “complete actor” while theatre director
Meghnad Bhattacharya (telephonic interview, May 26, 2016) thinks among contemporaries
only Gautam Haldar is capable of a production of such magnitude. Ujjal Chtopadhyay,
playwright agrees, but he thinks Haldar’s only drawback is that he does not create a new
interpretation or relevance but only narrates. But I should think, the very performance is
an interpretation in terms of performance history. Dramatic narration is given a new status
as self-contained art irrespective of place and time. In fact he shows how even heavy metal
like Michael’s verse can be interpreted as intelligible speech to today’s audience who may
not cater to read such voluminous literature. I find in it another discourse of translation
studies. The script travels through its page life and proliferates into stage language
involving the whole body of the actor. While watching, one is amazed how Haldar uses
every limb to emphasise a mood, a meaning, a passion; sometimes through simultaneous
vibrations. It is a kinetic empowerment of performance. It is pure art since unlike
folk/ritual performances it is not an inevitable part of lived culture. It creates a sphere of
chosen and acquired culture field and has modern civilizational significance free from the
shackles of necessity. It is what Rabindranath Tagore would relegate to the realm of the
‘Excess’. A necessary and therapeutical appendage to the utilitarian.
“Self-contained Integrated Performance” is what I would call it on the following grounds:
1 It includes traditional performances.
2 It has a logocentric core. The narration, the dialogue, and the original script in blank
verse is retained and effectively creates dramatic moments of heroism, romance, intrigue,
pathos, in keeping with the epic tradition. Epic in substance, performative as a genre.
3 By introducing and combining three performance styles, eg. katokatha, panchali and
jatra it creates a hybridity that is less monotonous and more in conformity with modern
It re-invents a modern epic and gives it a modern form, that is, of dance theatre. The
Bengali kathak usually would not get up from his seat and would only change seats, make
hand movements, as exemplified by Shaonli Mitra in her recreations of katokatha (vide
my Singapore presentation)
He maintains the stance of the original by not changing a single word (though of
necessity he had to curtail portions), not changing Madhusudan’s sympathy for the
defeated and treating Ravana, the traditional villain as a good king and father. This stands
religious convention on its head and gives to the Ramayana a secular, enlightened,
Bengal Renaissance colour. Haldar’s choice of subject matter suits contemporary secular
Although Haldar follows the jatra style of female impersonation (the roles of Maya,
Parvati, Pramila ) he does not sentimantalise, unlike the jatra stereotype. He is controlled
in the concluding tragic moments.
The stylization and ‘un-naturalistic’ acting is in keeping with tradition. So is the role of
the kathak and the way the narrator slips into other roles of the various characters, is both
traditional and modern, because (and this is also the mode of today’s popular solo
performance in which Haldar is adept) it is close to the Brechtian mode of involvement
and detachment. He retains his identity as the performer who easily becomes ‘an-other’.
In Indian tradition this kind of performance was associated with non-formal space. But
Haldar’s belongs to the proscenium. Though in a simple way, he has used basic light
effects with minimum props, and a chorus of musicians including three women (who
would not be there in yester years). Although a proscenium performance it carries the
spectator with it.
Haldar is an expert dancer but he does not believe in sticking to just one dance form.
Hence his steps and gestures are innovative, if not quite ‘modern dance’, yet expressive
dance. Here too there is modernity and re-invention.
10 Unlike the traditional forms it includes as a performance mode, it is a sophisticated
performance meant for the educated urban class aware of the novelty and radicalness of
Madhusudan Dutt’s epic which is of multi-layered significance. Unlike the traditional
kathak Haldar does not go directly to the original Ramayana but to a significant postcolonial radical re-creation of a section of it. He does not give his own interpretative
In this paper I have tried to create a concept, the idea of a ‘complete performance’, in other
words a ‘self-contained integrated performance’ which perhaps the above points define. Although I have
had to speak about the superb expertise of one contemporary actor-director, my intention is to focus on
the performance and its historiographical identity.
The DVD will give you some idea of it though nothing could compare with a direct experience.
M.L.Varadpande , History of Indian Theatre, Vols, 1 –3.