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     Volume 8 Issue 95 | November 20, 2009 |

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Cover Story

Ibsen, Still Relevant in Contemporary Times

Interpretation of the masterpieces through new eyes

As done in the traditional kushan gaan performances of North Bengal area of the country, the choir leader Kripa Sindhu Roy Sarkar enters onstage playing bena, an indigenous single cord instrument that is played like a veena, followed by the other members of the troupe and gives circular movements. Subsequently, the choir starts ashonbandana (a traditional style of beginning a performance in indigenous performing art forms). This time the leading kushan gaan troupe of the country that has attained popularity performing episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in many places in Bangladesh and in India, has not narrated any story from the popular epics. The theme of the performance, however, features problems that common people face: how immoral and illicit acts can destroy a family. The performance titled Adrishya Paap, is indeed, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's masterpiece Ghosts. But it is eons away from the bookish, middle-class Ghosts, written by a western playwright. This is the people's tales, adapted, textured and layered through centuries of art rooted in common life. The performance does not feature the gloomy atmosphere of the original text; rather it is the vibrant energy along with the outrageously comic elements of the troupe that effortlessly communicates the dark side of human nature to the audience.

Ershad Kamol
Photos: Zahedul I Khan

None of the members of the kushan gaan troupe had ever heard the name of Norwegian master playwright Henrik Ibsen before. When the director Golam Sarwar approached the troupe to stage Ibsen's popular play Ghosts in kushan gaan form, the troupe members became excited. According to the troupe members the story that the director Sarwar commissioned them to be presented, deals with a very familiar social crisis and one they were quite comfortable to depict. After a successful premiere of the experimental production, director Golam Sarwar opines that the success of the show indicates the ability of Ibsen's plays to straddle the frontiers of time and space. Since the theme and the characters of Ghosts is very known to the people even living the remote areas, the kushan gaan troupe has not had to struggle at all to stage the play, he says.

Adrishya Paap was staged as part of the ongoing International Ibsen Seminar and Theatre Festival 2009, inaugurated at National Theatre Stage, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy on November 12. Centre for Asian Theatre (CAT), in collaboration with Centre for Ibsen Studies (University of Oslo), Royal Norwegian Embassy, Shilpakala Academy, ICCR, Jahangirnagar University and Grameenphone, has arranged the festival. National Professor Kabir Chowdhury formally inaugurated the festival while Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Dipu Moni was present as the chief guest.

Surrealism is one of the key features of master director Ratan Thiyam's directorial composition in aesthetically rich Ashibagee Eshei, the Manipuri version of When We Dead Awaken.

A total of 22 plays have been staged by groups from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Iran and Egypt at the festival. The contemporary theatre directors have interpreted the idea of 'freedom' and 'religion' in the classics by Norwegian master playwright Henrik Johan Ibsen (1828-1906). Besides staging of the plays, painting exhibitions, film screening, three seminars and several interactive sessions are included in this grand gala.

"It's the biggest festival of its kind in Asia", claims mastermind of the festival, renowned theatre director Kamal Uddin Nilu, who at present teaches at the Oslo University, Norway, "Being the member of several international committees on Ibsen, I planned to arrange the festival in my motherland. Earlier Centre for Asian Theatre arranged three festivals on Ibsen in 1997, 2002 and 2006. But this year's arrangement is the biggest ever with the participation of renowned theatre directors and scholars across the globe.

"Ibsen's plays are staged more frequently than ever throughout the world and Ibsen research is

Ratan Thiyam
Mamunur Rashid
Professor Anuradha Kapur

becoming more and more relevant. These days Ibsen's plays are rarely staged in the original version, rather the western theatre directors 're-use' his texts to relate the contemporary time. The current festival with the theme 'Ibsen through new eyes', has also created opportunity for the Asian theatre directors to experiment with the Ibsen's classics written in Norwegian language in the 19th century for the audience belonging to other cultures. It will also help them to present their calibre of interacting their ideas with the internationally renowned scholars and explore the cross-cultural approaches as well. Through such deconstruction process of Ibsen's play they can interpret the contemporary society, politics and human psychology that will add new dimensions to the classics."

Henrik Ibsen has dealt with several issues such as 'freedom of individual', 'the relationship between men and women' and 'religious fanaticism' in his classics such as A Doll's House, An Enemy of the People, When We Dead Awaken, John Gabriel Borkman, Ghosts, Brand, The Master Builder and The Wild Duck. His ability to dealing with such issues through some realistic characters has given Ibsen the rare accolade of the father of modern drama. Most of the theatre directors in the festival have either adapted these plays or deconstructed the classics to express their ideas on freedom as well as religion. Moreover, four original plays by other contemporary playwrights, who have written those plays being inspired by Ibsen's classics have also been staged in the festival. Another interesting aspect of the festival is that different directors have 're-used' same texts and have interpreted the symbolisms of the plays in different ways, which has really made the festival diversified.

The most appreciated show of the festival was Ashibagee Eshei, a Manipuri version of When We Dead Awaken staged by The Chorus Repertory, Imphal, Manipur, India. One of the best contemporary directors in the world Ratan Thiyam has presented the theme of the text creating some wonderful dramatic sequences on the stage.

The play has been presented in Manipuri context, however, the characters are the same as they are in the original text. But Ratan has heavily edited the text. Ratan has not focused on the unhappy family life of the aged sculptor and his wife as in the beginning of the text, neither has he created any background of the sculptor's reputation and family life as mentioned in the original play. Rather Ashibagee Eshei, recalls the glorious moments in the mind of the sculptor with one of his models. The play begins from the very sequence where the sculptor and his wife quarrel that leads the sculptor to his reminisce.

A comic scene in Mamunur Rashid's musical drama Shotrughna that allegorically features issues such as micro-credit.

The model, the symbolic character of the play, comes repeatedly in the surrealist feelings of the sculptor, which gives him both happiness and anxiety. The feelings are repeatedly interrupted by brutal reality. The master director has wonderfully presented these changes using a very limited set relying on body movement and expression of the actors. In dreams, the model character appears in a white painted body. May be because she was the model of his best sculptor, or may be she represents peace, which is a rarity in reality.

Ratan's wonderful directorial compositions and the ability to incorporate the aesthetic sentiment by the actors had the power to overcome the language barrier, completely captivating the audience.

"To me the theme is more important than the plot," Ratan Thiyam tells the Star, "I've 'cooked the Ibsen in a Manipuri kitchen' for the delight of the global audience. To me Ibsen in his last play When We Dead Waken is a poet more than a dramatist. In my dramatisation I've basically emphasised on the last journey of the sculptor, his desire, recollection of memories and relationship between his presence, rather than narrating the whole text. Which is why our production starts from the 'result of some crisis' rather than gradual development of the plot."

"Portrayal of the metaphysical journey, fantasy and imagination was a challenge for me in the production. As a painter does different layers on the canvas similarly, I've created different layers of actions on the stage and repeatedly have erased those," says Ratan Thiyam, who has won many awards such as the Padmashree, India's highest civilian award.

A translated version of the same play was also staged by Bangladeshi popular troupe Prachyanat having the title Punorjonma. Director of the play Azad Abul Kalam has modified the ending scene by not portraying the death rather emphasising on the desire of getting eternal love.

Actors of Centre for Asian Theatre perform in The Communicator where Ibsen represents morality.

Another attraction of the festival was of course the Delhi-based troupe Vivadi's presentation of John Gabriel Borkman in Hindi. Director Anuradha Kapur has aptly portrayed the ill fate of a greedy, corrupt person who is a representative of a dominating industrialist class in any contemporary mega city. Through the unique synchronisation of acting, set, light and sound, the director has successfully portrayed the adverse impact of capitalism.

"In fact, it's a pure translation of the original play, but I've heavily edited it to be suitable one in the contemporary mega cities," says Professor Anuradha Kapur, who teaches acting and direction and is the Director of Delhi based National School of Drama, "Since the idea of capitalism was a new concept in the 19th century, Ibsen repeatedly has dealt with the issue in the text, to me, it is irrelevant to emphasise it in the contemporary time. Again I've portrayed Borkman's character as an industrialist rather than a banker. Moreover, the titular character in my play does not commit suicide rather he 'freezes in the snow' that symbolically represents his death.

"An interesting aspect of the play is the appearance and disappearance of the characters. It's a challenging and thrilling job for a director to portray those in the play," says Professor Kapur, who has a vast experience of teaching and directing western plays.

An adaptation of John Gabriel Borkman, titled Mrito Manusher Chhaya, directed and adapted by seasoned director Tariq Anam Khan was also staged in the festival. Natyakendra's production features the play in a Bangladeshi context.

Ataur Rahman
Kamaluddin Nilu
Professor Frode Helland
Dr Saleq Khan

Besides Bangladeshi troupes Theatre Art Unit, Desh Natok, Bangaranga staged adapted versions of Ibsen's plays Ghosts, Brand and The Master Builder set against the backdrop of the contemporary socio-political context of Bangladesh. On the other hand, Nepalese troupe Aarohan Theatre, Pakistani troupe Tehrik-e-Neswan, Iranian troupe Moaser Theatre Group and Egyptian theatre troupe Lamusical Independent staged adapted version of The Master Builder, A Doll's House and The Wild Duck representing their own cultures.

One of Ibsen's play was also presented in the dance-drama form directed by Sharmila Banerje. Dance troupe Nritya Nandan presented Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea in the festival. Centre for Asian Theatre also presented a pure translated version of the same play.

Shotrughna, Norar Tin Kanya, Opekkhyaman and The Communicator were four plays written by the contemporary playwrights inspired by Ibsen and staged by all Bangladeshi troupes.

Inspired by Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, eminent theatre personality Mamunur Rshid has written and directed Shatrughna, an Aranyak Natya Dal production. Rashid's musical drama does not focus on any public health issue, rather Shatrughna features a conflict between two brothers-- younger one a moneylender, who oppress the poor and elder brother representing morality. The musical is full of comedy and allegorical satires of some ongoing debatable issues.

A colourful outer view of the National Theatre at Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. It held the grand gala which a huge number of internationally renowned Ibsen scholars participated.

"Inspired by Ibsen's play I've written Shotrughna in Bangladeshi perspective," says Mamunur Rashid, "It's a kind of ideological conflict between the brothers. Protesting against the hypocrisy of the younger brother who oppresses the poor in the name of micro-credit business, the elder brother becomes an enemy of the people. Like Ibsen's saying, 'the loneliest man is the strongest man in the world', the elder brother in my play fights against the real enemies."

Norar Tin Kanya, a Palakar production, is indeed, a sequel of Ibsen's A Doll's House. Henning Mankell wrote the sequel. It has been adapted in Bangladeshi context. Norar Tin Kanya, directed by Aminur Rahman Mukul, raises some questions such as what happened to Nora's three children, when their mother left the house? Aren't these girls faced with the same problems as their mother?
Syed Shamsul Haque's play Opekkhyaman features three characters, two from Ibsen's plays A Doll's House and An Enemy of the People, and one from his own drama Irsha; they meet at an imaginary train station and share their experiences. At the end the three characters leave for three destinations. Opekkhyaman is a Nagorik Natyasdampradaya production.

"When Kamaluddin Nilu approached me to take part in the festival I told him that I'm not interested to do any Ibsen's play, rather wished to direct a play incorporating ideas from his plays", says director of the play Ataur Rahman, "Then I discussed with Syed Shamsul Haque. He also became interested and wrote the play."

And The Communicator, a Centre for Asian Theatre production directed by Kamaluddin Nilu, features a traveller who encounters the ongoing global tensions and communicates them to the audience. Ibsen has been presented in the play as a symbol of morality. In fact, Nilu's postmodern production is a satire of free market economy, which he sees as nothing but a new version of imperialism.

Thirty-two scholars from 16 countries participated in the International Ibsen Seminar held at Jahangirnagar University as part of the festival. The title of the seminar was 'Ibsen Though New Eyes: Religion and Freedom'. The keynote papers presented and the scholars who participated in the seminar basically focused on how contemporary Ibsen still is.

The adverse impact of capitalism is the theme of Delhi based troupe Vivadi's production John Gabriel Borkman.

Another major attraction of the festival is the exhibition. A painting exhibition on Selim Al Deen's Life and Works is going on at the National Art Gallery as part of the festival. The exhibition will feature artworks by the students of twelve art institutes of the country. An installation, titled "Ghosts of the Heartland" by noted American artist Sara Paula Hoffman is also going on at the same venue.

"We have included an exhibition of Al Deen as part of the festival just to introduce him to the foreign delegates," says Kamaluddin Nilu, "Due to the language barrier our talented playwrights like Al Deen has limited access in the west. Our intention is to give him international exposure in the festival. A major share from the sale of the painting will be donated to form an international institute on theatre, a dream of Selim Al Deen. Moreover, we are exhibiting the posters of Bangladeshi theatre productions."

The Studio Theatre of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy is also a very busy venue these days. Besides staging of some experimental art forms featuring Ibsen by Katha Abritty Charcha Kendra and Aaarshi Theatre Group from Kolakata, an Ibsen Laboratory has functioned for the last few days.

Director of Ibsen-Lab, Bangladesh, Dr Saleq Khan says, "It is, in fact, a part of an international project. Our aim is to experiment on the translation process of the classics. Translation from another culture, especially dramatic performances, is really a challenging job. We are now experimenting on the translation of The Lady from the Sea, to make it more contemporary and suitable in Bangladeshi context."

A traditional kushan gaan troupe presents Ibsen's Ghosts in dance-music-narration form.
Directed by Dr Bhaswar Bandyopadhyay, Kotha Abritty Charcha Kendra, a recitation group, stages Antar Yatra, which is based on Ibsen's poems.

The arrangement has drawn interest amongst the international delegates participating in the festival. "I'm really impressed by the experimentation done by the theatre directors in the festival," says Professor Frode Helland, the director of Centre for Ibsen Studies, Oslo University, Norway, "I've been doing some extensive works on presenting Ibsen's plays in different cultures in many parts of the world. I'm amazed by some performances and local interpretation of Ibsen's classics. The seminar of the festival was also impressive. In fact, the arrangement has put a positive impression on my mind."

In recognition of their outstanding contribution to various fields of arts, theatre, film, literature, painting and Liberation War, seven renowned personalities were honoured with the Ibsen Award. The recipients are Syed Shamsul Haq, Begum Mushtari Shafi, Ferdousi Majumdar, Milon Kanti Dey, Sayeed Ahmed, Mohammad Kibria and Soovas Dutt.


opyright (R) thedailystar.net 2009