• Notes on Rangini and other monologues by women

    Shoma A Chatterji

    July 7, 2018

    Gargi Roychudhury | Image Courtesy: Times of India


    Friends Communication surprised a room full of specially invited audience at the Birla Sabhaghar, spilling over with VIPs, at the premiere of Rangini, a monologue presented and performed by noted actress Gargi Roychowdhury. “Surprised” because we all knew her as an extremely talented actress on television and screen but not many of us were aware that she is equally talented in dance and music. Scripted and directed by Ujjal Chattopadhyay, Rangini is named after its fictitious female protagonist who narrates the story of her life through song, dance, and acting. She assumes several roles, including those of the important male characters who peopled her life and participated in her triumphs and her failures.

    In 2008, Rangakarmee organized Ekal Yatra, a one-woman performance festival that presented old works like Pancham Vaidik’s Katha Amritasaman (1989) performed by Shaoli Mitra, Kalairani’s Song of Lowino (1994), Rangakarmee’s Antar Yatra performed by Usha Ganguly, and Sushma Deshpande’s Tichya Aichi Goshta (1995).  The new productions comprised of Heisman Sabitri’s The Process, Neeta Mohindra’s Buhe Barian, Durga Roy’s Bhawaiya songs from North Bengal, Madhumita Paul’s Chhau performance Shiva-Shakti, Madhu Agarwal’s Nautanki performances of two typical skits, Handirani and Dahiyali in Awadhi, and Surajbai Khande’s rendering of Bhathari songs in Chhattishgari style.

    Shaoli Mitra is noted for her one-woman performance of Mahabharat, Nathabati Anathabat, narrated from the perspective of Draupadi, inspired by Iravati Karve’s famous analysis of Mahabharat. In Notes on Chai, solo artiste Jyoti Dogra has turned the ritual of tea-drinking (a rather mundane activity) on its head to make a strong, socio-political statement on contemporary life, relationships, and human interaction making optimum use of not only her body but also her vocal elements. Her abstract theatre is not really abstract. The performance is real but the presentation is a blend of the abstract and the concrete. Seema Biswas gives a completely new turn on her one-woman performance in Tagore’s short story Jeevit Ya Mrit as Kadambini, the woman who died to prove that she was alive.

    Neeta Mohindra’s solo performance in Buhe Barian was in Punjabi. It was scripted from four short stories of four famous Punjabi writers — Amrita Pritam, Ajit Kaur, Kartar Singh Duggal, and Veena Verma. The stories presented the microcosmic worlds of women belonging to different strata of society. It was a challenging task and, she says, she grew as an actress along with this play. It opened in 2003 and is still extremely popular among the audience.

    Within this intimidating world of class performers who have stood  the test of time, it must have demanded a lot of courage for Gargi Roy Chowdhury to present a solo act lasting 70 minutes without break, with the enormous pressure of holding her audience captive. But she stood up to the challenge and kept the audience mesmerised through her songs, dances, performances of different characters; by mapping Rangini’s journey through time, place, and status; and, most importantly, tracing different schools of music. At certain points, one is confused about whether one is watching a musical or a monologue. Rangini is both a monologue and a musical, with the exception that the artist is one and the same – the inimitable and irrepressible actress Gargi.

    Although the play has a linear structure that opens with the Durga Puja in Rangini’s small town and ends in her spiritual awakening through the music and compositions of Lalon Fakir, the script returns again and again to the famous chant of "Ya devi sarvabhooteshu", with slight changes in the words to capture the moments of metamorphosis in the life of Rangini.

    Rangini runs away from her small town family with her lover, Badal, to Calcutta with the hope of settling down in a happy marriage and motherhood. But this does not happen. Instead, Badal capitalises on her musical talent; she gradually becomes the top singing theatre actress of her time in Calcutta. She acts, dances, sings, and performs the blues and jazz at a nightclub, going from strength to strength. But her personal life is in shambles. She becomes hopeful again when she realises that she is pregnant; she begins to talk to her unborn child. The performance moves forward with her chanting two lines from the Durga Stotra to herself again and again, replacing “maatrirupeno” with “klantirupeno” when Rangini is tired, “raatrirupeno” when she is singing and dancing in a night club, and “bhaavanarupeno” when she is overwrought by thoughts of her past, present, and future.

    Fortunately for Gargi, she does not have to fall back on any frame of reference to draw from because Rangini is a fictitious character. So, as a performer, she has the freedom to portray the character in a way she considers both convincing and appealing to the audience. There is no conflict, therefore, between the performer and the subject she is performing. But this freedom comes with its own hurdles: she needs to know exactly when and where to draw the line so it doesn’t turn into a melodrama. That could reduce the performance to a “playing to the gallery” act. With lightning speed, she changes costumes by drawing from the pegs placed at strategic points of the proscenium space, changing from a demure and simple red-bordered white sari and blouse simply by pulling on a shawl, dupatta, or a jacket, using the space dynamically. This precludes the performance from getting static at any point.

    Her dialogue delivery is a little high-pitched, possibly because the acting is stylised in keeping with the “period’ flow of the play. The outstanding music composed and orchestrated by Debojyoti Misra maps the musical journey that, in a sense, follows the journeys of other theatre actresses like Noti Binodini Tara Sundari, Teenkori Dasi, and so on. So, Gargi enthralls us with some of the songs sung by Binodini through the keertan; sings Nidhu Babu’s toppa, folk songs that have been composed by Kabir Suman to better suit our times; and finally, she sings the famous Salil Choudhuri composition Poth Harabo Bolei Ebaar Pothey Nemechhi (I have stepped onto the path only to lose my way), a metaphor that sums up the sad story of Rangini’s life. In the end, we find her holding her hands aloft, wearing a long, black robe similar to Abanindranath’s painting of Tagore as a Baul singer, dancing in gay abandon to the composition of Lalon Fakir that spells out the end of her search for spiritual peace. The background score brims with symbolic motifs: the sound of drums of the Durga Puja from the beginning of the play, the conch shell blowing, parts of Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s recitation of Mahishashura Mardini, and the sounds of the wheels of a running train symbolising “journey” in more ways than one. The choreography by Sudarshan Chakraborty  fittingly reflects the retro mood that the play demands. However, the male portrayals by Gargi are a bit repetitive. She uses the same body language, style, and postures, for most male characters, including the one in which she simulates  a dialogue from Utpal Dutt’s Tiner Talowar.

    Soumen Chakraborty’s lighting is beautiful, lyrical, romantic; it sweeps across the stage, at once lighting it with a single lamp; using strobe lighting in the nightclub scene; or lighting up the small platform on the stage where Rangini rises when she feels like emphasising on a point or to make her presence more powerful.

    Everything is just perfect with Rangini, except one major catch. The script is very weak, although it builds up a credible and good superstructure on the weak base. If the foundation is weak, the edifice, never mind how strong it is, may topple like a house of cards  any moment, without warning. Why must every woman run away with a man who has only exploitation, blackmail, and extortion on his mind? Why can’t a woman walk out alone from home, hearth, and a past to make a place for herself in the world? Why must the woman always play either the victim or the martyr, or both, in a world dominated by men? Why always try to garner the empathy of the audience with a sad back story of betrayal in love and all that comes along with it? Gargi can definitely go beyond these cliché ridden tales of tragedy and vulnerability.

    Take a bow, Friends Communication and Gargi Roychowdhury and the entire team, for a wonderful monologue and the questions it raises.

    Dr Shoma A Chatterji is a National Award winning author, freelance journalist, and a film scholar, based in Kolkata, India.

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