SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 9 JULY, 2019
Khelaghar: The Universality of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House
A Bengali adaptation and contemporisation of the play with the title Khelaghar
In 2006, when the world was celebrating the centenary of Henrik Ibesn, the Norwegian playwright who questioned the power of patriarchy through his play, A Doll’s House, it was declared to have been the world’s most performed play that year. It has been translated and performed in many languages and is being performed to this day because the argument it places is timeless, cross-cultural and geographically universal even 140 years after it was first staged in 1879. It still remains one of the most widely performed plays across the world. It shook the European world because of the very unpredictable and radical climax that goes completely against patriarchal norms that dominated society at that time. Like it or not, they still do. Ratan Das has adapted the play with necessary changes to fit it into the Bengali ambience and also, to add topicality to it. He has also edited out the characters of the Nanny, the maid and the children quite rightly and this makes the play concise and intense in terms of the dramatic conflicts that are kept in focus.
Prachya, an established theatre group in Kolkata, recently presented a Bengali adaptation and contemporisation of the play with the title Khelaghar which means “playhouse.” It is marked by a striking opening scene where we are given a glimpse of a neatly arranged living room with a lamp that offers the single source of light, hanging from the ceiling at one end, swinging this way and that. A bubbly, cheerful and flustered Nira appears with shopping bags. She has done her Pooja shopping to celebrate her husband Tamonash’s promotion to the permanent post of a professor in the college where he was contractual for a long time. Tamonash is happy but also warns her from being extravagant.
Nira is forever bubbling over with energy which sometimes appears to be a bit too much of an overload. One realises later why she is so bubbly and happy and so loud and open about it. Dr. Rakshit, a family friend often,visits the couple. Kabita, a childhood friend of Nira suddenly appears after many years. She is now a childless widow and is desperately looking for a job. Kalika, a clerk in the college where Tamonash teaches is trapped in a scam and he believes the professor can take him out of this trap. He approaches Nira for help, blackmailing her with the loan she took from him when Tamonash was very sick but kept it a secret from Tamonash. What happens when Tamonash learns of this loan in general and the secret in particular takes the play to an electrifying and shocking climax.
Nira is the fulcrum of the play and the events, incidents and characters flow from her contradictions and conflicts. Chaity Ghosal invests the character that moves from a happy bonhomie slowly and steadily to a sense of deep guilt for the secret and fear about what will happen when Tamonash learns that she has kept a secret which, they had mutually agreed earlier, would have no secrets, ever is amazingly portrayed. It is an incredible performance. Nira’s realisation that she has no personality and whatever she is today has been designed, doctored and tailored by her husband Tamonash. And she did not even know it! Her bonhomie is a put-on, her compatibility with her husband is no compatibility at all because she is not what she is but is what he wants her to be – to think like he expects her to think, to laugh the way he likes her to laugh, to love him as and when and how and where he wants her to love him and she is completely happy being all that and more….
Debshankar Haldar as Tamonash is great as an intensely insecure husband who converts his wife into a doll he loves to play with. He shields his insecurity with his patriarchal mindset and behaviour. For example, he is very angry when Nira sings at a party when he did not want her to and more because everyone appreciated her singing. Yet, when she invites him to dance with her in their living room, he happily does so.
He hates it when Nira lights Rakshi’s cigarette without her permission because Rakshit is an “outsider. When he learns of the secret first through an incriminating letter and then from Nira herself, he threatens either to throw her out and disown her or use his cover up strategies to affect an erasure! Nira cannot accept that she has lived with a stranger she had no idea was so fickle in his morals. To Tamonash’s shock, she picks up her suitcase and walks out. The director Biplab Banerjee keeps the closure open because Nira says she may rethink her decision when things have changed for the better. Will they?
Biplab Banerjee as Dr. Rakshit is marvellous in his spontaneity while Anjana Basu as Kabita invests her character with just the right mix of the caustic and the humane. She gives agency to Nira to deal with the truth directly and telling him of her desperation during her husband’s severe illness a secret. Shantanu Chattopadhyay as Kalika Mukherjee, the corrupt clerk who constantly questions all common perspectives of morality some of which demand deep thinking gives a powerful performance. When the play ends, we are left with the broken pair Kabita and Kalika who resurrect their lives and decide to live together while at the other end of the pole, Nira’s and Tamonash’s “togetherness” is fragmented and decimated, probably forever.
The setting placed in Santiniketan gives the director the opportunity of using the music of noted Tagore songs as the background score choosing each song in keeping with the given mood of the play. Beautiful snatches of Bengali poetry chosen carefully from the compositions of Sankho Ghosh, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Joy Goswami, Rabindranath Tagore and William Shakepeare define the love between Tamonash and Nira enrich the texture of the play never mind whether you are familiar with them or not. One composition of Sankho Ghosh has been used twice in two different situations that invest the fluctuating relationship between the pair very poetically.
The light effects create a mesmerising influence opening with that beautifully captivating beginning and ending also with that same hanging light which does not sway anymore. The use of low lighting in some scenes, spot lights at some spots demonstrate the care with which Debashish Chakraborty has designed the lighting which almost assumes the role of a character in the play.
The stage setting in this single-set play is ideal because it helps keep the party sequence out without damaging the cohesiveness of the play. The walls, designed from cloth, shake and slowly fall, as a sign of the pillars of “security” and “protection” from outside interference collapsing with Nira’s exit. When Nira had brought in her shopping in the opening scene, she had impulsively bought a cloth doll for her daughter. When she leaves, she picks up the cloth doll and places it on one of the sofas, maybe, as a fitting replacement of herself. What more was she than a cloth doll?
In the midst of the entire hullabaloo his play created as a direct attack on the institution of marriage and its discrimination between the husband and the wife, Ibsen insisted that he never wanted to talk about the mistreatment of women but about discrimination between and among all humans. In a speech, Ibsen insisted that he "must disclaim the honour of having consciously worked for the women's rights movement," since he wrote "without any conscious thought of making propaganda," his task having been "the description of humanity." (Speech at the Festival of the Norwegian Women's Rights League, Christiana", 26 May 1898; in Dukore (1974, 563).
Many of us do not know that Ibsen very angrily and very much against his wishes, was forced to change the original ending for the performance to German audiences. For it to be considered acceptable and prevent the translator from altering his work, Ibsen was forced to write an alternative ending for the German premiere. This changed ending showed Nora being led to her children after her fight with Toryald and she collapses as the curtains come down. Ibsen is quoted as saying that the ending was a disgrace to the original play and referred to it as “barbaric outrage.” But all productions today perform the original ending and almost everywhere, the play is a success.
A Doll’s Hose is based on a true story. Laura Keeler was a good friend of Ibsen. Similar to the events in the play, Laura signed an illegal loan to save her husband. She wanted the money for her husband’s treatment when he was suffering from TB. Se had asked Ibsen to recommend something she had written so that with the money her manuscript would fetch would be able to tide through the difficult times. But Ibsen refused so Laura was forced to forge a cheque for the money. When her husband Victor heard about Laura’s secret loan and forgery, he not only divorced her but also got her committed to an asylum. Two years later, she returned to her husband and children and as time went on, her husband urged her to begin writing. She did and went on to become a well-known Danish writer who died when she was 83 years old.
Most women today would not accept being shaped and redefined and reconstructed by their husbands like Nira or Nora. But even so, most women would think more than twice before leaving home and hearth and husband and children to live life on their own terms. So, A Doll’s House is timeless and so is Nora. Congratulations to Pracbya and the entire team for giving us such a masterful performance.