Rangakarmee was founded more than four decades ago by Usha Ganguly who, it could be rightly said, founded the base of Hindi theatre in a predominantly Bengali cultural ambience at that time. Today, it has firmly rooted itself in beautifully organized premises tellingly named Binodini- Keya Mancha Rangakarmee Studio Theatre.

Time and again, Rangakarmee has proved that theatre is not just a form of creative expression or a language of performance. Theatre today cannot and should not exist in a vacuum – social, political, or emotional. Theatre, according to Rangakarmee has a socio-political context that is ever-evolving in terms of form, content, subject and it’s unfolding. The topicality of the subjects it deals with, thanks to the constant political consciousness of its founder Usha Ganguly and her dedicated team is evident in every play it performs.

Atmaj, the first full-fledged production of Rangakarmee within the Binodini- Keya Mancha Rangakarmee Studio Theatre was presented recently to an invited audience. Atmaj which means “son” or, rather, “born of me” is no exception. It explores the new ambience, design, structure of the carefully designed audience seating arrangement, the split performance space to fit the performance into this structure that contributes to the dynamism of the performance and to the play itself.

Atmaj uses mainly Hindi and Bengali with a slight smattering of English as and when to depict the tragedy of the young Dr. Nandini, who rose above her caste, class and gender to become a doctor after hurdles all along the way. But once she marries the man of her choice, all hell breaks loose around her and her brother is out to kill her for the ‘honour’ of the family. The grandmother tells her to leave her husband and is very angry with her. An old admirer approaches her to promise her love and security but has strings attached to his proposal. Nandini rejects his proposal not because of the strings attached but because she loves her husband dearly and understands that her former friend is trying to fulfill his damaged ego because she chose to marry another and not because he loves her. But her husband does not quite have either the strength or the willingness to save her from torture from her own family. He tries but then retreats in fear.

This is based on a recent incident that was in the headlines and happened in the South. So is the second story where Fatima, originally a Hindu, who married a Muslim and was converted, is forced to take shelter in an oppressive, humiliating and torturous ‘home’ ruled by a woman guard who is as cruel as Hitler’s Gestapo generals. Fatima runs away from this prison of a hostel to make a new life. Does she? We do not know. There is a third girl who cannot tolerate the torture and jumps to her death from the terrace.

These are the characters in this play that constructs, designs and defines violence not only through the plot, theme, characters and their interaction but also, and perhaps more importantly, through spaces, props, the proscenium and the actors’ fluid use of proximity and distance to and from the audience as and when necessary. The actors, acting in absolute harmony and synchrony, bring out an amazing blending of the props, the space and the acting as if they were welded into one another smoothly and effectively to make an impact that acting alone would have fallen short of. The split stage with two pillars on either side, the entry and exit points hidden by dark curtains provide the actors with the versatility the action demands. The costumes are paired down to the simplest of the simple so that they do not intrude into the actors’ body language and fluidity of movement or dominate the characters in any way.

The play opens on the banks of what appears to be a river and a chorus of actors enact the waves of the river in full spate. The lighting, vacillating between near-complete darkness and shimmers of brightness adds to the mystique of the characters and their action. The use of space within the split stage and the wide open horizontal frontage gives the actors ample opportunity to explore and enact with complete dedication which they do. Their chemistry – dually and with the chorus and with other actors must be seen to be believed.

Usha Ganguly who has designed, directed and composed the music has used some thick ropes which metamorphose into agents of bondage, or freedom, portray the waves of a river, trap a character when the rope feels that the character needs to be trapped and imprisoned so beautifully that it evolves almost into an important character in the play. When Dr, Nandini is having labour pains, the girls around her gather some red-and-white ropes to use as a curtain to give her the privacy a mother demands at child-birth.

This time, the ropes contribute to creation and the colour red suggests bloodshed at child-birth as well as the sanctity that motherhood vests in the new mother. But is motherhood really as sacro sanct, as holy and as ideal as we have been conditioned to believe? Dr. Nandini believes so and with her husband no longer beside her, she feels redeemed and fulfilled with the little baby in her arms. The play ends on this note of uncertainty.

“Uncertainty” because the position motherhood was understood to vest in the woman is now being seriously questioned by feminists of different groups and beliefs. That independent, brave and very powerful women like Dr. Nandini who draws strength from within her and from the women around her would feel her life was complete with that baby is a bit of a conventional closure to an otherwise very strong play.

The actors, the musical score enhanced and dotted with soulful renderings of live alaaps and taans by a gifted vocalist, the lighting and the sound design are just out of this world and incredibly beautiful though “beautiful” is just not the right adjective to attach itself to Atmaj, meaning ‘born of me.’

The closure is all too sudden for the drama that builds up to a level where we expect an electrifying climax which does not happen. But as I said before, this is an ‘evolving’ play created while the actors were actually rehearsing, scene by scene and character by character, thus, leaving it open to other inclusions and deletions in future performances.

“We did not have a ready-made script. It built itself slowly, and was created by the entire team as we went on rehearsing,” sums up Usha.