Theatre in contemporary West Bengal has come a long way. This comes across vividly in Chetana's new production Gopal Ure & Co. The play uses theatre as a multi-layered and multi-dimensional medium of creative performing art on the one hand, and on the other as a powerful expression of sharp arrows aimed at the contemporary social and political ambience in the state.

The play opens with a brief prologue where the director-cum-stage manager of a theatre group named "Gopal Ure & Co" named after him, is preparing for the final rehearsal of a pala-gaan. The performance is for the benefit of the local landlord on whose payroll the group is, but who has not paid the group for two months. So, the entire group is under financial strain that impacts the rehearsal every now and then. The actors keep on harping on not having been paid for two months.

The period chosen for this play-within-a-play is mediaeval Bengal. The piece chosen is based on Bidyasundar Palagan which we find in the middle part of the three-part Annadamongal Kabyo penned by Bharatchandra Roy. Bidyasundar narrates the love story of Bidya and Sundar. It is considered to be an erotic narration on love, and also a prayer for the Goddess Maa Chandi. If this sounds conflicting, it carries a blend of humour and irony inherent in the unfolding of the narrative.

The prologue over, the final rehearsal begins under the direction of Gopal Ure (Sujan Mukherjee) presented as a pala gaan. Pala gaan originated in Mymensingh (Bangladesh), with many of the ballads based on real events though they began with stories from mythology and Hindu religious scriptures. Charming descriptions and realistic portrayals of characters are special features of these pala gaan, which uses dialect and folk rhythms. In this play, however, the pala gaan is not presented entirely through song and music but through rhyming dialogues.

The funniest part comes across in the dialogue of Gopal Ure who often breaks into Odia language as he hails from Odisha. This also happens with Hiramon (Nivedita Mukherjee) who portrays the senior actress in the show and also in the group. She is often insulted for being a "bebusshye" (prostitute) in the play . She accepts this derogation but also gives it right back, peppering her lines with generous doses of ribaldry or, what is also known as "gallows humour."

Though Bidyasundar Palagaan embroiders the love story between Bidya, the princess of the kingdom and Sundar, the prince of a neighbouring kingdom who appears in disguise, Gopal Ure & Co has a strong underlining of feminism which comes back to how women and girls are treated freely as sex objects not only by the zamindar but also by other men of power. None of this sexual exploitation is present in the original play but yet the girls are subjected to endless sexual abuse.

Bidya, whose name means 'learning', is also a very progressive girl. Her father, the king, is exasperated with her insistence of marrying a person who passes her 'test' in flying colours. She is also a gifted singer and dancer and her gracefully fluid dances add another dimension to the total performance.

The forthright ribaldry thrown generously with her seductive body language and shimmering costume by Hiramon as the "conscience keeper" of women in a patriarchal world adds a lot of spice and charm to the play. A few aesthetic moments are captured in a duet dance performed by Bidya and Sundar, as presented through changing light effects through a luminescent screen, suggesting their union. A union that leads to Bidya becoming pregnant, much to the chagrin and shock of her "mother" who is angry with Gopal Ure for making her wait in the wings so long before she is called on to perform.

Gopal Ure draws parallels with William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with the love story of Bidya and Sundar, more to show off his own knowledge of international theatre to an invisible audience and to the attending landlord, than to enhance the play. The landlord however, is not interested either in the performance or in paying the cast and crew who are struggling to keep alive but to have a go at the females in Gopal Ure's crew and also, to try his own hand in directing the play! He does not exempt even the small girl who has just entered the troupe.

Song and music are an integral part of any Pala Gaan performance and Gopal Ure & Co. brings this across. Each character, either individually or in chorus, begins to sing as if at the touch of a magic wand has set their musical talents ablaze. Sujan Mukherjee's use of live music on stage adds life to the performance.

The songs alternate between Pala Gaan sung at jatra performances, Bengali style toppa from Ramnidhi Gupta (Nidhu Babur Toppa), and the khemta used abundantly by dancing women in courts and jatra shows. Khemta was originally a devotional dance performed by professional women dancers. But in some areas, eunuchs were also associated with it and it is they who are still keeping this art alive.

The performing space is utilised both horizontally and vertically by the characters. They move either in symphony with the chorus, or individually like Bidya and Hiramon and Gopal Ure do. it will not be fair to dub this play an actor's paradise. The entire performance, including the boxes double up to serve different purposes, the zamindar seated on his high chair with his attendant, the hierarchical schism between the powerful and the powerless.

Beautifully painted screens roll up, revealing the next screen and unravelling a new scene, as imaginative as they are rich in innovation. The lights, dance numbers, music and the setting, all fall in rhythm to create a poetic symphony between and among time, space, story and characters.

My only question of the director is: why so much of ribaldry and references to sex, not always in good taste, in a play throwing up wholesome entertainment may be not for the family but even for adult members of the family? Does it not chip away from the entertainment? Just asking.