Men in police uniforms moved around the National School of Drama armed with guns — and gave the first hint that the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the national theatre festival, was hosting an unusual play. Titled Jakshapuri, an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Rakta-Karabi, it was performed by a cast of 21 murder convicts serving life at Berhampore Central Correction Home in West Bengal. The performance was held at LTG Auditorium in Mandi House Thursday.
“My social dustbin is full of so many used people. Can I not recycle and bring them back to life?” asks Pradip Bhattacharya, director of the group and the motivation for cultural therapy initiative in the prison.
The fiction of Tagore translates into a metaphor in the play, as the kingdom of Jakshapuri emerges as a site of human bondage. The grimness is lifted by the heroine Nandini who, dressed in red oleander or the rakta-karabi flower, represents nature in her quest for love.
“I am no different from Nandini. She was a village girl, just like me. Nandini has a capacity for loving everybody but can’t find love herself,” says Helama Bibi, who played the lead. When Nandini sees her lover Ranjan’s dead body, Helama adds that she feels that “somebody of mine has died.” “The tears are real,” she says. The role of Nandini is also played by Uma Dey and Runa Bibi.
Nobody from the cast had participated in theatre or watched a play before. “I was a shy 16-year-old and cried when the superintendent asked us to go for a theatre workshop. Now I want to do big roles,” says Tultuli Bibi, who has a small role in the play.
Bhattacharya started his work with convicts at the behest of the then IG (prisons) B D Sharma. The first play, adapted from another Tagore work, Tasher Desh, travelled across West Bengal in 2006 and was staged in Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, Siri Fort and NSD the next year.
“We did not have police with us when we came to Delhi that year. What we had was trust. Trust is the first step,” says Bhattacharya, whose uncle, Salil Bhattacharya, was one of the founding members of IPTA and a police officer at Berhampore prison. “I had free access to prisoners from an early age. I don’t know why but I am fascinated by the darkness of the soul. Maybe that is why Jakshapuri ends with the light of hope,” he says.
Uttam Das, who plays a teacher in the play, says theatre has changed him. “I used to be a bad person. Now, I have become a good man and hope I can do something so that my work, like those of Netaji and Gandhi, lives on after me,” he says.