Earthy, expressive, entertaining
It would be safe to say theatre is the black sheep of the current Bangladeshi arts and entertainment scene. However, an immense amount of hard work, dedication and talent is brewing in a circuit that is almost invisible outside certain circles of people. The most encouraging -- and frustrating at the same time -- aspect of the current theatre arena is that it's not just the reputed, big names that are producing top-notch plays; virtually unknown groups are writing, designing and playing out high-quality stage content. The 32nd show of “Khona” by the troupe BotTala at the Studio Theatre Hall of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy on Sunday (June 23) was a glaring instance of that.
Written by Samina Luthfa -- an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Dhaka University who also plays the protagonist – and directed by Mohammad Ali Haider, the play is the story of Khona, a familiar character in Bengali folklore. A volume of ancient agricultural knowledge which includes weather predictions, popularly called Khona's Sayings (“Khonar Bochon”), has been passed along from generation to generation as a part of the oral tradition among preliterate farmers. The sayings are usually short verses that are easy to remember yet profound in their science and wisdom. Her practice of simplifying knowledge to teach peasants and challenging royal decrees in favour of the farmers was not looked upon favourably by the ruling class of Deulnagar, the village that sets the backdrop for the play. Khona's rebellious nature eventually leads to her receiving the tragic punishment of elinguation. Born as Lila, she is entitled Khona --someone who cannot speak. Ironically, her verses have survived over 1,500 years as agricultural proverbs.
The adaptation for stage is almost everything it should be; the dialogues are intricate yet free-flowing, the story develops at a gentle pace, and the characters are neither rushed nor dragged. The use of stage and lighting are smart, while the music is well timed and adds to the story.
However, it is the interpretation of the story that makes it a powerful production. Discrimination of social classes based on wealth in a society that is male-dominated and impervious to new ideas paints a picture that looks very familiar even in today's context. The visualization is also interesting in places--particularly a scene where Boraho, the antagonist, has a visit from his late wife in his dream. The two characters appear to be floating in the darkness with just the faces illuminated, in a rather post-modern depiction; the contrast of the visual style with the script makes for an interesting crossover.
Samina Luthfa – as Khona – excels in her performance, switching seamlessly from the jolly to the mushy-romantic to the strong, confident personality. Boraho, played by Imran Khan Munna, also makes an impact, with an intensity in body language and voice that borders on the eerie at times. The other supporting roles are also compact, save maybe for the king and Mihir, who fall just short of their co-artistes.