A recent theatre production of Maitreyi Devi’s Na Hanyate was staged in Melbourne; there was much to celebrate and a little to ponder upon as well.
Not often do we get a chance to read two stories written about the same event and even the same characters, where the main protagonists tell us their different versions of the turn of events in two separate books.
Na Hanyate (It Does Not Die) by Maitreyi Devi and Bengal Nights (first published as Maitreyi in Romanian) by Mircea Eliade provide us this extremely rare opportunity of reading this story of tragic love viewed through the eyes of the lovers belonging to two different cultures.
Maitreyi Devi wrote her own version of this love story in response to what she perceived as a misrepresentation of herself in Eliade’s exotified fiction. Eliade’s book was written in 1933 and her version came in 1974. Maitreyi Devi would obviously have a greater grip on her expression of romance, since she was much older and emotionally mature than Mircea when she wrote it.
Na Hanyate is written with emotional maturity, depth and empathy that comes naturally with age. It is fascinating to read of adolescent romance, viewed through the lens of age and experience. I remember reading the book as a teenager, having experienced my own brush with heartache, and finishing it off in one go. I was spellbound and the enchantment has stayed with me even after 30 odd years, as a part of my journey.
It was thus with a lot of expectations and curiosity that I turned up to watch Na Hanyate at the Renaissance Theatre in Kew East, Melbourne. The play that was put up by Khelaiya Productions on 26th February, however, left me with mixed emotions. The enthusiasm on stage was matchless, no one missed a line, and it was genuinely well rehearsed. The actors, all coming from various states of India, immersed themselves in the production of a story that has epitomised romance in the hearts of multitude of Bengalis around the world.
Nevertheless, there are a few things one would like to point out when dealing with such a serious piece of literature – do not lose sight of the maturity and depth of the story. Let the audience lose itself in the storytelling. Too often, I felt that the actors were hurrying to finish off a scene without giving the audience any time to grasp the poignant moment.
The other important aspect that was missing, was silence. Pauses are vital for a play. They give the character and audience time to process information. They can create and release tension, that is so vital for engaging the onlookers. Actors should never fear the pause and the silence that comes with it. Acting is not about bursting with energy and wanting everything to flow out as quickly as possible.
One should not lose sight of the fact that theatre is an extremely satisfactory medium for actors because there’s a direct connection with their audience. There were times that evening that I felt some of the actors on the Renaissance stage were slightly remote, not relying on expression but on oft-rehearsed dialogue, which were too quickly delivered and instantly forgotten.
Na Hanyate is not just a story, it is the awakening of a young 16-year-old Bengali girl, who is a successful poet and one of the first women in India pursuing a Bachelor of Arts at the university. In later life, she was to become a well-known Bengali poet, intellectual and social activist. A serious if not sober depiction would have been welcome. But to me, the young Sumi (Maitreyi) played by Tanmai Khairnar, who otherwise did her role rather well, did not conjure up this image of Maitreyi from the story.
Sunil Chalisgaonkar, Atul Fotedar and Sayeri Biswas were exemplary in their renditions of Rabindra sangeets and that was perhaps the highlight of the whole evening. The audience was entertained and showed their appreciation by clapping each time a song was completed. It was perhaps the songs that gave the play its Bengali persona more than the characters themselves. However, one wonders if the time taken to present these musical interludes could have been utilised more fruitfully towards giving the play more meaning.
Director Harsiddhi Mody has chosen an extremely complicated and well-known piece of literature for this theatrical venture. One cannot help but applaud the immense effort that has gone into its production keeping in mind the pandemic related periods of uncertainty. The small but very supportive members of the Indian community that had gathered for the Hindi version of the play let their heartfelt appreciation flow. More than two years of lockdown fatigue was forgotten, and it was a welcome break for everyone who had gathered to watch this theatrical performance.