More than a dozen years after it first opened in Mumbai, as part of a Heisnam Kanhailal double-bill at the 2006 Prithvi Theatre Festival, city theatergoers were able to catch the late stalwart’s Dakghar at the Nehru Centre in Worli in March. The play was performed at the fag end of the Theatre Olympics’ Mumbai leg and despite minimal publicity, attracted a sizeable audience itching to catch a glimpse of a master’s craft not easily accessible in this part of the world. His other play at the Prithvi Festival was the lyrical folk tale Pebet, a political allegory that was already part of the Kalakshetra Manipur repertoire since 1975, but the equally lyrical adaptation of the 1912 Rabindranath Tagore play grew to become one of Kanhailal’s best-known works outside Manipur. Its guilelessness of expression almost belies the textured complexity of the human condition brought alive by the now 72-year-old Sabitri Heisnam cast in the part of the terminally ill young boy, Amal, one of those incandescent fireflies who has inhabited the stage for more than a century (the Bengali original was staged in Kolkata in 1917, an English version opened in London’s Irish Theatre in 1913).

As an added bonus, and after a lengthy applause, the recent staging also featured a post-show conversation with Sabitri and her son, H Tomba. The discussion was moderated by playwright Shafaat Khan, who started off with the perhaps overstated assertion that Dakghar was one of the five best plays in the world—an uneasy mix of subjectivity and numbers, if ever. Khan did qualify it by mentioning how each performance of the play he had watched over the years (it is one of Tagore’s most performed works) allowed him to discover hidden layers that had hitherto remained undiscovered.

Of course, as it had been during the performance, Sabitri, one of the most accomplished living theatre artists in the country, continued with her scene-stealing ways. She was never measured in her speech, her endearing spontaneity was almost child-like (which might explain why she was so convincing as Amal), and a pealing laughter rang out through her. Even when she spoke in Manipuri, that few in the audience understood, she conveyed much more than what her translator could muster with the words at his disposal (this is not to his discredit, but a testament to the doyenne’s irrepressibility).

Not quite lost in translation were the anecdotes related to her collaboration with her husband on Dakghar. She was sixty when she took up the part, and unsure about passing off as a male child. They decided to eschew any kind of superficial illusion (for instance, she did not dye her hair with Vasmol). Instead, a more elemental and physically delineated performance came into being. The floor of rehearsals became a child’s playground. Sabitri would relentlessly practice her part till the wee hours of the morning while Kanhailal slept. As a result, every playful gesture on stage goes a long way into building our perception of a child, and not just any child, but a contemplative one like Amal who, despite his circumstances, is blessed with an optimism for life’s hidden pleasures that he discovers through the vantage of a window in the chamber in which he is kept during his extended convalescence.

The play is an enduring human document in eternal continuum. It brings to mind other adaptations like Sunil Shanbag’s Walking To The Sun, which was based on Polish doctor Janusz Korczak’s staging of Dakghar with orphans in the Warsaw ghetto circa 1942, months before they (including Korczak, who refused amnesty) were taken to the Treblinka extermination camp. The dying child (Manasi Rachh plays Amal) in the play thus stands in for both character and actors. As is the case with Kanhailal’s version, Amal’s world in Shanbag’s “play within the play” is given saturated colors, those who visit him are animated and clamorous, there is singing, and orange marigolds, and it seems there’s always a bright sun shining outside.

As I had blogged earlier, “Imminent death links the two worlds. In the Warsaw ghetto, hope is not a commodity so easily and carelessly worn as does Amal, the child with the irrepressible spirit, for whom escape is just a moment away. It isn’t as if he’s delusional or fanciful, indeed there are moments in the play when he seems reflective and pensive, but he is forever untouched by the fatalism that afflicts the grown-ups around him.

This article originally appeared in The Hindu on April 30, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.

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This post was written by Vikram Phukan.

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