Man Of The Heart

We first met Drama Professor Sudipto Chatterjee when he conducted a drama workshop under ENAD's aegis about two years ago. It was an exhilarating experience and, needless to say, we were looking forward to his latest performance, Man of the Heart, on the UC Berkeley campus.

This was a one man show on the life and times of Lalon Fakir, a 19th century Bengali mystic and folk singer. Such minstrels, or Bauls as they are known, have played an integral role in Bengali folkore:

Bauls (Bangla: বাউল) are a group of mystic minstrels from the Bengal region, now divided into Bangladesh and West Bengal. Bauls are a part of the culture of rural Bengal. They are thought to have been influenced greatly by the Hindu tantric sect of the Kartabhajas. Bauls travel in search of the internal ideal, Maner Manush (Man of the Heart). The origin of the word is debated. However, it is widely agreed that is comes either from Sanskrit batul, meaning divinely inspired insanity or byakul, meaning fervently eager.

The music of the Bauls, bAul saMgeet refers to a particular type of folk song of sung by Bauls. It carries influences of Hindu bhakti movements as well as the shuphi, a form of Sufi song mediated by many thousand miles of cultural intermixing, exemplified by the songs of Kabir, for instance.

Baul music celebrates celestial love, but does this in very earthy terms, as in declarations of love by the bAul for his boshTomi or lifemate. With such a liberal interpretation of love, it is only natural that Baul devotional music transcends religion, and some of the most famous baul composers, such as Lalon Fakir have been of muslim birth.

The actual show itself was a blend of monologues, live singing and dancing, pre-recorded songs and sounds, video clips and projected slides. Nothing if not ambitious! However, while the technical production values were impeccable and Prof. Chatterjee a real live dynamo onstage, the show could have benefitted from a real narrative spine. There were many tantalizing nuggets buried in the material bespeaking the importance of Lalon in 19th century colonial India. For example, while the British were busy creating a buffer class of brown sahibs to better administer the sub-continent, bauls such as Lalon played a big role in resisting these divide and conquer tactics. I thought it was great for the production to contextualize Lalon's importance thus but I didn't really get a clearer picture as to how he really accomplished this. Instead, the bulk of the presentation was on how Lalon deliberately shrouded his origins in riddles and how, scholars on both sides of the Hindu-Muslim divide, went to great lengths to claim him as one of their own. Interesting stuff but I would have preferred to get an idea of why was gathering proof of this type so important. Perhaps an Indian audience would be better placed to understand the significance of this quest but, most probably, not an international one. Similarly, towards the end, we learned of some of the practices Lalon (and his female spiritual companion) perfected after years of sadhana. These techniques, which seemed to have tantric roots, were left unexplored after being hinted at.

Clearly, Sudipto Chatterjee and director Suman Mukherjee hold Lalon very close to their hearts - in the post-show Q&A, both spoke of discovering their mutual interest while roommates in NYC in the early '90s. Given what we witnessed was an edited version of a full length script, which reportedly ran to a couple of hours, its turgidity was understandable - as a matter of fact, the whole event was advertised as a work-in-progress workshop. Hence, I would expect the whole thing to take better dramatic shape with more performances. Nevertheless, there were many things to enjoy and learn here. As mentioned before, Sudipto held the audience's attention easily and, in addition to his other skills, possesses a fine singing voice. Of late, I've been noticing the technique of an actor or dancer using one's own robes to intercept the images from a projector - this distortion technique was used pretty effectively in the production. The musical accompaniment, lighting and sets were also good - mention must be made of ENAD-ites Sambit Basu and Bodhi Das who helped out so capably.

I have mixed feelings as to Baul music itself - in some sense, it is similar to the blues, and hence can be an acquired taste. Too much of it can end up sounding the same. Plus, Baul music has been all the rage in Kolkata of late and many Bengali rock bands (yes, they exist) have actually jumped on the bandwagon. So there's a bit of an overkill involved. It might be blasphemous to admit, but I actually prefer the hybridized version as practiced by bands like Bhoomi. But the standout in this genre is the drum'n'bass/baul fusion of UK based State of Bengal and Purna Das Baul's collaboration Tana tani. Anyway, overall, the show contains much to ponder over and our best wishes to Prof. Chatterjee and Suman Mukherjee in actualizing a dynamite final version.

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- October 9, 2005 4:49 PM // Bangla , Bay Area , Theater