Theatre Review

Subho Maitro

Communication Blues: in the Maze of the Play ‘Bakhtin, Bakhtin’

This is not a review, this is a critical response to the performance of Bakhtin Bakhtin.

They said they will give a razor at a blade’s price, and then i found out the blade costs three times than my razor, and three hundred times than my blade. That is what language all about, signs empty signs in the hand of rhetoricians. The power is in the hand of language-haves!

This is what you get through the social media, which has turned you extremely textual. And I wish Mr. Bakhtin was living in this world. And I wish to see what would happen if he is put to test in this era of communication boom.

I got the opportunity recently, watching Bakhtin, Bakhtin, a play by Kolkata Praxis. This play is loosely based on Bakhtin’s life, and in an absurdist manner the character is called Bakhtin Master (the word master connotes variedly in Bengali from private tutor, to school teacher to any kind of exponent of art, often pejoratively also). We see here he dwells in the fringe of the contemporary Kolkata, the slums, the bordellos, the morgues and in a carnival. He is the ring master of the carnival too. He finds a girl’s dead body in the street raped and brutalized. And follows it to the morgue, here the girl Anamika (the nameless) is brought to life by him. And he can only fall in love with him. Kafkaesque superiors get to know that and they lusts after that power and want to fornicate with that dead girl brought back to life. They threat and allure Bakhtin. The play goes on where Bakhtin contrives to put a prostitute to role-play Anamika. But at the end Bakhtin lose all, his sanity, his Anamika and his place in Carnival. By the way, it is a frame story too, we see this story is told by an chauffeur to his bourgeois employees.

The play as all plays enacted on stage has an ephemeral physicality, when you try to go back to it you put yourself in some position of narrator to recount or recreate. Here as a reviewer I have the task cut out to fall in its trap, but useless as the play itself is about vain linearity of communication.

Firstly the play dwells at the world of language and experience of the fringe, it sets its goal to reach to that level, and yet it keeps the bourgeois gaze. The dialogue of the play is written in the parlance of the middle class Bengali, often to the poetry of Thirties to sixties, the Buddhadev Bose and Sunil Ganguly’s middleclass ‘Vodrolok’. So the rhetoric and the performance are already creating an absurdity. Here I must explain it in detail. We tend to find the different voices which comes out from the total production, the actors with their understanding of the play, their class background, the directorial effort to bring out the fringe and otherness of the character and the playwrights own perception of the play itself.

The ‘language’ itself in this play is a part of a struggle – it communicates in the hierarchy of power, while as we know from Bakhtin, the carnival and absurd are free from it. But how one can jump from reality to carnival? Same players with conscious mind are trying to be a part of that – itself is a play. Here we can see everybody, from the guard of the morgue to the pimp, all of them are participating in the same ritual of being in the reality to the being in absurd. Well isn’t the thing ‘play’ is all about that, a role playing. But why do we play the role? There must be some pleasure trip in it or a power trip. Whatever the trip one may pre-conceive it never comes out as he or she has thought, that’s the beauty of a play. That is why I am calling this a trip, you see?

What is the trip of this play? This will keep audience always guessing. Because, we see here the language and power are confronting/conjugating with each other. There are power structures and individuals getting incorporated as well as we see the individuals confront conflicts inside themselves. Each expression seems disjointed from others as there are meanings evoked in multiple levels. The play seems more Kafkaesque in its struggle to find place of individual in the power hegemony.

Hegemony politics is shown in an absolutist condition, where our language is itself part of it. We see the play from the bourgeois gaze and from the playwright to the performer all have the same gaze. The performance can be mere critique of the gaze. Here it should have communicated to the audience too, about the sameness of their gaze. For with all the fringe characters and the presence of carnivalesque the play cannot be said to be out of that bourgeois framework or hegemony.

Bakhtin, the very name here is crucial. What does this Bakhtin Master signifies? From the beginning we understand this is not a biographical play. So what does it signify – an embodiment of Bakhtin’s theory, a doppelganger of Bakhtin, a mere Bengalicharacter named Bakhtin? All these possibilities are present. This unreality of Bakhtin should catch more than the unreality of Anamika. To find out essence of the characters one must not look into the characterization. But this is the interplay of language of the dialogue and the physical person’s role playing. Their ability/inability to carry the basic idea of characterization portrays several layers of meaning for the viewers.

The reactions of the audience are important. How they are receiving/perceiving the play. This is the time of information overflow, so once a performance is done, the reactions and reconstruction of the play in the virtual media will be on. Can anything be read from that? That is interesting too. As the play is named after Bakhtin, one can feel curious about the voices coming back, what the real differential voices can be heard from this motley nameless crowd called the viewers. That also gives you an understanding how plays here in Kolkata essentially a bourgeois process. I wish readers to look into those and find out how the hegemony continues. The language is still of criticality of the bourgeoisie. Sadly for the play Bakhtin, it remains a mystery how it will reach to some other viewers who are essentially not from that set. For even the critique of the bourgeoisie from the gaze of the bourgeois may not suffice, nor do total justice to the name of Bakhtin.