Theater departments create student productions for specific purposes. Not only do these productions provide students the opportunity to apply skills (acting, directing, producing, technical) through creating a work from scratch, they also allow students to work with professionals in their chosen fields. Because of the specific needs of student productions – large cast, young characters, known playwrights – a canon has emerged from which student productions are drawn, mostly consisting of Western classics like Romeo & Juliet and Guys & Dolls.
It was refreshing to see Barnard tackle Chokher Bali, a theatrical adaptation of the classic novel by the Indian Nobel Poet Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, as one of the student productions for their Spring 2016 semester. Directed by one of the leading theatre minds in India Mahesh Dattani, the adaptation written by renowned scholar and Columbia Professor Partha Chatterjee, was brought to life by a non-traditional cast. The rest of the team included other professional theatre makers and academics. Along with getting access to their expertise, the students learned about a different culture and time and negotiated the politics of non-traditional casting. This is indeed an achievement for the Barnard Theatre program, which has long been known to encourage artistic inquiry within its student body.
Beyond its esoteric purpose, the production of Chokher Bali is also an audio-visual treat for the audience. The functional yet beautiful set by Neil Patel (Indian Ink) includes a water pool and curtains and is complimented well by Andrea Leanoard’s lighting design. The costumes by Deepshikha Chatterjee are specific to the time period (early 20th century) and create clear distinctions of social class. An important part of the play, which deviates from the novel, is the insertion of the help, who narrate and comment on the action. The costumes are integral to bringing those characters alive.
This deviation from the story crafted by the playwright – the insertion of the commentary of the help – transforms Tagore’s novel from a historic relic to a contemporary tale. This is especially evident in the performance of Sharvari Deshpande, whose take on the oldest servant known affectionately as “mashi” meaning maternal aunt, is the anchor that holds the play together. Not only does she deliver the lines with the kind of conviction so rarely seen in young actors, she sings the songs that punctuate the scenes, and make the story really come alive. The melodic score, composed by Partha Chatterjee transcends time, place and language and Deshpande makes every note resonant.
The production has its limitations. Some of the themes in Tagore’s work – female desire, the physical versus the spiritual, the play between sexuality and death – the deeper, darker crevices of Chokher Bali remain unexplored, but the production takes up a different ambition, one of cultural dialogue and understanding for the student body at Barnard, and judging from the multicultural audience in the auditorium, it is a success, one which I hope inspires the expansion of the canon of student productions.