Directing an ensemble cast whose majority comprised of child actors and quite a few terminally handicapped performers, Subhashis Gangopadhyay of Reneissance Group presented an engaging evening premiering Rajar Chithi 1942 – an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Dakhghar – in the perspective of the Holocaust in Poland.
Based on true events the play follows the final phase of the life of Dr. Henryk Goldzmit (more popular by his pen name Janusz Korczak) and his orphanage – all destined for the infamous gas chambers at Treblinka concentration camp. A writer for the children, the pedagogical doctor was a philanthropist of the highest degree who not only set up the orphanage Our Home but also denied refuge to a safer haven, remaining, at all cost, by his children’s side ordained for their tragic fate in the gas chambers. By his side were most of his staff members, prominent being the caring and motherly Stefania Wilczynska, who dedicated her elf for the cause of the orphans. Mostly Jews, the orphans had their fate sealed as the Nazis continued the cruel exterminations in and around their ghetto. As they witnessed the helpless being killed or carried off to the hideous prison camps, fear clouded their very souls. Their only hope was the saintly doctor and his staff to whom they clung to and who shielded them from the Nazi brutalities as best as they could. Though a few deserted him at the eleventh hour but the patient doctor never abandoned Our Home. Truly a patriot, he held the firm belief that his duty lay in sharing the plight of the countrymen and not by escaping it. He never feared death but his only concern was how to prepare his orphans for the final moment. In the days of desperation he wanted to infuse some kind of hope – a spark of life – in their seemingly futile existence. He understood what the orphans and the staff of Our Home, or more generally the country, wanted most was to find a meaning to their life in the midst of the Nazi atrocities. He felt that in the midst of the prevailing chaos, when dictatorship reigned supreme, art was one of the reliefs that may provide peace to the soul. And the artform that he chose for the moment was drama and that too was staging of Tagore’s Dakghar (The Post Office).
Nothing could have been more proper as the sickly Amal’s longing for the King’s letter and the visit of the Royal Physician to cure him of all his ailments, as portrayed in Dakghar, seemed to reflect the condition of the entire Polish nation writhing in agony as the Nazi carnage continued.
The hapless Jews, robbed, not only of their life but also of their respect by the tyrant Nazis, represented the ailing Amal of Dakghar suffering from the incurable disease that threatened to take his life at so premature an age. As Amal waited for the King’s letter and the visit of the Royal Physician to cure him of all his maladies so did each and every people of the country who waited the Fuhrer’s ominous orders for their final march to the gas chambers that will put an end to their miserly existence.
From yet another perspective it can be considered that the King’s letter did not represent Hitler’s orders, rather the blessing of the Allied forces to eliminate the threat of the Nazis that had spread throughout the nation like some incurable disease. Alas, it was too late for many an expectants, who, when the final help came, slept just like Amal, never to wake up again, cured of all the ailments.
Nearly 200 orphans and more than half a dozen staff members of Our Home participated, ignoring the threat of the Treblinka concentration camp looming large over the horizon, promising to put to sleep whoever being brought forth by the Nazis programmed not to differentiate between the young and the old as long as they are Jews.
Presented in a unique style where past and present interleaved and footage of the calculated massacres of the Nazi was intermittently displayed in the proper places, the Renaissance Group and Subhash Gangopadhyay must be applauded for putting up so wonderful an act. A play that included more than two dozen child artists and quite a few handicapped actors, the credit goes both to the director and each of the actors – both young and old – who crafted the show to perfection.
Representing the confused and immature minds in which the true horror of Nazi regime was not registered to its fullest, each of the children flawlessly carried out their parts. They bubbled with vitality as the doctor and their well wishers shielded them from the brutalities and again the same faces were seen huddling anxiously around the loving Madame Stefa when the SS raided their ghetto.
Credit is also due to the group’s inclusion of visually impaired individuals whose acting greatly surpassed their handicap. Their synchronized steps, the accurate expressions, never missing a beat during the entire presentation not only deserves additional applause but their valiant effort will encourage many to follow in their footsteps and will instill hope in many a discouraged hearts.
Clearly the fallout of extensive research work, the precise detailing of the play was evident right from the ticket counterfoils displaying the memorial stone of Janusz Korczak and the Orphanage to the cynical inscription, Arbeit Macht Frei (German for work makes free) inscribed on the gates of the concentration camps.
As to the use of language a novel idea has been adopted. Both Bengali and Hindi were wisely employed. While one was extensively used when the people of the orphanage conversed, the other was contrastingly utilized to demarcate the communication in presence of the Nazi officials.
Another point that deserves mention is the lighting design (Joy Sen and Dipankar Dey) with significant use of various footages that were projected in the background showing the Nazi massacres, the journey of the ill-fated prisoners to the death camps that were displayed at suitable intervals. But the exceptional use of stage lighting were more prominent during acts where still photographs and silhouettes of actors presented a visual special effect depicting death and devastation at its cruelest without a single word being uttered. Rigs, props and other stage equipments (Gautam Mukhopadhyay) were suitably placed in these occasions as well as throughout the play which heightened the effects to a greater extent.
In musicals (Songs: Subhash De and Arunima Gupta, Ambience: Gautam Ghosh, Sound Control: Kireet Singh), as anticipated, excerpts of Rabindrasangeet were mainly used at intervals with the only exception of Aamra Korbo Joy during one of the scenes. The sound design was also measured that toned the scenes as each act demanded.
The costume (Suman Mukhopadhyay) represented the era more or less correctly but only one thing that I personally felt that contrast to the dresses of the elders, the dresses of the children looked more Indian than Polish; maybe this was intentional so as to identify each and every one of them with our familiar Amal! Md. Ali’s make up went well with the pantomimes (Debkumar Pal) that made up the fillers between scenes.
While the entire presentation deserves praise a single note of disappointment remains as to the length and structuring of the play. Some acts could have been curtailed that seemed repeated and the need of restructuring was felt as the first half concluded when several audiences believed that the play has itself finished. Actually the underlying message was already conveyed to the audience by then and only the final detailing remained.
– Anirban De