The Lonely Monarch by Sunil Gangopadhyay, translated by Swapna Dutta
The Lonely Monarch is an English translation of an original work in Bengali called Nihsanga Samrat by Sunil Gangopadhyay. A kind of a biopic on the life of stage actor Sisirkumar Bhaduri. Not many of us outside Bengal have heard about him. So this book brings him alive as an actor, as a human being. And as a life totally dedicated to a craft. The translation maintains the Bengali ethos very well. As the poems are translated along with the prose. If you have read a bit of Tagore and Saratchandra, you will relate to the conversations in the book much better. As the characters from their works are discussed and enacted.
Sisirkumar Bhaduri was a stage actor who worked in Bengali theatre before independence. The book does not really talk about the freedom struggle part of the times. But does mention the known names from that space like Deshbandhu. And of course, Rabindranath Tagore is an anchor in any Bengali artists life. The story tells you the growth of an actor from being a professor, to his epitomizing certain roles. His commitment to the craft. And his failure time and again in the business of theatre. It talks about his experiments in theatre. His innovations and his effort to bring the Indian or to be more specific Bengali identity to the theatre. He borrowed the stagecraft from the European theatre companies.
But tried to mix and match it with the local Jatra tradition. Where the plays were staged in open spaces. And with no paraphernalia, actors being the only ones on stage.
He also tried to bring the educated women into the theatre. And goes to the extent of snatching an actress from a rival theatre when he discovers that they have managed to convince an educated lady to act on stage. Some of his experiments fail and some succeed. For e.g. his attempt to perform in America fails miserably as does his attempt to refine the taste of his audience. But his attempt to bring the Jatra tradition succeeds to a large extent, as does his attempt to give respect to women in theatre. After reading the book, I googled for him and looked at some of his pictures, he must have been a very handsome guy as described in the story.
His personal idiosyncrasies, his excessive drinking, and his personality, in general, is what we would today associate with the stereotype of a person like him. But what we do not know if he was defining this stereotype or was he adhering to one. His guilt for being not able to convert his first wife into a lady and then for being responsible for her death. His reluctance to marry the woman he lives with and his love for poetry is something that you understand even if you do not agree with him. The fact that he recites poetry through the night, when he is unable to sleep or when he is going through an emotional upheaval tells how deeply connected is he with the poems he reads. As that is where is finds his solace.
Kankabati, his actress and his partner in life, also recites poetry. And that is what brought them together – appreciation of poetry. His big dream remains the creation of a national theatre where the young can be taught the craft by the older generation. He comes close to building it. But as the luck would have it, things do not work out. And throughout his life, he keeps working towards this dream. Would National School of Drama in Delhi be an answer to his dream?
At another level, The Lonely Monarch book tells you the scene in Bengal before the independence. And takes through the city of Calcutta. In a way, it ends up chronicling the evolution of various theatres during that time. How most of them began with English names until Sisir Bhaduri decided to have one with Bengali name? How they changed hands. And how certain areas were chosen for them. There is also a history of all the plays that were popular during that time, who were the story writers, play writers, actors, and poets. The coming together of the people from the literary world and drama as they worked with each other tells how the small community was competing and co-operating at the same time. You can see the aura of Rabindranath Tagore, who is revered so much that he cannot be compared with anyone else, no matter what.
The Lonely Monarch is a very well written book that has also been well translated. It tells you about theatre and literary scene in Bengal in mid 20th CE through its best actor’s journey.