Sudipto Chatterjee, a professor of theatre in Loughborough, England brings alive on stage the life and philosophy of Lalon Phokir, the 19th century Bengali Sufi saint and song maker who confronted orthodox fundamentalisms and preached a radically different search for divinity that could be located within the corporeal frame. Baishali Mukherjee reports. IBNS | 2 years ago

Imagine an evening fashioned out of light, shadow, music and movements. An evening making inroads into the deeper understanding of life and its purpose, while unfolding the story of a man who believed in the power of music to alter the physical, intellectual and emotional state in order to be able to understand and appreciate life itself.

All this and some more food for your soul waits for you in the phantasmagoric presentation of Lalon, the nineteenth century Bengali Sufi saint and song-maker, titled Man of the Heart. The theatre production is located between academic research and creativity, between deep ethnography and exhilarating mediated live performance. It is a multi-media solo-performance incorporating live music, dance, spoken word, video and recorded audio. Without assuming any EurocharacterEuro or EurostoryEuro, it attempts to speak/sing/perform around the biography of Lalon Shah Phokir.

Man of the Heart is an exploratory piece on the body-based philosophy and the virtuosic musical practice of a sect among Bengali Sufis and Vaishnavs known as Bauls. Of them, Lalon Phokir is regarded as the greatest. He practiced personally but spoke publicly through his songs. His music performance and practice embodied a highly syncretic philosophy that drew from diverse religious sources. He confronted orthodox fundamentalisms and preached a radically different search for divinity that could be located within the corporeal frame.

According to this belief, divinity is attained only by means of a disciplined, non-carnal physical practice with a female companion, for the Godhead is said to reside only in the female body.

The two hour journey is a riveting experience fraught with imageries. A more or less empty stage with a wooden frame, a mirror and a long white piece of cloth creates magical interpretation of Lalon life. The Play of light and shadow creates a tapestry of images weaving the complex concept of Lalon philosophy. The white expanse of the cloth, symbolizing the river, time or life purpose and quest, creates moments of rupture carrying the audience from wonder, apprehension and revelation to pure joy. The joy is further heightened by the mellifluous rendition of Lalon songs by Sudipto Chatterjee, who plays Lalon in the show. The rustic brilliance of his voice takes the audience to a time warp. The show ends satiating the hunger of the viewers by nourishing their imagination and leaving enough food for thought.

Meet Sudipto Chatterjee, a professor of theatre in Loughborough, England and the thespian genius who makes the larger than life of Lalon appear real and convincing through his sheer acting skills in the two hour presentation.

EuroLalon is to me a spiritual beacon. I do not believe in any religion or god, but I do believe in a certain kind of godliness that a few rare human beings can achieve in the lives they lead and live. For me, Lalon, was one such 'superior' human being who has left clues for us in his songs, little glimpses of what human life could achieve, what it should be, how it should be lived. His songs help me maintain my own equilibrium and decide between what is right and what is easy. I try to live with Lalon in my heart. Not an easy job, but I try,Euro enumerates Chatterjee.

Chatterjee childhood attraction towards Lalon and his philosophy was coupled with his friend and celebrated theatre person of West Bengal, Suman Mukherjee zeal to present the inherent idea of Lalon in the language of theatre. Preparation to understand, interpret and make a production on it started from late 1980s. After Sudipto went to the US to pursue further studies in theatre, his friend kept visiting him to discuss their dream project on Lalon. Books like Sudhir Chakraborty Bratya Lokayat Lalon, M. Monriuzzaman's Lalon Jiboni O Samasya, Shaktinath Jha's critical edition of Lalon's opus and Lalon biography definitive by Abul Ahshan Chowdhury provided the duo with deeper insight and relevant information. However, to bring out a credible production on a life so profound, Sudipto felt the need for further exploration and research. His search for deeper insight took him to Kushtia in Bangladesh, for the first of many times in 1997. Suman went with him on the first visit.

Sudipto's deep reflective study of Lalon songs prepared the necessary ground for the project which was invigorated and enriched by further research, jump-started by a student essay on Lalon and his mystic songs when Sudipto was completing his doctoral degree in Performance Studies in New York University in 1993. Sudipto's quest for knowledge of his 'man of the heart' Lalon Shah then took him to Kushtia several times. Kushtia is the centre of Lalon life and the seat of knowledge as it is the home of many learned Phokirs, followers of Lalon, with rich knowledge on Lalon and his songs. His Kushtia visits were of immense importance to Sudipto who feels that the knowledge he gathered from there has given Man of the Heart an extra edge and credibility.

Hours of intense discussions on Lalon songs and philosophy with Phokirs of all sorts helped him delve deep into the realm of deep mystic intent. In 2004, it was decided that the production will be a solo performance, reflecting how Lalon was a lone traveler in paths both severe and mystifying. The script was prepared with painstaking precision and dexterity. The props suggested by Suman to be used on stage inspired the script to a great extent and finally the production was staged in 2005 at the University of California, Berkeley. That was the beginning of a journey that is still on, eight years later. From the East Coast to the West Coast, Man of the Heart was staged several times in the US during 2005-7. Kolkata saw the first performance of the show in 2007. The chiaroscuro, coupled with the cadence of lilting music, stole the heart of Kolkata theatre lovers and the show was an immediate success.

The production has since been innovated and improvised a number of times to make it more authentic by incorporating further research findings. Sudipto is especially enthusiastic while speaking about his visits to Kusthia as he feels that it was during these trips that he came to know about the distinction between information and theory and also about the importance of internalizing Lalon in order to sing him with depth. Delineating the logic of the several remountings of the production, Sudipto explains, EuroWhile the basic structure of the show has remained the same since 2005, there have been several significant changes in the specifics, as new research materials have kept on being unearthed. New scenes have been added, new materials have been appended to old scenes, new songs have replaced old ones, new lines added to old dialogue, old lines have been edited out and new video clips from the field research in Bangladesh have been brought in. In tandem, the stage imagery has also evolved and changed. Suman has made a lot of changes in the scenic design and style of performance, since we first staged it in 2005. The most significant difference between how the play was performed before and how it is now being performed, is the addition of a larger musical team, along with a female member and a Phokir from Kushtia. This has enhanced the musical quality of the production tremendously. This last change has also made it possible for the production to move into a larger theatre.Euro

The performance was staged in London's prestigious Barbican theatre in 2010. In 2011-12, Sudipto received the "Interweaving Performance CulturesEuro fellowship from the Free University of Berlin, which gave him opportunity to further consolidate the research. It was during this that Sudipto staged several concerts of Lalon song and video lectures at Berlin, Würzburg, Rome and Helsinki. This included a performance at Berlin's famous House of World Culture's Water Music Festival. The journey is on and Kolkata witnessed yet again several enchanting and captivating performances of Man of the Heart in January, March, April and June this year.

Widening his scope of work, Sudipto is presently busy working on a film script related to Lalon, which is not quite a biopic. Besides, there are other projects in the pipeline that are not related to Lalon at all, one being a play set in nineteenth century France.

Fair winds to his sails!!

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(Posted on 02-08-2013)