Chetana’s ‘Kusum Kusum is A Brilliant Interpretation of Karnad

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Sujan Mukherjee in Kusum Kusum adaptation of Girish Karnad
Sujan Mukherjee plays the protagonist in this adaptation of Girish Karnad

Kusum Kusum is the Bengali interpretation of Girish Karnad’s play ‘Flowers’ presented recently by Chetana as part of its two-play performance. The performance was a celebration of the 49th anniversary of the foundation day of Chetana on 22nd November 1972. It was founded by Arun Mukhopadhyay and some of his colleagues, now run by his sons Suman and Sujan, daughter-in-law Nivedita and Chetana’s dedicated team.

The play is a dramatic monologue that questions devotion and its complex relationship with human desire. Karnad, in a note said, “Flowers is based on a folktale from the Chitradurga region of Karnataka. The tale deals with the metaphysical dilemma that would result if God were truly merciful and all-forgiving. Would God’s grace ignore moral turpitude? What has greater weight in the cosmic order of things – faith (bhakti) or morality?”

However, Ujjwal Chattopadhyay, who adapted ‘Flowers’ and translated it from the original play to Bengali, has changed the entire perspective of Karnad’s stance by replacing the ‘linga’ in the original play, symbolising Lord Shiva with the Goddess Abhaya. But the audience finds that the sanctum sanctorum is without an idol or an image of the Goddess though floral garlands hanging all around the structure. 

Why? Is the Goddess Abhaya therefore, a myth created by the priest who actually believes ‘she’ is real? Or does she really exist? Interestingly, the sanctum sanctorum is decorated with flowers which the priest constantly prays and sings to. The priest appears to be as obsessed with flowers as he is with everything associated with worship – he smears the soot from the lamp on his forehead and bare body. He often collects the red vermillion from the puja thali and rubs it across his forehead and face, throwing up a scary vision of faith tainted with desire – or, is it the other way round?

Sujan Mukherjee in Kusum Kusum
Sujan Mukherjee does a marvelous job of playing the conflicted priest

The priest (Sujan Mukhopadhyay) believes that the “idol” is alive and throbbing but the King of the land challenges him because he does not believe “God” exists. The King, mentioned only through reference, gives the priest fifteen days to prove that the Goddess is alive and the priest picks up the challenge. But he is himself in doubt. 

The priest is a bundle of contradictions and confusions. He is torn between his wife who does not allow him to touch her because she is repelled by his body odour filled with the fragrance of flowers, sandalwood paste and incense and the priest is worried if his wife refuses to cohabit with him, how can he procreate the cherished son who will take on the mantle after him? In the original play, the wife has two children. But in this play, there is hardly any physical communion except once, by force. 

The priest is attracted to Kusum, a courtesan, who keeps floating and dancing into his world, decked up with flowers, always smiling, gliding seductively into the priest’s life and then gliding away. The priest finds hope in Kusum bearing his child and continuing his line of worship. But he is forever trapped in the fear of facing death at the King’s men’s hands if he fails to prove that his Goddess is alive and he can actually ‘feel’ her presence.

Then, as D-Day approaches, the priest suddenly feels that he can hear the Goddess Abhaya breathing. But is it the Goddess, or is it Kusum, the courtesan, inside the sanctum sanctorum and now gliding and floating and dancing on the proscenium? Now pregnant, and now holding the priest’s offspring in her arms? Chattopadhay, the writer, brilliantly juxtaposes the Goddess beside Kusum or, sometimes, even questions whether they are the same or whether they are two different entities – one real and one imagined.

The priest is physically attracted to Kusum, a courtesan, who keeps floating and dancing into his world, decked up with flowers, always smiling, gliding seductively into the priest’s life and then gliding away. The priest finds hope in Kusum bearing his child and continuing his line of worship.

The play opens on a fragrance-filled, incense-smoke-filled proscenium with the altar, decorated with colourful flowers on one side of the stage while the other side, partly in the dark, sits the live orchestra breaking into the playing of the dhaak, orTagore songs like “Maharaj eki saje” and “Ami jakhan tar duare”, as well as the 18th-century Kamalakanta Bhattacharya composition, “Amaar sadh na mitilo”, filling the performance with the live ambience of a puja being performed almost round the clock – fragrances, lamp lights, music, song and rhythm from within which rises the bare-bodied priest throwing up a stylized performance that fits neatly into the fictitious period the story belongs to. Which “period”? It may be stylized, true, but it is also timeless because this complete passion and belief in the ideology that the Goddess not only exists but is alive rules our mindsets as much today as it did during the time-setting of the play.

The other striking element about Kusum Kusum is that of smell – holy fragrance which is supposed to be sweet and fragrant but which the priest’s wife is repelled by. The fragrance that soaks the play even when the stage is empty. The fragrance that permeates the atmosphere and invests it with a mood of worship that is the concrete representation of faith and belief in God.

Sujan Mukhherjee is outstanding as Abhay, the head priest of the temple and his wife Nibedita as Kusum is grace and charm personified. She is adorned with a floral crown and flowers cover her body. She is finite as she appears real in her floral dresses. Yet, she is infinite when the saree she is wrapped with keeps flowing endlessly as she glides across one end of the stage to another. 

It is challenging to enact a monologue where other characters – the wife, the king and Kusum are either absent or silent. But Sujan carries it through with his extremely versatile performance – sometimes loud, often crying, at times driven to the edge of grieving over the rejection by his wife, or breaking into a song. He does not establish eye contact with Kusum at any point and yet yearns for her body which also raises questions about whether Kusum too, is a surreal entity and a product of his imagination or, whether she is really a flesh-and-blood woman living off her bodily charms.

Avantika Chakraborty who directed the play, the first from outside the Chetana group to step in, must be credited for directing a Karnad play adapted by Chattopadhyay. She also does a fabulous job of directing ace performers like Sujan and NIbedita Mukherjee. With the Bengali’s eternal passion for the Mother Goddess in every form, this switch from the linga to the Goddess – not the Mother Goddess however – invests this performance with a distinct Bengali identity.

Kusum Kusum is a difficult play that grows on you very slowly and gathers pace as it moves on, from one point of faith to the other extreme of faithlessness, from one end of devotion to the other end of desire till you not only carry it along with you outside the theatre but allow it to haunt you much after that.

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