Last night, Bwog writers Betsy Ladyzhets and Gabrielle Kloppers had the honor of attending the dress rehearsal of Chokher Bali (Sand in My Eye), the Barnard theater department’s first play of the semester. The play, which focuses on the story of a young upper-class woman in late eighteenth century Calcutta, was adapted by a Columbia professor. Chokher Bali is sold out at its three performances tonight, tomorrow, and Saturday.
We entered the dress rehearsal of Chokher Bali (Sand in My Eye) with high expectations. The play was adapted in 2005 by Prof. Partha Chatterjee (Columbia professor of Anthropology and Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies) from an early twentieth-century novel by Rabindranath Tagore. Prof. Chatterjee originally adapted the play in Bengali, but for this spring’s production, he translated it into English. As such, the Barnard theater department’s production of the play marks its English-language premier, adding an additional layer to a show that is already complexly interwoven. Unsurprisingly, the play has been sold out for weeks, and both people with a cultural connection to the show and those curious to learn from it are eager to see it. And last night, our expectations were not only met – they were blown away.
Chokher Bali tells the story of Binodini (Supriya Ganesh, CC ‘19), a young widow who leaves her home to become an attendant to a wealthy upper-class widow, Rajlakshmi (Gabrielle Bullard, BC ‘18). In her new home, Binodini befriends Ashalata (Maeve Duffy, BC ‘17), the young, naive wife of Rajlakshmi’s son, Mahendra (Krit McClean, GS ‘17). This friendship becomes corrupted as scandals and societal pressures force the two women to step outside of their prescribed roles in order to seek romantic validation.
Both Ganesh and Duffy were, without equivocation, truly incredible in their respective roles. Their performances were nuanced, and their depiction of Indian womanhood spoke to a deep understanding of Indian culture and the significance of the play’s message. Throughout the play, the development of each character was a testament to the skill of the actresses. We begin to see their personalities shining through as they became less scared of the men in their lives. In Supriya’s outstanding performance, Binodini’s intelligence and manipulation become evident, as she uses the stereotypes associated with her femininity to achieve her ultimate desires. Concurrently, Ashalata steps outside her naive shell and summons inner strength while comforting Mahendra’s mother during her final days. Yet throughout the play, the connection between the two women remained strong; even when tension came to a dramatic head, the emotions portrayed by the actresses showed how much Binodini and Ashalata meant to each other. In parallel to the way in which their characters rely upon each other in the play, each of Ganesh and Duffy’s respective performances made the other’s stronger.
It is a testament, however, to the strength of the entire cast that their voices continued to be heard despite these exceptionally strong performances. Each member portrayed the transition of Indian society in a slightly different way. Mahendra and his friend Bihari (Steven Ali, CC ‘18) embodied the dichotomy of pursuing Western professions while living in a traditional world with their contrasting attitudes and mannerisms, struggling to maintain a friendship despite their different beliefs. Rajlakshmi and Annapurna (Poorvi Bellur, CC ‘19), Mahendra’s auntie, embodied traditional widows as a contrast to the younger women, struggling between a desire to hold onto tradition without letting go of their loved ones. And the servants provided a storytelling frame; the servants telling the story occasionally paused the narrative to fact-check each other and critique the over-dramaticized nature of the main plot, providing a social commentary within the play as well as some much appreciated comedic relief.
There was, in addition, a second frame outside of the narrative frame, which incorporated two “Columbia students” (played by Josh Zoeller, CC ‘18 and Josie Kirsch, BC ‘17) who discussed how they were going to see Chokher Bali, then transformed into two of the servants. This frame was intended to help draw the audience into the turn-of-the-century Bengali world of the story, breaking the fourth wall by “holding the hands” of the audience, so to speak. However, we found the technique more unique than useful, as it didn’t carry through the play; although we were hoping for a reappearance at the finale, we were to have no such satisfaction.
A more effective means of transporting the audience into the world of Chokher Bali was the music. Deep Singh on the harmonium, Chris Rael on the sitar, and Bill Buchen on the dholak provided live scene-change music, which both served as scene change music and helped establish setting and tone with traditional instrumentation and melodies. In addition, the actors themselves further brought us into that world with their singing. In their roles, Ganesh and Duffy sang two traditional songs written by Tagore (the original novelist) himself, with English lyrics but original melodies. This upper-class, “enlightened” music was contrasted by the beautifully performed songs of the storyteller Mashi (Sharvari Deshpande), which were drawn from both Bengali pop culture and religious sects, and had lyrics that seemed to fit the story so well, it was hard to believe they hadn’t been written by the playwright.
Chokher Bali portrays an India not only on the cusp of administrative change, but on the cusp of the birth of a new social order. Colonialism constituted one aspect of this shift, but the change went further into the hearts of Indian households, by changing the way in which women were treated and perceived. The play emphasized this shift with the traditional costumes of the leading women, as well as the addition of a new character: the Washerwoman (Carina Goebelbecker, BC ‘18). Goebelbecker spent most of the duration of the play washing, drying, and folding clothes as a constant reminder of the position of women in society.
But even though this play largely consists of social commentary on events with which most students with no background knowledge in Bengali history would be unfamiliar, the Barnard theater department’s production was far from removed from current Columbia students. Relatability came with the storytelling frame and the compelling acting of the main characters, as well as through a couple of memorable lines. “It makes me cry every time,” Ashalata says at one point, begging Binodini to read a story aloud. That’s kind-of how we feel about Chokher Bali itself, actually.
This play is the story of a woman who breaks free from social convention in the search for love. But it is also the story of a group of servants telling that story, struggling to remember precisely what happened and figure out how to pass its lessons on to the next generation. And it is the story of members of the audience, watching, learning, and understanding the nuances of a culture completely different from their own and the bravery of those who dared to challenge it.
“I don’t want you to leave with the wrong idea about me,” Binodini says repeatedly. This line echoes as a call to the audience – to not leave unless we understood her message, her motivations, her side of the story. Her message rings clearly: we understood her, and we were inspired by her.
Poster via official play Facebook page