Staging the Serpent: Kasba Arghya’s ‘Naag Nagini Katha’

Manish Mitra’s concern for the transformed language of theatre has been well reflected in his new play Naag Nagini Katha, first performed on February 28, 2021, at the Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata.

The play comes at a time when love in the country is under the threat of fascist supervision and control, and burdensome terms like ‘love jihad’ rule the streets of India. A few weeks ago, the Centre also declared that same-sex marriage does not go with the “Indian family unit concept”, and would create unnecessary havoc.

Well, history tells us that the purpose of love, regardless of time and place, has always been to create a certain kind of chaos. Today, the world is in need of this vital chaos to displace a chaos of a very opposite nature. A poison to destroy another. Bishey Bishokkhoy, as one says in Bangla.

From Cambodian myths to Norse myths, from Tarashankar Bandhopadhyay to Girish Karnad, from the Garden of Eden to the Temple of Athena, Naag Nagini Katha makes a genuine effort to tell the audience stories about snakes; venomous snakes that have slithered through time and space.

Here, the snakes appear as a lover, a benefactor, and at times as a curse. “Ekhane shaap premikaothoba, manob (Here, the snake is a beloved… or perhaps, a human)”.

Naag Nagini Katha, one must note, is a rebellion in performance – a rebellion for love.

However, the play could have been definitely more transgressive. I particularly was waiting for a more prominently audible female voice. Apart from the very graceful narratorial voice of Sima Ghosh, and some poignant scenes like that of the portrayal of sisterhood and the returning of the gaze after Medusa’s rape, or the revenge of Khora’s Bibi, the female in Naag Nagini Katha returns mostly as the perennial “object” of the patriarch’s desire, followed by victimhood and allegation, just as she had been in our myths.

But then, myths are dynamic. They travel and get reshaped, and the “transformed” language of the theatre demands to experience (and be exploited by) this process of mythification.

As the play progresses, one cannot but be impressed by the fascinatingly brave representation of sexuality, through the impeccable performances by the likes of Tapas Chatterjee, Aishik Roy Chowdhury, Kaustav Gupta, to name a few. Naag Nagini Katha triumphs with its robust musicality, and with a chorus that almost brings a Dionysian effect with its promise of celebration, remembrance and rage.

The play triumphs because it celebrates the oral culture of storytelling, and also because it tells stories of forbidden love – of love that is beyond norms, of love that takes real guts to be performed in our everyday. The snake slithers while knowledge and ignorance confront each other, the snake slithers during the awakening of the world, the snake slithers before and after every act of violence. In Manish Mitra’s play, the snake is always a ‘witness’. The serpent is shown to be simply inescapable.

Naag Nagini Katha, in essence, is a return to the practice of collective storytelling. It promises the audience occasional goosebumps and chills, with elaborate performances and a theatrical quality that is not only modern, but at the same time truly serpentine!

Suddhadeep Mukherjee is a student at the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, and is a published translator from Sahitya Akademi.

All images have been provided by the author.