In the most powerful scene in Nuraldeen's Lifetime, Nuraldeen, the leader of a Bengali peasant revolt against British rule, recalls how his father, having sold his ox to pay confiscatory taxes, lowers the yoke onto his own shoulders and soon dies of exhaustion. His young son hears his father moo like a cow in his death throes and feels the same animal cry rending his own throat. Here the poetry and mystical imagery of Syed Shamsul Haq's 1982 verse play are most effectively communicated to an English-speaking audience. But even when the poetry flags, this historical drama of the failed 1780s peasant revolt against both rapacious Bengali landlords and their British masters has much of interest. Under the energetic direction of translator and dramaturg Sudipto Chatterjee, we are treated to two distinct cultures. We see the Bengalis' side of the conflict spoken in their own language (with somewhat awkward projected translations) and acted out with ritual movement, chanting, and song. And we observe the British bureaucrats, English in dress, words, manners, and bigotry. But this is no simpleminded indictment of the British.
Playwright Haq reminds us that oppression creeps up on all sides, as Bengali landlords bleed their own and the poorest of the English endure hardship to benefit the rich owners of the East India Company. Often the pace plunges forward with bugles, drums, and thumping spears. At times, it's slow and ceremonial, but the company is able, and there are several standout performances: Chatterjee as the heedlessly ecstatic rebel leader; Shaheen Kahn as Abbas, his wise, troubled counselor; and Baz Snider as the chastened British tax collector. The director has wrestled with problems linguistic and dramatic for a unique foray into a historic struggle with contemporary reverberations.
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