Nuraldeen’s Lifetime


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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