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Sophocles, Oedipus, Creusa, and Plato by Shuvaprasanna
The Brink

Partition as Oedipal Tragedy: A Conversation between Bratya Basu and Milinda Banerjee

“Across all classes and strata, Bengalis live this double existence – we live like Don Quixote.”

Sophocles, by Shuvaprasanna

This is a condensed and annotated version of a conversation that took place between Bratya Basu (1969-), playwright and director, and Minister of Education of the Indian state of West Bengal, and Milinda Banerjee, on 4 July 2022. The original conversation was in Bengali; a translation is offered below. The dialogue focused primarily on Basu’s play Hridipash (2016), a Bengali adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, designed to explore the tragedy of the Partition of India in 1947. However, other plays by Basu also entered the discussion, especially Creusa, the Queen (2019), a Bengali adaptation of Euripides’ Ion.[1]

Sombu Mitra, by Shuvaprasanna

Milinda Banerjee: Thank you for agreeing to be in this conversation. My first question relates to the very form of the Greek tragedy, and how this may have influenced your plays. Since the independence and Partition of India in 1947, we see Bengali writers increasingly reference Greek tragedy. Communist poet Bishnu De’s (1909-82) references to Cassandra in poems from 1947 and 1953 come immediately to mind – India as a fallen Troy. But, above all, playwright-director Sombhu Mitra’s (1915-97) adaptation of Sophocles in Raja Oedipus (1964), as well as the Nandikar group’s adaptation Antigone, based on both Sophocles and Jean Anouilh, in 1975, in the midst of the suspension of democracy in India during the Emergency crisis. How do you place your adaptations of Greek tragedy within this historical trajectory?

Utpal Dutt, by Shuvaprasanna

Bratya Basu: Greek tragedy entered Bengal through the Bohurupee group, co-created by Sombhu Mitra – this staged the Bengali adaptation of Oedipus Rex in 1964. But the entry of Greek tragedy precipitated ideological conflicts. In Greek tragedy, destiny, Fate, sometimes appears as inexorable, infallible (amogh niyati), impelling tragedy. By contrast, in Elizabethan theatre, individual character traits are more important. For Marxian theatre, the world is subject to transformations, and these historical changes can be rationally explained. Hence, the notion of inexorable Fate in Greek tragedy aroused Marxian discomfort in India. The Communist Party attacked the morality of Oedipus. Communist playwright-director Utpal Dutt (1929-93) spoke pejoratively about the play.

Oedipus, by Shuvaprasanna

Personally, I was attracted to Greek myth right from my childhood days. The retellings (1955) of Robert Graves (1895-1985) particularly influenced me – Creusa is especially inspired by Graves. Sombhu Mitra’s Raja Oedipus – which I have never seen, but heard on record – also deeply influenced me. But, most important was my realization that the Partition was an Oedipal tragedy – a tragedy about killing the father and marrying/dominating the mother.

MB: In Hridipash, the hero Hriday confesses that “I am my father’s killer, the husband of my mother, progenitor of my sisters. My country (desh) is my mother, my community (sampraday) is my brother, my nation (jati) is my father.” The resonance between the tragedy of the Partition of India in 1947 and the Oedipus myth is clear. Hindu and Muslim politicians, alongside the British, were responsible for destroying undivided India. They and their successors ruled India and Pakistan, dominating and exploiting the maternal country. But, going beyond the Partition, is not any act of state-making an Oedipal act? In India, the foundational myth about the state is the legend of Prithu. As narrated by the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, more than two millennia ago, and as subsequently retold across Indian languages, the rise of the first “good king”, Prithu, happens only following the killing of his father Vena by the sages. In some versions of the myth, such as in the Vishnu Purana (first millennium CE), Prithu hunts, and even threatens to kill, the earth, who had taken the shape of a cow to flee from the huntsman-king. Prithu subjugates and exploits the maternal earth – a primal narrative of domination. Simultaneously, Indian discourses about kingship often speak about the marriage between the king and the earth. There are resemblances with how the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) later used the Biblical myth of Adam, in Two Treatises of Government, to speak about white colonial possession of the globe.

So, the act of state-creation perhaps necessarily involves violence: violence that is patricidal, killing the earlier political society; fratricidal, killing or expelling brothers – in the Prithu legend, his “dark-skinned” brother, progenitor of the Nishadas, is expelled, representing the marginalization of “lower caste/tribal” communities; in the Partition, the horrific killing and expulsion of millions of people. But state-making is also about reigning over, possessing, and enjoying maternal earth, while enslaving its human and nonhuman denizens. In case of the Partition, refugee movements led to further displacements of indigenous communities – across sub-Himalayan Bengal, northeastern India, the Andaman Islands. How do you posit the Oedipality of Partition within that longer history of violent state formation?

BB: You mentioned just now about the Nishadas. It is clear that the anaryas, the non-Aryans, were the original inhabitants of India, long before Indo-European or Indo-Aryan language speakers came in here. By transforming the Sphinx of the original Oedipus myth into Baram Devata, the god of the indigenous people of southwestern Bengal and Jharkhand, I wanted to recognize these non-Aryan roots of ours. He represents our adidevata, primordial god. This is Hriday’s roots. Here is the archaeo-Indian (pratna-bharatiya), the archetypal Indian. This is a history much more ancient than that of Hindu-Muslim conflict. Hriday’s identity is ultimately protean – he can stand for a high-caste Hindu, for a Muslim, or for an Adivasi. He is the son of a Hindu, Latu Upadhyay, but grows up Muslim – through his Santal mother/wife Jahnavi, he is also rooted in the Adivasi communities of western Bengal.

Today, our country is churned by the politics of identity claims. In West Bengal, we see the rise of Matua politics of the Namashudras, Santal politics, Koch Rajavamshi politics. Through the god Baram Devata, through the goddess Rankini Devi, I want to represent this collective politics. The gods are the totems of this politics.

In West Bengal/India as well as in East Bengal/Pakistan/Bangladesh, the lower castes have been dominated, victimized. Sectarian hatred and economic domination have combined to victimize them. Politicians have exploited poverty to foment sectarian clashes. But the history of India is a history of both division (vibhajan) and synthesis (samshlesh) – between castes, tribes, religions. Through division and unity what emerges is a compound that is more than the sum of its parts. Hriday is this compound, this is his noose (pash) – hridipash, the noose of the heart. Hriday can never forget these histories, these roots – hence, like Oedipus, he is inexorably drawn to uncover his origins. Even when the lower class becomes elite, he cannot forget his subaltern roots.

Creusa, by Shuvaprasanna

MB: As in Sophocles, so in your rendition, the hero is inexorably drawn to a tragic destiny. During the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946, Latu seeks to kill his (unrecognized) son Hriday, but the latter ends up killing his father instead. In Creusa, the eponymous queen similarly attempts to kill her (unrecognized) subaltern son Ion, though this is averted. In both Hridipash and Creusa, you dwell on fate. In the speech and song of Hriday through which you end the play, we get a sense that history moves through an inexorable march of conflict. In Creusa, you depart from the way that Euripides ended Ion. Instead, you end with a choral song by the three Fates, the Moirai – in your Bengali rendition, niyatikanya – with the spinning wheel. The Moirai speak of an inexorable necessity – they speak of the smile of their mother Nemesis. Humans slaughter each other and also give each other life and shelter; through this dialectical conflict (sangram), man moves forward, as does civilization (sabhyata). Through this struggle, the divine manifests, oracles speak – devata ashen, daivavani hay.

Plato, by Shuvaprasanna

I was immediately reminded of that famous passage in the Republic where Plato describes the Moirai singing with their spinning wheel. In fact, the exact phrase of Plato – the Moirai as θυγατέρες τῆς ἀνάγκης (Republic 10.617c), daughters of Ananke, Necessity – is translated in your Bengali compound-word niyatikanya. You reference Plato’s description of human fates extensively in Creusa. The image of life as a thread, and its association with goddesses, is, of course, a very archaic Indo-European motif. But my question to you is – why does fate play so central a role in your vision?

BB: Indians traditionally believed in karma, in rebirth. From the late nineteenth century, particularly due to the writings of Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-73), a Greek-influenced model of Fate (niyati) entered into Bengali. Bengali literature and theatre in the colonial era often dwelt on themes of fate, destiny, necessity – fate assumed the role of a goddess.

I feel this niyati. It is the result of human action (manusher kritakarma), but humans are not fully in control of it. Some see it as a supernatural power, some as God. In case of the Partition, what if Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) had died before 1947, instead of in 1948? Gandhi too died within a year of Independence. We are carrying a line of cursed blood (abhishapta rakter dhara amra bahan karchhi).

B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956) observed that as long as caste exists, people will leave Hinduism. Divisions between Hindus and Muslims existed before the twentieth century. In the colonial period, high-caste Hindus adopted Western education, collaborated with the British, and looked down on Muslims and lower-caste communities. This was a treason (vishvasghatakata) by the middle-class elites, directed against the lower classes. And then revenge came. We have created our action (kritakarma) – this is destiny (niyati).

MB: Does history embody divine justice, then?

Sartre, by Shuvaprasanna

BB: Hitler faced divine justice, but Stalin did not. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), in his play The Condemned of Altona (1959), questioned the existence of divine justice. After all, only some German war criminals faced justice at Nuremberg. But, in general, as with the individual, so with politics, we have to face the fruits of our action (kritakarmer phal chokate hay). Greek tragedy is based on this. In Shakespeare, as in Macbeth, we also see this. Those responsible for collaborating with the British in 1757 to depose and kill Sirajuddaulah (1733-57), to bring the British to power in Bengal, all faced the consequences. Miran (d. 1760) died from lightning; Robert Clive (1725-74) had to commit suicide. I describe these deaths in my play Mir Zafar (2018). We may call this social or divine justice, or even the vengeance of nature (prakritir parishodh). This plays out in politics too. There is a curse (abhishap) on Bengal – I do not know how long we have to bear it.

Mir Zafar, by Shuvaprasanna

There is a relation between the roots of an individual and the roots of a nation. My family has roots in Ulpur, in eastern Bengal. I am a postcolonial uprooted (chhinnamul) refugee (udbastu) Bengali, a Bangal. I am like Oedipus – driven by Fate (niyati tarita).

MB: I see a resemblance between G. W. F. Hegel’s (1770-1831) interpretation of Greek tragedy and yours. In Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) and in Philosophy of Right (1820), Hegel outlines how divisions within society – and, for Hegel, society is a Being, the Spirit in its different moments – precipitate tragedy. Hence, Sophocles’ Antigone is the perfect tragedy for him – the irreconcilable conflict between woman and man, family and state, divine law and human law. The historian Ranajit Guha (1923-) also invoked Antigone, and compared it with the Indian epic Ramayana, to speak about the conflicts between demands of family/kinship and demands of state – the woman, Antigone or Sita, ranged against the male state, represented by Creon and Rama. The founder of the Subaltern Studies collective seems to have found in Antigone a register of subaltern communitarian protest against the state.

In your play Hridipash, we see political violence, state-creating violence, rend apart bonds of kinship. In Creusa, the queen says that “we are always ready to kill our children”, “in the name of religion, in the name of the state”. The Partition is ultimately a tragedy of families, of communities, rent apart by sovereign violence. The state, backed by religious majoritarianism, foments fratricide, patricide. Does state-making always precipitate a crisis of care? Do you see the history of contemporary India as a Hegelian tragedy?

Shakespeare, by Shuvaprasanna

BB: India today is beset by conflict (vibhajan), by terror (santras). Opposition voices are being crushed.  My play Matsyanyaya (2021) focuses on this – an adaption of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, that is also inspired by the dramatist Banabhatta’s Harshacharita (seventh century CE). But in the midst of this conflictual struggle (sangram), there is also synthesis (samshlesh), attachment (maya), love (bhalobasa). 

MB: Hegel speaks of the movement of the world-spirit through history.

BB: Fate (niyati) is the sound of the footsteps of History (itihaser padadhvani), its march (kuchkavaj).

MB: What is the relation between theatre and the building of a polity? Hegel, for example, sees in the chorus the presence of the common people (das gemeine Volk). Can theatre strengthen the people, nurture democracy?

BB: In Bengal, theatre has been urban, or at least, semi-urban – it has been rootless (shikar vichchhinna). It has been less about popular/folk (lokaja) expression, and more about urban life. The rootlessness of urban politics is reflected in the rootlessness of theatre. We need to face the past (atitamukhi), understand history, to comprehend the roots of this present poverty. In other parts of India, this is not necessarily the case. For example, in Chhattisgarh, popular/folk theatre (lokanatya) remains rooted in the primordial (adim). But in Bengal, colonialism destroyed the possibility of this kind of rooted theatre.

These fractures, these dissonances, also make Bengali politics comical. The man of power is primarily a jester (bhnar). I underline this in Mir Zafar. It is as Rabelais depicts power.

MB: Does sovereignty become comical?

BB: Yes, across the nation (jatigatabhave).

MB: Many, though not all, linguists argue that the Greek word for the Fates, Moirai, is cognate with the Sanskrit/Bengali words for memory, smriti, and recollection, smarana. These words are cognate with Latin-origin “memory”, ultimately all deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root *smer. How do we think this relation between memory and fate or necessity? Hegel puts this in another way. He concludes the Phenomenology by speaking of History in terms of the Spirit’s recollection (Erinnerung) of its Becoming, its many movements and transformations. There is perhaps a properly tragic necessity to this march. Hence Hegel, obliquely alluding to the Crucifixion of Jesus, describes History as embodying and witnessing the Calvary, literally, skull-site, of the absolute Spirit (die Schädelstätte des absoluten Geistes). Returning then to the Partition, how do we reconcile memory and destiny? How do we remember the Partition, and how do we act on this tragic memory in carving out our individual and collective destiny? How necessary is the memory of the Partition?

Don Quixote, by Shuvaprasanna

BB: Is there a sense of the collective unconscious here? Man lives in memory – manush smritite banche. Man finds wellbeing (svasti) and comfort (aram) in the past. There is national memory (jatigata smriti) as well. Like Oedipus, man wants to dig out his past. By diving in, through descent into recollection (smritir avagamane dub diye), I have seen my ancestors and myself. There lies the sweetness (madhurya) and grandeur (mahatmya) of memory. There is a double existence here, like that of Don Quixote, who lives both in the medieval and the modern, fighting against windmills, living in imaginary castles.

Across all classes and strata, Bengalis live this double existence – we live like Don Quixote.

[1] I am grateful to Alapan Bandyopadhyay, Shuvatri Dasgupta, Enrico Emanuele Prodi, Giacomo Savani, and Philipp Sperner for their incisive comments, that have sharpened this piece.

Partition as Oedipal Tragedy: A Conversation between Bratya Basu and Milinda Banerjee

“Across all classes and strata, Bengalis live this double existence – we live like Don Quixote.”

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