Man of the Heart
nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
April 27, 2006
The name Lalon Phokir is not one immediately recognizable to an American audience, but ostensibly Sudipto Chatterjee aims to change that with his biographical production of Lalon entitled Man of the Heart. The show, which follows the life of the 19th century Bengali sage, integrates much of what Lalon himself wrote, alongside bits of information about the life, and myth, of Lalon.
Playwright/performer Chatterjee admits to a lifelong obsession with Lalon, which, given the details of the mystic’s life, is not that surprising. Lalon lived to be 116, and came of age in India during the beginnings of British colonization. Though biographies of him conflict, Lalon apparently was born a Hindu and became a Muslim after a near-death experience with smallpox and his adoption by a Muslim father. In spite of his being a poor farmer, he attracted thousands of followers in his lifetime, becoming well known for his popular but arcane songs. He also was well known for his reluctance to define himself as either Muslim or Hindu, saying that it was the heart that matters in worship. He embraced both Hindu and Muslim religious beliefs in his highly spiritual compositions.
Chatterjee puts tremendous faith in Lalon’s successful merging of the religious messages of Islam and Hinduism, which so often violently oppose each other. He sees hope and urgency in exposing Lalon to a larger, modern audience. However, while the message may be urgent, it is not coming through clearly in this piece. Man of the Heart suffers from a muddled text, which leads to an often unclear meaning.
Lalon sings in riddles, whose intended esotericism has both a covert and a religious value. His koan-like verses hide his message from those who are not intended or prepared to receive their true meaning—especially authority figures in the new Imperial government occupying India. But the riddles of this play are less effective. The piece works best when Lalon’s songs (performed beautifully in Bengali by Chatterjee, with supertitles) speak for themselves. He was a master of making anchored irreconcilable differences seem weightless, and his works stand as a testament to that. But Man of the Heart lacks Lalon’s own strength and subtlety. It carries itself heavily, lumbering from a dense scholarly analysis of the mystic’s meaning and relevance to strange inexplicable tangents on colonialism or tantric sex. There is a huge amount of seemingly unrelated information, with few satisfying transitions to help explain them.
Part of the problem with Man of the Heart is that it seems to want to do too much with Lalon. It wants both to explain him and to leave him inexplicable. It takes on not only his biography, but his place in history. It tackles his conflicting mythologies and his most opaque religious texts. An hour of Chatterjee performing his songs would be enormously gratifying. However, after two hours of jumping from biography to enactments of Lalon’s poems to piecemeal video footage in projection, it becomes confusing and tedious to try to make sense of it all. In a play that has no clear beginning, middle, or end, it is enormously difficult to feel compelled forward through the entire piece. It seems the same thing could have been compacted into half the time, and to greater effect.
Chatterjee, and director Suman Mukherjee, are not wrong in supposing that the inspiring life and works of Lalon are stageworthy, nor are they wrong in expecting how much modern audiences could benefit from Lalon’s message. But this high-aiming production somehow misses the mark, leaving much of what might be gained from Lalon’s insights to remain in the dark for a while longer. Perhaps it takes too much on, and focusing on a smaller chunk of Lalon Phokir could make this production as luminescent as its promise? Or perhaps something was just lost in translation.