- Bankrupt by Galiäsgar Kamal, and: The Blue Shawl by Kärim Tinchurin, and: Mullah by Tufan Minnulin
Tatarstan, a semi-autonomous national republic situated on the Volga River, is home to the Tatars, a traditionally Islamic people who speak a Turkic language. The sixteenth-century conquest of Tatarstan marked the beginning of Russian imperial expansion, and since that time the Tatars have navigated between assimilation into a greater Russia and the preservation of their own traditional culture. The Galiäsgar Kamal Tatar National Academic Theatre (TNAT) was born of this tension in 1906 by intellectuals who saw a theatre grounded in Western aesthetics as a way to serve the Tatar national culture and promote a Tatar national identity that was compatible with the demands and possibilities of modern life at the dawn of the twentieth century. As several recent productions currently in the theatre’s repertoire make clear, today, the TNAT holds firm to its tradition of celebrating Tatar national culture while examining its relationship to the conditions of the present.
In 2014, Färit Bikchäntäev, the artistic director of the TNAT who also directed all of the productions discussed here, revived one of the earliest classics of the Tatar repertoire, Bankrupt, written in 1911 by Galiäsgar Kamal (for whom the theatre was renamed in 1939). Bankrupt is a satire of Tatar merchant society centered on the antics of Sirajetdin, a trickster who hatches a plan to ease his debt to Moscow creditors after reading of a robbery on the Kazan– Moscow train. After withdrawing a large sum of money from the bank to pay his creditors, Sirajetdin replaces the cash with newspaper before beginning a trip to Moscow, during which he is “robbed.” He then pretends that the disaster has caused him to lose his mind. When the Moscow creditors come to Kazan to investigate the situation, they decide that it will be impossible for them to fully recoup their investment and agree with Sirajetdin’s brothers to settle for the repayment of a small percentage of their loan. After the new contract is signed, a doctor “cures” Sirajetdin of his madness. [End Page 109]
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Bikchäntäev’s production contextualized the play for contemporary audiences by attempting to convey the shock of modernity to Tatars living in the early twentieth century. It opened with a streetcar driving straight at the audience, which is both shocking on its own and a clear reference to the famous anecdotes about audiences diving out of the way during screenings of the Lumières’ Arrival of a Train, the first motion picture shown in Russia. Sergei Skomorokhov’s set was comprised of dozens of wheels, which would periodically begin spinning, creating a sense of frenzied dynamism. He also updated some of the middle-class behavior satirized in the play. While he is on his trip to Moscow, Sirajetdin’s wife, Göljihan, plans to host a “French” party. In a series of comic scenes, she trains her servants to walk in a French manner, chooses a French outfit, and plans a French menu. Reminding us that obsessions with all things exotic and foreign are not just a thing of the past, two of Göljihan’s guests reminisce about her last “Japanese” party at which they were served sushi (a common feature on the menus of post-Soviet restaurants).
Its satire of the social mores of the early-twentieth-century merchant class notwithstanding, the main reason that Bankrupt has established itself as a classic is the character of Sirajetdin. Taking full advantage...