The play ‘Arjunan Thapasu’ showed how the Mahabharata connects to the contemporary world. The 105-minute play was a dazzling display of power-packed performances, subtle humour and acrobatics.

Last weekend witnessed the coming together of a leading contemporary theatre movement and a performance company committed to promote contemporary theatre while being rooted in tradition. Koothu-P-Pattarai performed for the first time at the Sir Ratan Tata Koothukovil at Adi Shakti.

The play ‘Arjunan Thapasu’ details the story of Arjuna, the Pandava prince, as he undertakes penance to obtain the lethal Paasupathastra weapon from Lord Shiva, and all the obstacles he faces before he gets the weapon. The 105-minute play was a dazzling display of power-packed performances, subtle humour and acrobatics, relying on minimal sets and simplistic costumes.

A notable feature of the play was that no actor played a single character throughout. They interchanged roles in every scene. So how difficult was it? “It has been attempted by other troupes before. We are trying it for the first time. It is quite tough. It takes time for a character to be established on stage, and as soon as that is achieved, the role is handed over to another actor,” says Ganapathy ‘Babu’ Hariharan, a member of the cast. “We all read the play together and came up with different interpretations. Our director insisted that we play each role in our own way, while keeping the spirit of the role intact.”

But the most striking aspects were the departures from the original story by Sage Vyasa.

“I was inspired by the dramatic elements in the Mahabharata Koothu ritual. The characters of the enchantress Mohini and Perandi, which are not a part of Vyasa’s version of the story, appear in the koothu version. I have incorporated them into my play,” explains Na. Muthuswamy, founder-director of Koothu-P-Pattarai and author of the play.

In the play, Eklavya’s disciples try to reason with Lord Shiva to withhold the weapon, saying that a skilled archer with destructive weapons in his quiver does not need the lethal Paasupathastra. The peaceful alternative to the war that they suggest is the tongue in cheek ‘women’s fragrance.’ But this is rejected by Draupadi, who wants to avenge the injustice done to her by the Kauravas.

“All countries today are acquiring nuclear weapons, in their quest for power. War seems to be the solution to issues. This has been true since the time of the Mahabharata. The similarities are remarkable,” says Muthuswamy. It is perhaps this union of the contemporary with tradition that attunes this play to Adi Shakti’s aim of creating a “contemporary hybrid aesthetic”.

“This is a part of the interaction and dialogue I have had with Koothu-P-Pattarai for years,” says Veenapani Chawla, founder and artistic director of Adi Shakti Laboratory for Theatre Art Research. “I first met Na. Muthuswamyin the early 1980s. He was researching the therukkoothu art form then, and it was interesting to listen to him talk about it.” “I could gain the benefit of his insights when I wrote my first script,” she smiles. Since then, Koothu-P-Pattarai has been a part of some of Adi Shakti’s projects, including a translation workshop in March 2007. “Muthuswamy is a stalwart in the field of art and theatre. He is the sort of person who inspires relationships, like the one Adi Shakti shares with Koothu-P-Pattarai,” she says.

And with the staging of ‘Arjunan Thapasu’ this relationship has crossed yet another milestone.