With some twists and turns, the retelling of ‘Sivagamiyin Sabadham,’ by Madurai Muralidharan and his team, was laudable.

You need confidence and passion to take on a classic such as ‘Sivagamiyin Sabadham,’ for it is a 1,000-page historical thriller that is filled with geographical and emotional landscapes of places and people, of political intrigue, romance, culture and the ‘hard life’ of a king. Set in the Seventh Century South India, ‘Sivagamiyin Sabadham’ is a compelling page-turner written by ‘Kalki’ R. Krishnamurthy in Tamil, who first serialised it in his publication, Kalki, for 12 years.

How can an elephant be made to fit into a matchbox? For prolific composer, mridangam player and dancer-teacher Madurai R. Muralidharan who conceptualised, composed, scripted and directed ‘Sivagamiyin Sabadham,’ along with D.A. Srinivas (music) and Chitra Muralidharan (choreography) in his most ambitious project to date, it was not only confidence but reverence for the text that drove the dance-theatre production of the same name.

Natya took centrestage

While Muralidharan’s three-hour production stayed faithful to the story, the beautiful heroine Sivagami (baby, Kavyalakshmi Muralidharan, Uma Muralikrishna) and her divine art of Bharatanatyam took centre stage. There was more romance than intrigue in the retelling, which was essentially black and white.

Not to be taken literally, because one of the highlights was the colour and opulence in Muralidharan’s use of larger-than-life sets (Padmavasan), rich lighting and dramatic group dances, but in a metaphorical sense that there was no room for the layers of characterisations - for example Sivagami’s pride and ambition, Naganandi’s all encompassing love for Sivagami’s art that slowly turns carnal, Aayanar’s obsessions with the secret of the Ajanta cave paintings… Muralidharan took the artistic liberty of modifying the sequence of narration. The production began in the fourth part of the book when Aayanar Chirpi (J. Suryanarayanamurthy) laments his daughter Sivagami’s abduction, recollecting the happy days in a short flashback. There followed another long flashback when Narasimha Pallava (Parshwanath Upadhye) recollects his childhood romance with Sivagami in a conversation with his wife, just before he leaves for the war in Vatapi.

From thereon, the action moves forward to Sivagami’s incarceration in Vatapi, the bloody war, Narasimha Pallava’s victory procession with his family and ends with Sivagami’s acceptance of her tragic love story and her surrender to Lord Ekambareswara.

The scale of the production was one of Muralidharan’s biggest triumphs. That he could pull off a cast of over a 100 actors and dancers, and still present a zero-error show was an achievement. The detailed musical score and the state of the art techniques (Deepa Mahadevan and Rinitha) also combined to translate an absorbing Tamil classic into an engrossing and well-finished dance-drama.

The art work deserves special mention, with Padmavasan’s Indian Ink sketches digitised and projected as massive backdrops, some with 3D effects, that immediately took one back in time. The well-coordinated group choreographies and tableaux were a major draw in ‘Sivagamiyin Sabadham.’ The opening Siva Namavali invocation and the folk presentation were some of the grand spectacles that peppered the performance.

In terms of artistic touches, the highest point was during the big war between the Pallavas and the Chalukyas, where the soldiers falling were captured in slow motion with flexible male dancers performing the moves.

The show essentially belonged to the talented Kavyalakshmi who was the youthful Sivagami. Her sense of timing, expressions and sincere execution of steps, even if the choreography seemed very filmy in many places, were noteworthy. Uma Muralikrishna as the senior Sivagami was mature, but jumping in at the deep end suddenly, she struggled to bring on the intensity required in her portrayal. Muralidharan spewed venom as the poison-immune Naganandi. He played the dual roles of Naganandi and his twin brother Emperor Pulikesi II, and their conversation on a moonlit night was achieved with Naganandi standing within the conical rays of a spotlight and Pulikesi in a pre-recorded conversation projected on the back. Technology can make it happen, but the effect was rather contrived. Thirunavukkarasar’s padigam, ‘Munnam Avanudaya Naamam Kaettaal’ that recurs in the story was presented in two different moods - once when Sivagami is deeply in love and the other time when she is broken and decides to dedicate her art to god. They were poignant moments in the drama, and their contrasting moods made them more so.

‘Sivagamiyin Sabadham’ was a crisp production with excellent production values, no lag in energy, a bit filmy and melodramatic, yet riveting.