Natyarangam’s annual fest is opening Thursday next, with the Mahabharata in focus. The epic has become part of the Indian collective consciousness says Dr. Prema

“The characters of the Mahabharata have a timeless appeal,” says Dr. Prema Nandakumar as she divulges details about this year’s theme for Narada Gana Sabha Trust’s Natyarangam festival. The 13th edition of this annual Chennai event will see artists re-create important episodes from Vyasa’s epic over seven days from August 27 to September 2.

Dr. Prema, a scholar on the epic and one of the resource persons for ‘Bharatham Mahabhaaratham,’ says, “As the longest poem consisting of one lakh verses, the Mahabharata has become part of the Indian collective consciousness. The human drama it portrays and its grand characters transcend barriers of time, place and race.”

According to Janaki Srinivasan, an organising committee member of Natyarangam, “Every Indian art form has been influenced and inspired by the Mahabharata. At Natyarangam, we have been trying to take up the epic as a theme for the past few years. But it never worked out. Finally, this year, everything fell in place and the result is ‘Bharatham Mahabhaaratham’.”

The idea was taken forward with the collective effort of Natyarangam’s core group comprising R. Krishnaswami, Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, Kalpakam and Maj. Gen. A. Balasubramaniam, K.S. Subramanian, S. Kannan, Charukesi and S. Janaki.

The format

What makes this year’s format stand apart from the previous years is the inclusion of other art forms. So, if a folksy flavour is added with villu pattu, therukoothu and isai natakam, a touch of drama is lent through theatre and poetry reading, besides Harikatha and a discourse. These acts will precede the Bharatanatyam performance, each day.

Janaki explains, “We wanted to include other performing arts as it would make the event complete. So, one character is presented first in a classical or folk art form and then interpreted through the idiom of Bharatanatyam.”

Says Dr. Prema, “We decided to follow Vyasa’s text and zeroed in on seven characters — Bhishma, Ambai-Sikandi, Kunti, Karna, Draupadi, Arjuna and Krishna. As uttama (noble) nayakas and nayikas, these men and women represent the strong currents and undercurrents of the tale that reaches its climax in the Game of Dice, with its denouement on the fields of Kurukshetra. The destinies of some of the characters are inexorably interlinked as in the case of Bhishma and Ambai, Kunti and Karna, Draupadi, Krishna and Arjuna. But, we have tried to avoid repetition as far as possible.”

Dr. Prema

The expert continues, “If you observe closely, one episode in the lives of each of these characters troubles their conscience throughout their lives. In Bhishma’s case, it was the rejection of Amba and his vow (Bhishma pratigya). In fact, he is supposed to have kept an eye on Amba-Sikandi throughout and knew she would be the cause of his death. So, V.P. Dhananjayan will focus on these aspects in his performance of Bhishma. Similarly, Krishna will be projected as the warrior and an ambassador of peace. Sheejith Krishna will conclude with ‘Gitopadesam.’

Sreelatha Vinod’s Draupadi will not be an angry and bitter woman but a happy wife, a complete woman, while Rohini will read out verses from Subramania Bharati’s ‘Panchali Sabadam’ to lend a different dimension to the character. The fact that she abandoned Karna troubled Kunti all the time. In Chithra Chandrasekhar Dasarathi’s recital, Kunti finally acknowledges Karna as her son and asks Yudhishtira to perform his last rites. As for Arjuna, his marriage with Uloopi and his jealousy of Ekalavya will be some aspects which Srikanth will tackle. Sridhar and Anuradha will highlight Karna’s antipathy towards Bhishma.” As a natural conclusion, most Bharatanatyam presentations will conclude with Gitopadesam.

Finally, on the choice of dancers, the organisers had one simple rule: as far as possible, avoid selecting artists who were featured last year. “That way, the show will have some freshness.” Besides, a brochure with an essay on the Mahabharata by Dr. Prema Nandakumar and illustrations by The Hindu cartoonist Keshav will be available.

For more information, call 28128075.

What’s on?

The schedule for the fest:

Venue: Narada Gana Sabha

August 27, 5.45 p.m.: Inauguration; talk by Dr. Prema Nandakumar; V.P. Dhananjayan (Bhishma)

August 28, 6.15 p.m.: Usha Rani in ‘Paniththee’ (Isai Natakam and Therukoothu); Priya Murle (Ambai)

August 29, 6.15 p.m.: Dr. Sudha Seshayyan (discourse on Kunti); Chithra Dasarathi Chandrasekhar (Kunti)

August 30, 6.15 p.m.: Nasser (theatre-Karna); Sridhar and Anuradha (Karna)

August 31, 6.15 p.m.: Rohini (poetry reading Panchali Sabadam); Sreelatha Vinod (Draupadi)

September 1, 6.15 p.m.: Kothamangalam Viswanathan (villu paatu-Arjuna); Srikanth (Arjuna)

September 2, 6.15 p.m.: Girija Ramaswamy (Harikatha-Krishna); Sheejith Krishna (Krishna)