Although the theme was a sober one the production was filled with a variety of sentiments.
The way of Dharma preached by the great Buddha emphasises the need to relinquish attachment to worldly ties. It is well known that the teacher cast aside the web of human bondage and attained nirvana but in this process The Buddha’s wife languished in his absence. JustUsRepertory’s production ‘Yashodhara’ looked at the plight of the beautiful princess, who was born into a luxurious life and yet suffered all the torments of the discarded wife and single mother.
Celebrated Hindi poet Maithili Sharan Gupt’s verses and Pali chants provided the backdrop for noted playwright Gowri Ramnarayan’s inputs in the form of script, music, choreographic design, direction and narration. Amritha Murali’s vocal and violin music, Mythili Prakash’s dance and dance composition formed the visible aspects of melody and movement while lighting by K. Venkatesh, sound by Akhila Ramnarayan and stage management and percussion by Sheejit Krishna made up other artistic inputs.
Yashodhara was recently staged at Rukmini Arangam, Kalakshetra, for the launch of Sruti magazine’s Sruti Apps. It unfolded as a complete theatre experience where one could see, hear and feel the protagonist’s story.
Although the theme was a sober one it was filled with a variety of sentiments and theatrical devices that prevented it from becoming a mere gloomy trip of reminiscences. The show’s contemporary viewpoint made it relevant to today’s context where the woman still fights single-handedly on many fronts. The production is slated to tour USA in the coming months.
Gowri Ramnarayan’s oratory not only cemented the production together but at times became the subtle reverberation for the heroine’s angst. Mythili Prakash merged with the personality of the graceful princess and Amritha Murali’s music, rich in bhava, became the voice of the character.
As the onlooker I perceived not one but three Yashodharas on stage relating their understanding in different ways. In a conversation with the three, this writer explored the multi-faceted approach in the production. I began with Gowri.
What were the inspirational forces that shaped Yashodhara?
“Yashodhara was first staged in December 2012 for The Epic Women Conference curated by Anita Ratnam for the Kartik Fine Arts and AranghamTrust. Since then it has been staged several times mostly for theatre audiences. I was intrigued by this woman’s life which resonated with so much intensity. In the course of a visit to Sanchi I was struck by the beautiful carving of a lotus on one of the entrance pillars of the shrine- to me that denoted Yashodhara. The Buddha said Desire is the root of all evil but I was struck by her situation as she had to undergo so much torment because of love for her husband and her child and yet she rose above it. The story of Yashodhara is my story, your story and everyone’s story and I wanted to express this universality.
“The production uses the modern technique of continuity that means entries and exits are seamless and there is a sense of flow from one scene to another. While Maithili Sharan’s memorable verses have been extensively used I wanted to place my perspective also. Here she is a very human character who can think, question and demand the right or wrong of the circumstances.”
Could you elaborate on the significance of her painting a picture of The Buddha?
“The idea of her being an artist endows her with an ability to see beyond the mundane. So her artistic aspect empowers her in connecting the past, present and in reaching the inevitable conclusion.”
There are a wide range of emotions in the play. How did you ensure they were effectively engaged?
“I have used images to highlight ideas for instance, the long scarf that is at once a baby or a garland, as well as the recurring symbol of the lotus. We have also used tresses to accentuate different frames of mind. The long braid stabs at her like serpents when she misses her husband but coils sensuously when she thinks of happy moments and in the final scene she uses them to wipe her tears from his feet. Editing is crucial to the impact of the production; the length of the play is now one-hour thirty minutes (it has been shortened by fifteen minutes) which has helped the narrative move faster.
The most exciting part was setting the music. We rehearsed extensively over several months so the work grew in response to the music and Hindi verses and accordingly there are ragas such as Pahadi, Rageshri, Hameer, Sindhubhairavi and tunes to match the scene’s expressiveness.”
Amritha’s music provided the aural complexity and her final tune in Yamankalyani evoked poignancy.
What is your interpretation, Amritha, on the way the music moved for the production?
“I loved working on this project, as I could identify with Yashodhara not in the sense of an abandoned woman but in that many of us face similar dilemmas. Musically the ragas were Hindustani based as the main language was Hindi. It took us several months to complete the composing when the music, dance and choreography grew organically together. The subject is very deep and people have always responded to the evocative music, which is Gowri’s brainchild.
“A big challenge was singing to the recorded instrumental music and although I had also played the violin for the track I had to get the right balance – to offer the necessary feeling in my singing as the Princess, but not get carried away to the extent I lose my hold of the music, the cues or the dance. Nisha Rajagopalan has also performed for some shows as the solo vocalist. Wherever I have performed I get very emotional towards the finish when the princess becomes a monk.”
Mythili Prakash’s fluid dancing ensured the character reached out without any ambiguities. How has the dance grammar evolved?
Mythili explained: “The dance went with the musicality so my Bharatanatyam harmonised with the mood, when she is happy, or when retaining the aura of the jatis, being angry or suicidal or her expectation when he attains nirvana. My mentoring with senior artist Malavika Sarukkai helped in that each emotion and movement fitted in and connected so well with the other parts. The script was very comprehensive, yet I discovered something new through my dancing each time we went onstage.
“The dance vocabulary flowered in the meandering process of the many discussions with Gowri. We went through the work over and over and this showed in the way adavus, body language, a few Kalari inspired movements were interlaced as one. I always feel that the scene where Yashodhara lets go, when she sheds the final tendrils of grief and fills her heart with forgiveness and compassion is especially close to my heart.”
Yashodhara’s success lay in the fact that those who came believing that the Buddha had abandoned his wife, left with the understanding that ultimately he enabled her to tread his path of enlightenment.