Madras Players' “Karna” skilfully wove various strands from varied sources to depict the moving story of the warrior prince
Karna is one of the most charismatic characters in the Mahabharata. His personality — a mix of generosity, valour and loyalty — forever fascinates. Made vulnerable by deceit and treachery, cheated out of his due by cunning stratagems, steadfastly loyal to a man who has been his benefactor but who is evil, he is yet invincible — true to himself and the values he holds most dear. He illuminates the epic and the battlefield, and though overcome at Kurukshetra lives on forever, a byword for all that is noble and giving.
“Karna”, with script, design and direction by Prasanna Ramaswamy, was presented recently by the Madras Players at the Sivagami Pethachi auditorium. A number of elements — theatre, music, chants, dance and martial arts — were welded in the production. Sound effects and coordination were good.
Prasanna Ramaswamy's script wove various strands from varied sources to depict the story of Karna against whom Fate, his family and the gods conspire. It was a vast canvas that she sketched. The English translation was done with a fine sense (the translation of Vyasa Bharatam verses was by Prabha Sridevan) and in such a way that it did not create a feeling of cultural incongruity.
P.C. Ramakrishna put in a deeply-felt, finely-nuanced performance as Karna. His deep voice and stately demeanour brought out the character. Vidyuth Sreenivasan was the younger Karna.
The twin narrators took centre stage, a passionate Nikhila Kesavan with a quieter Mala Govias, proving a foil. They put in a well- synchronised performance, though sometimes one was too earnest and the other too matter-of-fact. But, so much time and lines devoted to the narrators and the building of the epic story meant cutting into the predicament of Karna. The play was located on the battlefield from where it wove back and forth, from past to present.
Prasanna is a writer and director whose work is marked with intensity and the ability to explore the inner self. In “Karna”, though there are quite a few references to the warrior being betrayed, the weight of the betrayal and the psychological trauma were not explored as deeply as expected. Ramakrishna, too, had much more to give to the role; soliloquies would have helped here. Too much space was devoted to his royal charioteer Shalya, some of which could have been Karna's. Vinod Anand as Shalya put in a performance that veered from the skilfully crafty to old Tamil cinema villainy.
Stark and elegant costumes (like the effective sets) would have helped bring out the intensity of the theme far better than the tinsel and the synthetics of the costumes of varying quality used here. Anita Ratnam, however, made a regal Kunti, and the pain of letting her son adrift came through. The Karna-Kunti scene was not powerful enough, and the Kalari sequence did not blend into the whole. The actor playing Duryodhana was miscast. The angels in their shimmery skirts and flying movements were best edited out. Mohamed Yusuf brought in humour as the wily Indra disguised as a Brahmin who divests Karna of his divine armour and ear ornaments. T.T. Srinath was a benign Surya. The prancing dancing young horses (Anita Guha's students) made for an endearing, well-choreographed segment while the drummers Nellai Manikandan and A. Shankar enhanced the martial atmosphere.
The singing by Swarna Rethas and Sandeep Narayan was a high point of the play, the director bringing the singers in at the right points, and the superb rendition building up or complementing the text and mood.
There were too many elements jostling for attention in “Karna”. There was more narration than depiction of inner worlds in the work and those who came to it with much expectation did not see this fulfilled. The space and time allotted to the final portions seemed disproportionately short compared to the building up. As was mentioned by the Madras Players at the end, the play testified to the group's commitment to stage different genres.