Pralayan’s ‘Vanchiyar Kaandam,’ seeks to liberate the Woman from the Kannagi image.Kausalya Santhanam

Playwright-director Pralayan delves deep into the Silappathikaram to come up with ‘Vanchiyar Kaandam,’ his latest work. Produced as part of the theatre workshop of the National School of Drama conducted in Thanjavur, the play directed by R. Raju, toured various places in Tamil Nadu, the recent one being staged in Chennai at the Bala Mandir German Hall. The play which takes a searching look at the depiction of Kannagi in the epic was directed in an arresting manner by R. Raju. Imaginative choreography, an intense script, percussion music and songs marked the work that brought a contemporary interpretation to an ancient text. Did Kannagi want to be deified? What would she have been like in actual life? Would she have wished to be placed on the pedestal as a symbol of chastity? Would she have chafed under the burden of being thus forcibly glorified?

Using the three characters of her stepmother-cum-wet nurse, her friend, and the daughter of the woman, who sheltered her and her once errant husband, we get a view of Kannagi and an insight into her very human thoughts and feelings. The picture that Pralayan projects is enough to shatter the complacency of all those who have been conditioned by the image of the heroine presented in the epic. Here is a woman who, while carrying the pain of rejection, feels competing with another woman for a man is the worst a woman can sink to. Kannagi does not conceal her admiration for Madhavi who is a talented woman and speaks her mind. Kannagi thinks she is a better role model than herself. The writer interweaves the epic and his own telling in a seamless fashion. His play argues for liberating women from the shackles of patriarchy.

Pralayan’s play takes off from where the Cheran king Senguttuvan commemorates the recently constructed temple to Kannagi in the Kuda hills. The character of Kannagi unravels from the recollections of the three women and is at variance with the deified image.

The heroine was able to freeze effectively into the familiar statue seen on the Marina but the actors, raw and inexperienced, generally displayed a lack of understanding of their roles, and the commitment and passion demanded. They were unable to exploit the potential and power of the play.

Focus on gender violence

“Two years ago, I directed the play for actors at a small workshop. We justify and mystify our cultural past but the past should not be a burden to us,” said Pralayan later to this writer. “Now with the focus on gender violence and awareness about woman’s rights, the play has gained a new resonance.”

“It is interesting too that the protagonist is a trader and not a king or a god,” pointed out Pralayan. “Kannagi was a simple woman, a victim of her time and society. She was later glorified as a symbol of chastity. In the 20th century, the DMK gave impetus to this glorification; the Tamil past was also glorified. But the past had its warts,” he added. “There was a strong caste hierarchy and there was slavery - Kannagi’s wet nurse is a conquered slave bought by Kannagi’s father and given to her as “seedhanam” (dowry). The silambu – anklet – is the leitmotif in my play. The silambu becomes a symbol of the victim.”

Why did he decide to take up the Silappathikaram which has seen many depictions? “It is because the epic is important in the Tamil context. It is non–religious - non-Saivite, non-Vaishnavite literature. Also, it is a fascinating social document. The landscapes are described and so too the life of the times –what the people wore, what they did, what they sold in the market. The description of the journey from Puhar to Madurai is like a journalist’s report. We have to understand the epic as social history and not as one imposing a burden on women.”

Director Raju spoke to me of how the play evolved. “I was a resource person at a theatre workshop conducted at a college in Tiruppattur. It was then that Pralayan and I performed this as a one-act play. Later, Pralayan developed it into a full-length play. Basically I don’t approach a work with preconceived ideas. I weave the emotions in the text and work on the visual imagery.”

Raju had already worked with two plays based on ‘Silappadikaram’ - Indira Parthasarathy’s ‘Kongai Thee’ and H.S. Sivaprakash’s ‘Madurai Kaandam.’ “Pralayan’s play that took a new look at the epic was an interesting experience. It appealed to me greatly as I always view works through the prism of the contemporary. I had worked earlier on the woman’s perspective - I directed Surendra Verma’s ‘Soorya Ki Antim Kiran Se Soorya Ki Pahli Kiran Tak.’ I especially liked the way in which Pralayan presents the suffering of the three women apart from Kannagi – the enslavement, the imprisonment in their roles and the humiliation they undergo.”

As for the lack of seasoned actors, “Where can you find seasoned women actors especially in parallel Tamil theatre?” asks Raju, who is head and dean of the Department of Performing Arts, Puducherry University. “Vanchiyar Kaandam” will tour numerous districts of Tamil Nadu again in May.