Theatre doyen Kavalam Narayana Panikkar continues to be inspired by Indian modes of theatrical practice. ‘Rang Panikkar’, a festival of his plays in Jaipur, showcased the signature style of the playwright.

Indian theatre in the post Independence decades has been witness to a continuing process of creating an idiom that makes every effort to be vibrant, dynamic, contemporary and rooted. The legendary, mythological, and folk combine with traditional performance aesthetics to remain integral to the creation of a dramatic structure on the one hand, while, on the other, the proscenium, with all the possibilities offered by theatre practices of the West, vie for space here.

‘Rang Panikkar’ a festival of six plays by playwright and theatre director, Kavalam Narayana Panikkar in Sanskrit, Malayalam, and Hindi, organised by Natyakulam in Jaipur, reaffirmed the fact that, in the domain of art, language is never a barrier, nor would the desi and margi tradition cease to enrich the theatrical idiom.

The six plays staged included Bhasa’s ‘Madhyamavyayogam’ and ‘Karnabharam’, Kalidasa’s ‘Malavikagnimithram’ and Bhavabhuti’s ‘Uttara Rama Charitam’. The playwright’s own ‘Theyya Theyyam’ and ‘Kalivesham’ were also staged at the event. Kavalam Narayana Panikkar’s plays explore the modes of theatrical expression that are embedded in Natyashastra, the folk, tribal and performing arts, and the Sanskrit plays handed down by Bhasa, Kalidasa, Bhavabuti, Saktibhadra and Bodhayana which he explains thus, “I went to the roots to seek the essence of theatre and it was Sanskrit theatre that threw up immense possibilities. Even when the tendency to look West to draw inspiration for plays was the trend, I journeyed to our own theatre practices, the ‘desi’ and the ‘margi’, and the Sanskrit plays.”

Rasa theory

According to this much feted playwright the ‘rasa’ theory which is unique to the Indian theatre tradition is what elevates the performance, both for the performer and the spectator.

Contemporary theatre cannot attain the ‘rasa’ that a Chakyar achieves in Koodiyattam. Elaborating on this feature he adds, “Where else would you find death being endowed with a finesse that is incomparable – celebratory and emotional, the tone and tenor varying according to the context. There is a fine balance that has to be constantly sought out for the ‘angikam, vaachikam and the aharya’ elements encapsulated in actor to achieve success in performance.”

‘Madhyamavyayogam’ was Kavalam’s maiden play in Sanskrit and at the Festival it set the tenor. “It was not with the idea of a setting in motion a revival of interest in Sanskrit that I drew from these plays, but from the awareness that it would only be a synthesis of the Sanskrit theatre practices, the foundation laid by Natyasasthra and our many little traditions that a new idiom could be moulded,” he explains.” Habib Tanvir and B.V. Karanth were also doing Sanskrit plays during this period, but in translation, he adds. In practice, people have come to appreciate the ‘theatre of roots’, which introduces the ingredients of indigenous theatre. Three part-breaking plays in this genre that appeared around the same time were ‘Urubhang’ by Rattan Thiyyam and ‘Mitti ki Gari’ by Tanvir and ‘Madhyamavyayogam’ by Kavalam.

New play

Not one to sit back on laurels, Narayana Panikkar is now re-working ‘Pratima’ (at the behest of the Madhya Pradesh government), where the three heroines of Kalidasa – Shakuntala, Urvashi and Malavika – appear as facets of Nature. The women, thus become personification of creation as perceived in Nature and in the woman herself, to that extent making their male counterparts less relevant in the altered context.