Bombay Gnanam’s ‘Sri Bhagavan Nama Bodendral’ was a wonderful amalgam of good acting, great backstage support, and above all, a strong story.

The all-woman Mahalakshmi Ladies Drama Group recently staged its new play ‘Sri Bhagavan Nama Bodendral’ for four days this past weekend at Narada Gana Sabha, and all the shows ran to a full house. What more can the theatre group ask for, in its silver jubilee year!

Bombay Gnanam, credited with screenplay, dialogue and direction, virtually spun a meditative web as the play unfolded.

Another unique feature, something Tamil theatre has not seen before, was that the actors had to lip sync to pre-recorded dialogue, with right body language and emotion. The actors adroitly handled this to a funambulist’s perfection. Special credit goes to Bombay Gnanam for getting the best out of every actor and efficiently managing the cast and crew of about 40 each. Make-up (Shekar and Kannan), set design (Mohan Babu) and lights (‘Artistic’ Ravi) came together seamlessly to create a telling impact. Bombay Gnanam and her colleague conducted the audience through the drama with their crisp narration.

The plot

A childless couple pray to the 58th pontiff of Sri Kanchi Sankara Mutt, Sri Viswathykendra Saraswathy, and within a year, are blessed with a male child. As ordained by Viswathikar, the child is named Purushothaman. The parents’ joy is short lived as the mutt chief requests them to leave the baby in his care.

A poignant moment, this scene was carefully perceived without any overacting from the cast while keeping the melodrama intact. Jayanthy as Viswathikar was serenity personified here. The child Purushothaman grows up learning the Vedas with other children. He strikes a special bond with Gnanasagaran, another vatu of the mutt whose philosophical approach to life belies his age. Here, the stage was divided into three sections and each was spot-lit to effectively portray the boys’ transformation into men of learning.

While the mutt chief is away at Kasi, Purushothaman yearns to be with him and learn Brahma Vidhdhai. Gnanasagaran refuses to go with him but finally agrees on a condition. “If I die en route, you have to do the final rites and on reaching Kasi, jump into the Ganges and lose your life.” Midway, Gnansagaran dies of a viral infection. Purushothaman reaches Kasi and falls at his Guru’s feet and apprises him of the vow. He gets a nod and a smile. For the Guru knows the Ganges will him throw him back when Purushothaman jumps in. And it happens. The Guru gives him the kashaya vastram (saffron robes) and the dhandam (a staff), signifying his appointment as successor and the 59th pontiff of the mutt.

Symbolically, Purushothaman keeps the promise he had made to his friend. His life as a layman ends and his anointment into sainthood is virtually a rebirth. He is named Sri Bhagavan Nama Bodhendra Saraswathi (Bodendral). His guru teaches him the importance of chanting ‘Rama’ and ‘Govinda’ nama and instructs him to travel to Puri to collect a book called ‘Nama Koumudhi’ written by Lakshmidhara Kavi, which would help him understand and propagate the power of Nama and also induce him to write slokas on ‘Nama Siddhantham.’

There, near the author’s house, a young woman molested and disfigured by a group of men, cries for forgiveness. The poet’s son asks her to chant ‘Rama’ aloud thrice and bathe in the temple tank; she will be purified and get back her original looks. Bodendral, a witness to the entire event, endorses it. The lady obeys and is back to her original form, much to the surprise of the villagers.

Thereafter, Bodendral travels widely, spreading Nama Siddhantham and performing miracles along the way. He chooses Govindapuram near Kumbakonam, on the banks of Cauvery, as the place of his attainment of mukthi. He plays with the children on the river bank and promises to perform tricks if they bury him alive in the sand dune. Reluctantly, the children do so and Bhagavan Nama Bodhendral attains Jeeva Samadhi chanting Rama nama.

The play ended with a brilliant Kolattam by young girls. Tara Srinivasan portrayed Bodhendral aptly with perfect body language and soulful eyes. Dubbing voices, yet another plus point of the play, had been drawn from regular theatre actors such as MB.Moorthy, ‘Kala Nilayam’ Chandru and Gopi. Giridharan’s background score was fitting while soulful singing by J.B. Keerthana and Mumbai Shilpa gave the right touch to the proceedings.

That saving jump!

Here is a superb example of team work. Midway through the play, the stage managers forgot to remove some props and the next scene was about to begin. Lights Ravi’s signals from the pit went unnoticed. Finally, he did a Fosbury flop (a particular style of high jump) and pushed aside the set and, in a split second, was back with a reverse jump thus saving the group of an embarrassing moment!