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As spectacular as ever

The sets were splendid and the performances perfect, with the veteran in fine form. R. S. Manohar returns with yet another magnificent production. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM reviews "Varaguna Pandiyan".

"Varaguna Pandiyan"... excellent team work.

R. S. MANOHAR makes a magnificentcomeback through his mega production ``Varaguna Pandiyan." The play staged at the Music Academy on March 30, was presented by the Sri Muthukrishna Swami Mission Trust in aid of its welfare activities. The mission undertakes feeding of the poor, provision of free medical facilities and drinking water, promotion of education through scholarships and encouragement of the arts, according to its head, Swami Vithamma.

The veteran actor, who took Tamil theatre to the heights of grandeur with his depiction of divine exploits and heroic battles, reinterpreting the characters of demons and epic heroes, is back with a story that speaks of the glory of Lord Siva. His previous spectacular offering ``Thirunavukkarasar" staged in 1994 dealt with a similar theme.

While others of his age may be content looking back on the impact they had made as artistes or directors, at 78 Manohar is making history walking the boards as the ardent Siva bhakta, the Pandya king whose devotion is all consuming.

For those who had witnessed his earlier productions and wondered whether he would be able to weave the same magic as before, the answer was obvious from scene one. The momentum was maintained till the fall of the curtain, the sets being changed in the twinkling of an eye and the scenes moving forward with smoothness and speed.

The story centred round the widower Pandya king, said to belong to the eighth century. Listening to the soul-stirring hymn of the Siva devotee, Bhanapatirar, in the shrine of Sri Chokkanathar at the Sri Meenakshi temple in Madurai, the emperor is enslaved by the Lord. The eternally moving theme of how complete surrender and devotion can achieve miracles is brought out through the incidents woven together seamlessly.

The king goes to war against the Chola ruler without his armour as he is confident that the Thiruneer (sacred ash) he has smeared over his body will protect him. So it does to the amazement of his ministers and generals. Only his ankle, which he omitted to cover, is wounded by an arrow. This is followed by the familiar story of the Lord appearing as a woodcutter to save Bhanabatirar from humiliation.The king chooses him for a contest of skills with the renowned singer Hemanatha Bhagavathar. The narration by Bhanabatirar's wife of Siva's grace makes for one of the most moving portions in the play.

The divine message that Varaguna Pandian should not go to war against the Chera king who is also a devotee of the Lord, is followed by the episode of the Pandya ruler unwittingly killing a Brahmin while on a hunting expedition and incurring his curse. The Brahmahatti dosham pursues the king relentlesly till he is finally liberated by Sri Marudheeswrarar in the temple of Thiruidaimarudur. Overcome by gratitude, the king lingers on here, his devotion manifesting itself through unusual gestures such as rewarding frogs with gold coins and wolves with brocade shawls as he hears the chanting of His name even in their croaking and howling. Alarmed, the courtiers see marriage as the solution to this divine obsession. When a Chola princess who is almost as devout as Varaguna Pandian agrees to marry him, the ministers are overjoyed. But the king decides on a course that baffles them all.

The sub-plot set in an ashram, involving a guru and his two disciples, is in the traditional style. It helps to effect the change of sets and acts as a commentary on the main plot, informing us of the turn of events and aiding the progress of the action. The exchanges among the characters provide humour while making pithy statements on timeless truths.

The sets and special effects, the signature of the veteran, were there in full. The interior of the ashram in mellow browns with the clear sky that peeped beyond, the magnificence of the palaces in gold and blue with their colonnaded halls, the rising walls of the forts with their towers and the awesome shrine of the Lord with the Nandis gazing at the Lingam, were a few of the three dimensional sets which showed the care lavished over them. The same care was to be seen in the props whether it was the horizontal pole from where the clothes hung in the home of the singer or the sacks of grain stacked high in the temple. The frogs and foxes contributed to the special effects though one has seen better in many of the veteran's previous plays.

The meticulousness that marked the props and sets was to be seen in the lighting effects, sound and costumes though the tinsel was far too generously added on in some of the outfits. The harmonium distinguished itself by a range of ragas played in tune with the moment.

Manohar was his usual majestic self as Varaguna Pandian, a feat considering his age and the knee injury he sustained while acting in ``Narakasuran." He reeled off the difficult dialogue with ease though the roar in his voice was a trifle muted. The other actors lent excellent support. It was a pleasure to hear such a flood of pure Tamil. But Siva's voice disappointed, for it was not deep enough. Sardarji (Appachi Krishnan) as the minister impressed with his calm and dignified presence. The elderly disciple in the ashram had a fine sense of timing while the guru (K. R. S. Kumar) and the other sishya (Sukumar) were adequate.

The women in the cast also acquitted themselves well, delivering their dialogue with great clarity especially Thillai Manohari who played the role of Bhanapatirar's wife, while Shanmugham made a convincing Bhanapatirar. Shyamala as the Chola princess looked the part and spoke her lines with measured conviction.

The writer (K. P. Arivanandam) had done a fine job and the editing was tight.

Manohar's plays have a grammar of their own — of spectacle and straight narration. ``Varaguna Pandian" operated within that grammar. Nostalgic audiences in the city can look forward to some more productions of the veteran in the months to come as he plans to stage ``Chanakya Sabadam" and ``Viswamitrar" as well.


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