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Leave your blinkers behind!

"Prahlada Charitram"... a new experience. — Pic by S.Thanthoni.

IT IS a tale that transcends time. A favourite of story tellers and performing arts practitioners. ``Prahalada Charitram" contains deeply ingrained truths, investing it with resonances that reverberate across centuries. For 300 years, Theru-k-koothu troupes in Tamil Nadu have enacted the power charged theme in which courageous defiance is pitted against blind authority, simple faith against unbridled arrogance. The devotional fervour of the performance has always touched an emotive vein in the viewer. Who can resist applauding the courage of the boy, bhakta Prahalada, who dares stand up to the might of Hiranyakasipu, his tyrannous father, who has demoniac strength and kingly power behind him? Protected by the armour of his belief that the chanting of the Lord's name will protect him, the five-year old escapes the cruel punishment inflicted on him time and again. When Narasimha, the man-lion, bursts forth from the pillar, it is a moment of reckoning for the asura and of awe and astonishment for the spectator. The viewer is reminded yet again of the presence of the Infinite in every mote of dust and moment of time. In the terrible killing of the man who would be god, there is a lesson for autocrats across the epochs who are consumed by pride and delude themselves of their invincibility.

The Alliance Francaise of Madras and the Koothu-p-pattarai Trust is presenting ``Prahalada Charitram" till July 31 (7p.m.) at the former's premises. The play, written by Na. Muthuswamy and directed by Israeli theatre personality, Gil Alon, is part of the year long celebrations organised by the Alliance Francaise in connection with its golden jubilee. This critic saw the play on July 27.

For those who came with pre-conceived ideas of how ``Prahalada Charitram," should be staged, the play was an eye opener. A completely modern interpretation, it jolted the viewer out of his conditioning to the text. It was a truly different experience and unlike many productions, was strong in the elements of theatre.

Na. Muthuswamy says his ``Prahalada Chaitram" is based on traditional Thanjavur Theru-k-koothu with its many Hiranyans, Leelavathis and Prahaladas. ``Though modern in tenor, the performance, style and text are from traditional Koothu. This was deliberately done to propagate the richness of the Thanjavur Theru-k-koothu among the urban audience. But I gave it to Gil Alon for complete freedom of interpretation," he says. Gil Alon conducted a week long Zen based theatre workshop at the Koothu-p-pattarai in April 2002.

This led Muthuswamy, the founder-director of the repertory, to invite Alon to direct a play and ``Prahalada Charitram" was chosen as it was felt this would help future theatre-based management workshops.

Clad uniformly in loose black clothes (which, incidentally, one had seen on the actors for the past 20 years), the artistes made their entrance and proceeded for the next one and a half hours to shock the viewer with the boldness of their interpretation. The prelude and the conclusion were a passionate plea for the traditional folk performing art forms that are dying out with audiences dwindling for the Koothu and puppet shows.

The play, said the director at the preview, is a `theatre of images' that grew out of workshops with the actors. These resulted in some very unusual images and a few striking ones. But sometimes one wished the director had not given the lion's share to the actors but had exercised more control. Some of the ideas, on education for instance such as the comparison of students to sheep, were quite trite. The director either because of the constraints of language or the lack of familiarity with the traditional form seemed to hold back. Often, the words, lyrical and yet modern in Muthuswamy's unique style, appeared to be superimposed on the action and one did not flow naturally from the other.

The music by John Anthony was brilliant, the like of which has seldom been heard before in a play. It succeeded in creating anticipation, commenting eloquently on the action and giving a feeling of satiety.

The actor, H. Babu, who played Hiranyan literally towered over the play and its action. The powerful actor managed to make the play his own infusing each scene with a crackling energy. It was a very physical and macho Hiranyan, one who is constantly being bathed and massaged by his attendants Roman emperor like while he screams his orders at them and is fearsome in his violence The fit and athletic Babu was an inspired choice. N. Chandra as his queen Leelavathi has evolved into such a fine actress that she made even the scenes of the agony of childbirth viewable. In contrast with the other two artistes, Prahalada (M.Bala), lost out. In fact, Prahalada had such diminished importance and had such few portions featuring him that it could well have been Hiranya's story. Even the manner in which he overcomes the ordeals is narrated by the soldiers over cigarettes and a mug of tea. Reminding one of the plebians or the soldiers in Shakespearean plays discussing the events and thus informing the audience of the progress in action or of jawans in border outposts who perform their duty unquestioningly but have their share of opinions and comments, it was a scene that had a universal quality.

Narada's entry too with the incense sticks (though obvious in its association of ideas) and his interaction with Hiranya had a sense of quaint comedy. The actors, in typical Koothu-p-pattarai style, displayed tremendous energy and finely synchronised movements. The lighting (designer: R. V. Ramani) was an asset to the production.

If one is looking for a conventional production of ``Prahalada Charitram," the Alliance Francaise is not the place to be. Traditional texts arouse expectations and this production may not fulfil them or offer such viewers anything very substantial in its stead. The play was brilliant, simplistic, and disappointing in turn. But it was an experience that helped you look at an old text with new eyes. A bit blasphemous perhaps to the conventional but exciting to those who leave their blinkers behind.


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