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So many takes

The five-day festival of the celebrated classic Mrichchakatika made room for several interpretations.

LIKE ANY good literature, a good play too allows different interpretations. Different directors may focus on different aspects of the play and visualise it differently. It is not unusual to come across very different productions of the same play, but not one after the other on the same stage and on consecutive nights. B.V. Karanth had dreamt of a festival of a single classical play directed by at least five different directors. As a tribute to the great man who lived and breathed theatre, Babukodi B.V. Karanth Ranga Prathishtana, had organised such a festival at Ravindra Kalakshetra recently. The five-day festival, supported by the Department of Kannada and Culture, featured five different productions of the celebrated classic Mrichchakatika and an exhibition of some stunning theatre posters from B.V. Karanth's huge collection.

First social play

Written by Shoodraka in the sixth century, Mrichchakatika is perhaps the first social play written in any Indian language. Unlike Kalidasa and Bhasa, who derive their plots and characters from mythology, Shoodraka chooses the romance between a courtesan and an impoverished Brahmin merchant for his plot. His wide canvas includes men and women from different walks of life and throws much light on the social, political and economic life of his times. The first Kannada translation of Mrichchakatika, by Dondo Narasimha Mulabagilu, was published in Dharwad in 1889. Since then, there have been several translations of the play, the latest being Bannanje Govindacharya's Aaaveya Mannina Aatada Bandi. The festival opened with this version directed by Suresh Angalli for his Bangalore-based group, Aneka. Since Suresh's focus was on the contemporariness of the play he had gone in for a translation, which is authentic, and yet uses simple, modern, spoken Kannada. The production was well-edited and lively. Minimal use of sets and props made for quick transition from scene to scene. Music was pleasing and scenes involving Shankara and Maitreya were particularly delightful.

The second evening brought Saagra Sangeetha Mrichchakatika, a typical company style musical, directed by actor-director Nataraja Enagi. The production was replete with song (set to music by Enagi Balappa) and dance and used glittering costumes and painted scenery, so characteristic of this brand of theatre. Every character had its share of songs and some of them sang really well, though sometimes, songs seemed forced into the scene. Vasanthsene could actually dance as well as act. Charudatta looked the romantic hero, though his costumes did not indicate his impoverished state. Nataraj's tendency heroics and melodrama made him too sober a Maitreya. Since Shakara too was quite ineffective, a lot of the humour was lost. Though there was some good singing and acting, the production did not have the flair of company drama nor the innovativeness of amateur theatre.

Vedike's Shakalaka Shakara, a modern-day remake of the original Mrichchakatika by Ritwik Simha, combined the ingredients of a masala movie with those of a didactic street play. Ujjaini became the image of a typical modern city in which Shakara, being a minister's kin, enjoys special privileges, prowls about the city with thugs, threatens law-abiding, innocent citizens and controls even the judiciary.

The production, with its break dance, pop music, jeans and skirts, is lively and entertaining, but has more of Ritwik in it than Shoodraka. There is no real need to rub in each parallel between Shoodraka's society and ours by bringing in the chorus. There are times when the adaptation sounds quite absurd: like Charudatta exclaiming, "How beautifully the thief has broken the lock!" Though Ritwik's intention is laudable and his use of costumes and sets quite innovative, the production would have gained if he had meddled a little less with the text.

Mixing forms

Kalagangothri's Mannina Bandi, directed by Dr. B.V.Rajaram, was an attempt to mix yakshagana with regular, proscenium theatre. The adaptation, by Prof. B.Chandrashekar, had been condensed to suit the Yakshagana form. While parts of the play were converted into a musical narrative rendered by the Bhagavatha, parts of it were enacted by non-yakshagana artistes. Colourful costumes, the sound of chande, loud singing and energetic Yakshagana movements lifted the play to a different plane altogether. But most of the yakshagana artistes, unused to dialogue-oriented plays, faltered with their dialogue, while the non-yakshagana artistes paled beside them in terms of energy and colour. Shakara's substitution of 'sh' for 's', which gives him his name and is one of the sources of humour, was ignored most of the time. Though an interesting experiment, on the whole, the production didn't quite capture the essence of the play.

A unique feature of the final day's production of Mrichchakatika by Kalodhdharaka Sangha was an on-stage chorus, seated in the centre. Originally adapted and directed by Jayatheertha Joshi, the production had been re-done for the occasion by Shashidhar Narendra. But those familiar with Joshi's work could not find any evidence of his craftsmanship or literary sensibility in the production. The energy level of the actors being low, the marathon production left the audience rather exhausted.


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