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For young and old

WELL TOLD The Panchatantra was a good show by Balaji Manohar and his team

There are English language theatre groups whose concept of children's theatre does not go beyond Tarzan or Lion King. Year after Year, they keep dishing out lavish remakes of Broadway musicals based on such comics (faithfully copied from CDs of the original productions), totally unmindful of the rich children's literature that exists in our own languages. It was a pleasant change, therefore, to see a grand English musical, based on tales from the good old Panchatantra. Directed by Balaji Manohar for Harlequin Entertainments, the play ran to several houseful shows at Rangashankara last week, most of the audience being children from neighbouring schools. Since the ban on children below eight had been lifted for this particular play, parents of very young children also got a chance to visit the theatre.

Panchatantra Tales are certainly among the oldest children's literature in the world. Believed to have been compiled, in their current form, between the third and fifth century A.D, they were translated into Arabic in as early as 750 A.D and were a substantial influence on the fable writers in Medieval Europe. The self-proclaimed purpose of the stories is to educate the stupid sons of a king and equip them to become efficient rulers. The stories are grouped under five heads, each group focusing on a particular virtue a ruler needs. If one group demonstrates the need for friends, the other warns against false friends. One celebrates the supremacy of intelligence over physical prowess, while another advises prudence.

Apart from the larger story which depicts the Brahmin, Vishnusharma taking on the task of educating the princes in just six months, the present production included four stories, each taken from a different group: The cunning hare who saves himself by fooling the lion into challenging his own reflection and jumping into the well; the monkey who escapes his watery grave by outwitting the crocodile; the vain donkey who invites a sound beating by singing loudly in the middle of the night; and the battle between the owls and crows in which the crows emerge victorious by planting their man in the enemy camp and the owl king destroys himself and his followers by ignoring the sound advice of his minister against sheltering the enemy;

The stories, though familiar, held the attention of the young audience (and of the not so young too!) through attractive visuals and a touch of mischief. The beauty of the animal masks, costumes (lovely tails too!) and sets (designed by Malatesh Badiger) had a lot to do with the visual appeal. Pramath Kiran's music and Divya Raghuram's choreography with all the forest sounds and animal antics added to the appeal. Lighting (Arghya Lahiri), smoke and the sets created a beautiful fantasy land where the half human, half animal characters pranced about to the delight and awe of the young audience. The night scenes in the story about the owls and crows were pretty impressive.

Each animal had its characteristic body language and movement. The human characters had been turned into caricatures and given idiosyncratic gestures which made them objects of laughter.

The script, a mix of rhyming couplets by Kamala Ramachandani and casual, improvised speech, was not really one of the strongest points in the play. The satire in the couplets was often too subtle for the very young and the casual speech rather banal.

The actors, many of who were quite new, managed their numerous roles pretty well. The king, however, could have done with a bit more clarity and the crocodile (the male one) with more horizontal movements. On the whole, a good show by Balaji and his team.


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