THEATRE Malegalalli Madumagalu ambitiously deals with the gamut of changes that swept the Malenadu region over a century ago
Instead of one sutradhar, there are different sets of Jogis — wandering minstrels — who walk in from different parts of the stage to fill in the gaps for the audience. Instead of one linear plot, there are many parallel stories woven into intricate criss-cross patterns. Instead of one traditional proscenium, there are four tracts of land that recreate the villages, forests, rivers and huts of Malenadu, from over a century ago. Instead of some characters, there are, reminiscent of Tolstoy’s War and Peace , many, many characters, someone’s sister, slave, wife or friend who all like and want to marry each other. It gets confusing in parts, more so if you haven’t read the 700-odd page novel. Yet there is enough romance, drama, betrayal, sacrifice, horror, humour, dance and music to hold your attention for nearly nine hours, coffee breaks included. The scale, the sheer ambition of it is what makes Malegalalli Madumagalu such an epic production in experimental theatre.
There is the ring, almost a silent leitmotif across the 50 scenes, making its appearance at crucial junctures in the storytelling to spell out a new twist, reveal another relationship, or pass itself on to another set of Jogis. That is how C. Basavalingaiah’s Malegalalli Madumagalu begins. Kuvempu’s magnum opus Malegalalli Madumagalu was adapted to stage by playwright K.Y. Narayanaswamy. No mean task, for the novel is a bundle of events and characters that are affected by social, religious and political changes that sweep through the region in that era. It took the maverick of director C. Basavalingaiah to translate it into a production on such an ambitious scale.
Just when a group of them are about give up their kinnaris into the River Tunga, for there are no audiences for their ancient stories anymore, travelling mendicants present them with a golden ring, eliciting a promise that they will tell that story to the world. One by one, as the Jogis look into the circle of the ring, they see couples in love, they see religious animosity, they see the politics of the caste system. With their words and their song, they transport the audience to Megaravalli, Hulikallu, Lakkunda and Simbavi, seemingly non-descript villages in Malenadu.
Gutthi, the affable bit-of-a-country-bumpkin slave is on his way to win over Timmi, a bonded labourer in another rich man’s house. At his heels is his very lovable dog, Huliya, a bit of a bumpkin as well.
Along the way Gutthi meets the conniving Nagathe who pimps her widowed daughter-in-law Nagakka to landlords so she can live well, beautiful Cauvery, other landlords, and other slaves. Repeatedly, the play goes off on tangents to play out the lives and miseries, triumphs of these other characters.
Missionaries are making inroads into the villages of Malenadu. While those who are considering conversion are attracted to the equality and deliverance that the Christian god promises, they still won’t eat with the priest, for his origins are from an untouchable caste. Even the slave who serves him food will only drop rice from a considerable height, for the religious leader, though in white flowing robes, is still unclean.
The havoc that Christianity brings to traditional family structures and the struggle to reconcile its seeming liberalism with caste diktats serves for an underlying tension through the play.
Malegalalli Madumagalu is a brave production. The actors, many of them debutantes, are very good, though on opening night, there were some forgotten lines and some nervous missteps. Around 4 a.m., the narrative did begin to drag a wee bit. The sets are a treat to the eyes though; but for the city skyline in the distance, they create an utterly convincing picture of a typical Malenadu landscape. Day 1 of the play had many little glitches that, hopefully, the team will iron out in the subsequent shows.
The play is on at Bangalore’s Kalagrama till May 30, with the nine-hour performances starting at 8.30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Call 98400 48003 or 98865 40966.