ART The 150-year-old Sri Krishna Parijata lies beyond positions of conflict and harmony, in a state of creative engagement. Its free spirit allows it to cross boundaries with amazing effortlessness AKSHARA K.V.

To speak of identities as binary opposites -- Hindu-Muslim, Kannada-Tamil, Brahmin-Shoodra, male-female, suggesting an environment of conflict is a commonplace thing in our times. Tossed into such a raging fire, some unusual narratives brought to fore by media come like a cool breeze in scorching summer. A Muslim devotee’s bond with a Hindu temple, a Kannadiga who rescues a Tamilian during linguistic strife... such unusual examples come to us in the name of ‘positive reporting’. Look carefully, and these stories neither strengthen the moral fibre of the society, nor do they mirror the well-being of certain sections of the society. They come with the implied belief that these are ‘exceptions’ and go against the grain of mainstream; it not only serves to reinforce the discord in our mindscapes, but also builds stereotypes of a different kind. The story I want to discuss is different – it neither comes from the conflict zone nor can you call it a model of harmony.

 Sri Krishna Parijata, a 150-year-old popular, traditional form of theatre exists in many districts of North Karnataka. If it has survived the onslaught of modernity, it is a testimony to its resilience. As the name itself suggests, at its core is the story of the Parijata flower from the Bhagavatha Purana. If you go along the flow of the narrative, it is similar to our Yakshagana or Doddata. Inspired by the Bhakti tradition, one gets the impression that this theatre form presents mythology and in an indirect way hopes to impart morals. But the effect a Parijata performance produces is totally different. There is the metaphysical aspect of mythology to it; but its contact with the audience happens at a very physical level. Not just that, the form achieves a rare blend that cannot be easily confined into compartments of man-woman, Hindu-Muslim, classical-folk, Kannada-Marathi, divine-human, so on and so forth.

 Like most of our traditional arts, Sri Krishna Parijata also begins with a Ganapathi puja. However, this Ganaputhi puja is so unusual that it sets the tone for the mixed nature of the performance. It prepares the audience for what they have to expect from the rest of the performance. After the Ganapathi puja is over, the milk seller enters the stage with milk and curd in a clay pot. It sets off an episode replete with coarse humour. When Kulagodu Tammanna adapted the Parijata for a stage performance, he was inspired by a popular form called Goulan from Maharashtra and transplanted it in full for the Poorvaranga part. The messenger and the himmela (the music group) indulge in a conversation with the milk seller that is full of double-entendres. “What milk is this?”, “To whom will you give milk?” so on and so forth. Such a street-side episode laced with crude, worldly humour makes a sudden leap to mythology. The curd seller, pointing to last rows of the auditorium, says that she is now leaving for Mathura to sell milk; immediately shifting the story from our streets to the land of the legends. The audience who were roaming with her on our streets enter the mythical zone along with her. The theatrical grammar of Sri Krishna Parijata is such that it doesn’t cross boundaries subtly, but flies over fences leaving the audience completely shocked.

It now gets to the central myth – it begins with Narada bringing the Parijata flower and the performance moves on to what constitutes a large part of the enactment -- the jealousy between Rukmini and Satyabhama unfolds in all its detail. The form makes it possible for you to view the story in two different ways. A section of the audience will place the story in the physical realm and see it as the fight between two wives and the hapless man caught between them. Like the Western farce, “Run For Your Wife”, for instance. This is a comedy of situation with entertainment at its core. Contrarily, it can be seen as a story with deep, philosophical meanings where Rukmini and Satyabhama become the embodiment of the inner and outer disposition of the God. A consciousness (Purusha) that is divorced from desire (Prakriti), and a desire that is devoid of consciousness undergoes a philosophical agony – some sections of the audience may read it this way as well. The free spirit and the mixed nature of a form like Sri Krishna Parijata is so extraordinary that it can, at once, offer two different readings.

The messenger and the music group keep transforming their looks and roles – from guarding homes to being friends, switching easily between humour and the serious. They become the cause of wonderment with their unusual leaps in a theatrical space that is extremely organic. The binary opposites get turned on their head with their amazing theatrics, and push us to see the ‘third’, beyond the two. I wish to call this leap the ‘other’, which neither comes from the position of conflict nor that of harmony. That’s perhaps why, in this form that is completely based on Hindu mythology, Muslims are actors, singers and instrumentalists. If you scan through history of the last century, you find several instances of Hindus and Muslims working together in Parijatas. This is the most significant achievement of the Parijata, and if it has found a place in the hearts of the people of North Karnataka for over a century, the reason could be its liberal structure.

How has it been possible for this theatre form to make this leap, to achieve a creative confluence that is neither conflict nor harmony? I feel that the most important reason lies in the social-cultural climate of the period. The 19th Century North Karnataka had to deal with thought streams, religions and faiths, and practices that were contrary to each other. On the one hand, there was Islam that had moved towards Sufi, and on the other, Hindu traditions were getting articulated in the popular idiom. There were also the artistic practices of North and South India, so distinct from each other. And there were the two melodic idioms of Hindustani and Carnatic music. All that we now perceive in distinct booths of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ co-existed, and it was a rare cultural state where an easy choice of ‘this’ or ‘that’ was hardly possible. In this unique climate there was conflict, and also the possibilities of harmony. However, the prevalent intellectual climate was such that conflict and harmony were not acts that occurred in isolation of each other, but took place in synthesis. Hence, such creative engagement is visible in music, literature, and in social spaces of this region. Sri Krishna Parijata has to be seen as a special cultural by product that was born out of such a state.

In that case, how do we in the present times, in the absence of the cultural scenario of 19th century of North Karnataka, resolve contradictions of religion and faith, philosophical and intellectual standpoints, and identity conflicts? This is a question of urgency. There is no simple answer to this. To suggest Krishna Parijata as an alternative to such a problem is highly impractical. Nevertheless, if the politics of identity goes beyond positions of conflict or harmony, there is probably a creative spirit hidden out there. That’s the lesson one learns from an art form like Sri Krishna Parijata, which crosses boundaries with its creative spirit.

Translated by Deepa Ganesh