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Play of shadows

Anand Haridas
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Theatre Kavalam Narayana Panikkar's latest play ‘Nizhalayanam' explores the Ramayana from the perspective of Urmila and Lakshmana. Anand Haridas

T he best way to understand an epic hero is to analyse his shadow. That is what Kavalam Narayana Panikkar seems to highlight in his new play ‘Nizhalayanam' (Journey of the Shadow).

The play, which was premiered to a full house at Town Hall in Kochi, explores the Ramayana from a new perspective. Instead of Rama's journey, Kavalam prefers to treat it as a journey of shadows – that of Urmila, who always remains in Sita's umbra, and also that of Lakshmana, who is Rama's shadow.

“I have tried to break the established norms through this play. It is an experiment in that sense,” Kavalam told Friday Review after the play. He sets the premise for the play in the opening sequence itself, with two pairs of actors – one attired in white with a lit lamp and one in black with an unlit lamp – moving across the stage, as if in a dream.

The playwright focusses on Urmila, whom Valmiki had shrouded in silence, and Kavalam also goes on to delineate different manifestations of Lakshmana. The only hint that the epic gives about Urmila is that she is the biological daughter of King Janaka and is a learned woman.

Janaki

The play has Urmila establishing the fact that she is indeed Janaki, Janaka's daughter, and not Sita, who is the adopted daughter of the King. Like Sita, Urmila also had the option of following her husband in exile. But she stayed back, a deliberate choice made to understand Lakshmana better. Some relations are better understood in absences. Or silences.

Never in the play is Sita physically present on the stage, but her presence is felt all throughout the play by an intelligent positioning of Urmila. In one sequence, Urmila is placed in between Rama and Lakshmana – a position automatically identified with Sita. The confusion is sorted out later on in the play, where Urmila explains how she managed to spend 14 years of separation.

She befriends Sarayu, the river who is forever yearning to be united with her lover, Varuna, the sea. But when Urmila looks into Sarayu, the face she sees in there is not her own. “This face that blends with Nature belongs to Sita,” says Urmila. The shadow and its owner exchange roles. As characters repeat throughout the play, what is real, what is unreal?

Learning about life

Urmila is attempting to learn more about Lakshmana and also about life as such through Rama. Even while bursting her pride of being a learned one, Rama guides her through the web of illusions. At one point, Urmila becomes Sita and Lakshmana becomes Maricha, the magic golden deer. “The attempt was to create second and third level of illusions to explain the characters. While attempting to see through Sita's illusions, Urmila is getting to know another dimension of Lakshmana's character,” explained Kavalam.

In contrast, Lakshmana is depicted directly as Rama's shadow. Allusions to the myths about previous incarnations of Rama and Lakshmana as Lord Vishnu and Anantha, the serpent, are made more than once in the play – endorsing the attachment between two characters. These two characters are introduced as moving in a synchronised manner.

Later on, Lakshmana moves out of the shadow and establishes his role as the protector of Rama. He has not slept since the war and needs to stay awake till the coronation is over. It is his job to ensure that Ravana's pyre keeps burning to prevent Ravana from upsetting the ceremony.

However, Ravana returns, as a caricature. Not just Ravana, his sister Soorpanakha also makes a comeback in the play. In another gem of creative intelligence, Kavalam portrays both these characters as caricatures of their original selves. Together, these characters seem to emphasise that lust and craving for power cannot be laid to rest forever.

The play accentuates Kavalam's stature as a master playwright and an outstanding poet. The play is rich with songs, typical of Kavalam's vocabulary and rhythm. However, the playwright and poet got better of the director in Kavalam, as characters break into songs quite frequently. Similarly, the stylised movements of actors remained closer to dance than to theatre.

As it is with Kavalam's theatre, the drama remains sublime in the relationship between characters. In ‘Nizhalayanam,' he links up all the main characters by introducing a celestial beauty. Identified only in the last moments of the play as the Goddess of Sleep, or may be death in a larger context, this beauty pacifies Soorpanakha and Ravana when they tend to dominate over Lakshmana. Even Rama is shown as yielding to the temptation of sleep and relaxing. Only Lakshmana and Urmila remain outside the influence of this beauty. It also declares their freedom from their status of being shadows forever.

The play was staged as part of Thiruvarangu, a three-day festival of Kavalam's plays, organised by Oruma Foundation, a city-based theatre group. The other plays presented were ‘Theyyatheyyam' and ‘Bhagavatjjuggam.'


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