Theatre Lokadharmi's ‘Lankalakshmi' explored the multifaceted Ravana in different narrative styles. Anand Haridas
R avana has the most profound imagery in Indian mythology. However, that is not the only charm of C.N. Sreekantan Nair's ‘Lankalakshmi.' This play has always posed a challenge to directors, as the task of creating a visual sub-text that could remain on par with the text proved too much for many.
Poet and scholar Ayyappa Panicker had observed that ‘Lankalakshmi' brought out the playwright in Sreekantan Nair, while ‘Saketham' and ‘Kanchana Sita,' two of the other works in Sreekantan Nair's Ramayana trilogy, highlighted the poet and the philosopher in the playwright.
Played by legendary actors
The play also carried with it the aura of legendary actors such as T.R. Sukumaran Nair and Murali who had elevated the character of Ravanan, just like the progress of the character “from the sluggish valleys to peaks, making way for oneself by breaking rocks and crumbling mountains, holding on to stars and stepping on planets...,” and realising all the while that there is still a long way ahead to the summit.
And so, when Chandradasan and his Lokadharmi decided to stage ‘Lankalakshmi,' which was written in 1974, it was more than just a performance. At the outset, Chandradasan tried to contextualise the play by sandwiching it between ‘Kamba Ramayanam' and Ezhuthachan's ‘Adhyatma Ramayanam.' “While the Kamba Ramayanam handles the myth in a humorous manner, with no touch of piety at all, Ezhuthachan's ‘Ramayanam' was a creation of the Bhakti movement. C.N.'s ‘Ramayana' is somewhere in between,” said K.G. Poulose, former vice-chancellor of Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University, in a short talk before the play unfolded at Adhyapaka Bhavan in Kochi.
The battle scenes were depicted using Tholpavakoothu (leather puppetry) by artistes from Krishnankutty Pulavar Smaraka Gurukulam, Koonathara, Shorunur. Battles and death, and the characters of Raman and Lakshmanan are present in the original text without ever coming directly onstage. “That was deliberately brought on stage to shift the focus of the play to the tragedy of war,” said Chandradasan.
He also used another device to this effect. The replicas of the puppets, which were used to create shadows against oil lamps, were brought to the stage by actors, as warriors in Ravanan's army were killed by Raman and Lakshmanan. These puppet replicas then became part of stage property as a constant reminder of the carnage. Ravanan could never leave the ghosts behind him, as he set out for his final battle.
‘Adhyatma Ramayanan' was made a part of the play with Kalamandalam Prabhakaran reading out passages from it as the drama unfolded. “Another attempt was to explore the multiplicity of narratives, by juxtaposing three different renderings on a single performing area,” said the director.
But the attempt was weighed down on the preview held here, mostly due to the overuse of lights and stylised movement of the actors. Too many lights from too high and too acute angles only masked the actors' face, instead of highlighting them. This was compounded by the stylisation, which was rooted in Natyadharmi postures and gestures.
There were times when Ravavan appeared restricted to a couple of gestures, especially during the long poetic dialogues. That was indeed disappointing for an actor of V.R. Selvaraj's calibre.
However, this highlighted the natural acting style used by Muthumani Somasundaram to portray Mandodari, Ravanan's queen. In fact, one of the most poignant moments in the play was Mandodari seeing off her son Meghanadan to his final battle.
Chandradasan also placed one actor with a mizhavu on stage, where he was trapped all through the play. Key dialogues of Ravanan, which demanded the tempo climbing as the dialogue progressed, were drowned by the percussion – though it was obviously meant to have the opposite effect.
The play calls for a lot of fine tuning before Lokadharmi can use it as a harbinger of a new theatre culture in Malayalam – that of staging it continuously for at least five days and limiting the entry with tickets.