Girish Karnad's Flowers explored the premise that spirituality is not restricted to Brahminical notions of austerity and purity
Girish Karnad's latest play Flowers which kicked off the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival is about the forbidden. A violation of social convention - a married priest taking on a lover - becomes a metaphor for the tension between conflicting systems of religious worship, between the Sanskritic, male-centric tradition and the tribal/folk, female-centric tradition of Shakti. The priest's transgression lies not only in breaking the bonds of marital fidelity but also transferring his loyalties from lingam to yoni.Karnad, who often bases his scripts on tales from the Mahabharata, has chosen a folk tale from north Karnataka this time. A Shaivite priest who has spent all his life in the temple precincts worshipping the lingam, decorating it, talking to it and befriending it, goes astray when he meets a courtesan. Sex with his "rigid, lanky, small-breasted" wife has been limited to a "furtive scuffle" in bed and "a minimum of uncovering". He tastes passion for the first time with the wealthy and voluptuous Chandravathi whose long hair tumbles about her face and body. He adorns her naked body with flowers and worships her instead of the lingam.
Trapped by circumstances one night, he decorates her body and uses the "polluted" flowers to perform his regular pooja of the lingam. He is caught out by the chieftain, who finds a marigold dangling from a long strand of hair. "I didn't know god has long hair," he says menacingly. The priest replies: "If we believe that god has long hair, he will have long hair." He gets time till the next full moon to prove what he has said. For 12 days he fervently prays for rescue. And the lingam is covered in a profusion of hair that cascades out through the temple doors. Is the hair that of Chandravathi (the goddess)? No, for she leaves the very next day, accepting defeat. It is the wild hair of Shiva who has brought his devotee back to the fold.The world sees the miracle as a great act of faith by the priest and duly rewards him. The priest, who had only asked god for "courage to live in disgrace", feels that "such grace is condescension". Besides, he has lost both Chandravathi and his wife, for in his new and elevated position of state priest his wife can only be his devoted helper while he is chained to worship. Shiva has certainly extracted a heavy price for his temporary desertion. But the priest is torn. "He must understand that I simply cannot live on His terms," he says, and commits suicide in the temple tank. Shiva has lost, after all.This is a cunning tale. If it had not ended in suicide one might have suspected that it had been spun by an upper caste mythmaker. Perhaps the ending is a twist introduced by Karnad. Some might take the story to be a conflict between worldly pleasures (Chandravathi's wealth and beauty) and spirituality. But spirituality is not restricted to Brahminical notions of austerity and purity. In the Shakta tradition it is linked to sexuality; god is worshipped through the body, and forms of worship could include (besides meat and liquor) sexual intercourse. Director Roysten Abel has remained utterly faithful to the text, retaining the arcane words that Karnad sometimes uses and the occasional gratuitous explanations meant for a non-Indian audience (this was the play's world premiere, remember). The beginning was slow and it took at least 10 minutes for the story to start warming up. Rajit Kapur as the priest, dressed in a red-bordered dhoti, delivered his 90-minute dramatic monologue either standing or sitting cross-legged inside a black hemisphere attached to a black ledge suspended high above the audience. If you sat below it you got the impression that it was a halige aarti ladle in which the priest burns camphor whose smoky fragrance is offered to devotees. Viewed from above, however, it could be the yoni, the channel and hollowed circle surrounding the lingam. Below it was an uruli filled with water representing the temple tank. A heap of white flowers in background centre, a light carpet of flowers across the entire stage, blue backlighting and a spot on the face completed the striking set.
Limiting the scope
While all this looked quite dramatic, one was left with a crick in the neck because the actor was rooted to a single spot. Besides limiting the scope of his movements it appeared to distance him from the audience. Kapur's voice, with its rise and fall, quavers and pauses, was the sole indicator of emotion. To see his expressions one would have needed opera glasses. One felt one was listening to a radio play or the reading of a short story.The last time Bangaloreans saw a solo performance was by young Rehaan Engineer who kept them on the edge of their seats for 150 minutes (in Barry Collins's Judgement).The audience was limited to 30; here, it was 10 times as many. Rehaan could move about, gaze right into our faces and hold us riveted. Rajit was almost static in the confining space of the inverted hemisphere. Keeping the audience absorbed was therefore quite a feat.C.K. MEENA