Bangalore audience connects with a 2,000-year-old theatre tradition
The Ranga Shankara theatre festival, which showcased some of our best folk and classical forms over 10 days, came to a close with two performing arts from the west coast: Koodiyattam from Kerala and Yakshagana from Karnataka.
Natana Kairali presented an adaptation of Kalidasa's classic Abhijnana Sakuntalam into Koodiyattam format on the penultimate day. The animated eyes and lips of Kapila Venu, as she portrayed the rage and helplessness of Shakuntala abandoned by Dushyanta, with the dexterous fingers of Kalamandalam Rajeev on the mizhavu echoing every minute detail of her fluctuating mood, together cast a magic spell.
A 13-hour performance in its full length, what Bangaloreans got to see were three episodes of the play: Shakuntala's departure from Kanva's ashram, the famous court scene where she is disowned by Dushyanta and the discovery of the ‘abhijnana' ring by the fisherman.
Those uninitiated into the intricacies of Koodiyattam — a highly stylised form with 2,000 years of history that is the oldest surviving Sanskrit theatre tradition in India — might not have been able to understand the meaning of every mudra. But the play, directed by Gopal Venu, spoke to its audience beyond the barriers of culture and language, as only live theatre can do.
While the first part of the performance, a gentle and slow-paced portrayal of Shakuntala's departure from the ashram, might have tested the patience of a restless urban audience hungry for “action”, the subsequent acts had them glued to their seats.
It is in this act that the docile young girl, stung by the betrayal of Dushyanta, is transformed into a woman in rage. Describing the emperor as an “anarya” (uncivilised) and deceptive like a well covered with grass, Shakuntala's emotion swings from agony to fury in a piece of brilliant theatre, with the percussion ensemble playing the perfect foil. Kapila's identification with the role was absolute.
The fisherman scene was fascinating for the way it was comic at one level, and yet conveyed the tragic plight of the poor man given the power structure he was caught in. The contemporary audience could quite identify with the man harassed by the palace guards, considering that hierarchies have not changed so dramatically after all!
In fact, the most interesting aspect of the Koodiyattam performance was the way it made the classic play dear to a contemporary viewer without rewriting its text in obvious ways. For instance, Shakuntala's rage on being abandoned acquired feminist overtones, with the seemingly mild abuse “anarya” growing bold and strident in its utterance.
Not the best
Indrajitu Kalaga presented by Theatre Yaksha from Udupi on the last day was a bit of a letdown.
The troupe, which had on board an assortment of professional and amateur actors, did not showcase the tradition at its robust best. One missed the typically witty repartees and physical rigour typical of the form.
The plodding narrative — with too elaborate a prologue unsuitable for a closed and format theatre space — picked up steam only after it was well into the second half.
The performance had bhagavatige (background singing) by a woman, Lilavathi Baipadithaya, a first for the tradition!