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Destiny’s child: Revaluating ‘Silappadikaram’

Wrath The cover of Amar Chitra Katha’s ‘Kannagi’

Wrath The cover of Amar Chitra Katha’s ‘Kannagi’

I recently read in an American journal that Goethe’s Faust was produced as a three-dimensional drama, meaning that it was a three-in-one literary, musical and dance theatre staged in an off-Broadway open-air theatre festival. This provoked me to think about Silappadikaram , one of the five Tamil epics known as Panja Kaviyangal, written by non-Vedic poets. I am not sure whether there is any work dating from the early centuries of the common era in any other regional Indian language that has so much in common with Sanskrit with regard to the theory and practice of musical and theatrical forms.

Silappadikaram is written by Ilango Adigal, a Jain monk. Storywise, it is strikingly original, not outsourced from Sanskrit, but the classical dance and theatrical forms it makes use of have close affinity with the regulations stipulated in the Sanskrit theatre manual, Natya Shastra , attributed to Bharata Muni.

Master of arts

We know very little about our ancient authors, though myths about them are plenty. It might be an interesting speculation to think of Ilango and Bharata as one and the same person, who not only wrote a manual but also illustrated it through fiction in the form of Silappadikaram .

According to Heinrich Zimmer (1890-1943), Sanskrit being the common language of communication among the intellectuals of India in those days, many of the metaphysical and theoretical works in Sanskrit might have had South Indian authorship. However, it is difficult to date our authors and works according to Western ideas of time as our concept of history is cyclical, not linear.

Is Silappadikaram a play or an epic? It is both. It is this distinction that makes it different from literary works in any Indian language, including Sanskrit. Ilango, the consummate dramatist and innovative literary master that he is, initiates a new genre called Muththamizh viraviya pattudai ceyyul, a cultural form integrating poetry, music and drama. Like Shakespeare, he knows that each word has two values, dramatic and literary. Only in the hands of a genius, words acquire their appropriate literary or dramatic identity depending on the context — whether you read it as a poem or see it as a play in your mind’s eye. In other words, a ‘literary word’ acquires a new incarnation as ‘dramatic word’ when it is performed as a play on stage and one can visually experience it.

Anklet as metaphor

Shakespeare is lucky as he had good directors and actors to project him on stage as an unparalleled playwright and also a large number of literary critics to establish his credentials as a poet extraordinaire. Ilango is unfortunate in this regard since there has been no analytical, in-depth study of his work as a one-of-its-kind epic drama. Even the dance dramas attempted so far, supposedly based on this work, have not done justice to its vigour and multi-faceted brilliance.

Silappadikaram means ‘The Story of the Anklet’, silambu being the anklet worn by young, unmarried Tamil girls in ancient times that was removed on their wedding day. So silambu is a metaphor for virginity and innocence, which later became the insignia of the pathni cult (the worship of chastity).

Like Greek tragedy

The anklet of the title belongs to the protagonist, Kannagi. It proves to be the agent of destiny for her; the hero, Kovalan (Kannagi’s husband); and the Pandya king who unjustly has Kovalan killed for a crime he has not committed, then himself dies on realising his blunder. The wrath of Kannagi burns down the capital city of the Pandyas. Later, the Chera king invades the North and pelts rocks on the heads of the defeated North Indian kings for installing an icon and building a temple to Kannagi. The anklet proves pivotal in all of this: any stage production of Silappadikaram should have a surrealistically huge image of the anklet as its backdrop. It represents Destiny.

Like Fate in Greek tragedies, Destiny plays a significant role in Silappadikaram . As Ilango says, it announces itself in the yaazh (harp) that Kovalan plays, leading to his separation from Madhavi the courtesan and his subsequent death in Madurai, the Pandyan capital. Again, it is Destiny that visits the tongue of the Pandya king who, instead of saying ‘Bring the culprit, inquire, and if he is the one who stole the queen’s anklet, then kill him,’ blabbers without thinking, ‘Kill him if he has the anklet and bring it to me’.

Matalan, a Brahmin and a friend of Kovalan, functions like the chorus in Greek tragedy. He appears in two cantos, the Madurai Kantam and Vanchi Kantam, and provides the link to all the events that happen offstage. In Adaikalakathai (chapter on refuge), we come to know of all the noble qualities possessed by Kovalan, courtesy Matalan. The dramatic value of this scene lies in building up the audience’s admiration for the hero so that the shock is greater when he is wrongfully killed in the very next scene.

To enhance the tragic intensity, Ilango brings Kovalan and Kannagi together in the last scene before Kovalan’s death, when Kannagi serves him the delicious food she has cooked for him. They seem to be enjoying the blessings of a happy married life after a long gap, but Destiny has the last laugh. The lunch proves to be Kovalan’s last supper.

As in Shakespeare’s plays, after an emotionally charged scene, there is dramatic relief in the form of comedy. A pastoral dance ( Aychiyar Kuravai ) performed by cowherd girls to ward off evil succeeds the death scene.

Different classical and folk forms of music and theatre found in three regions of South India (Chola, Pandya and Chera) are beautifully documented in this three-dimensional epic, which stills awaits staging by a competent theatre director.

The writer, also known as Ee. Paa, is a veteran Tamil littérateur and cultural historian .


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Printable version | May 24, 2022 7:49:24 am | https://www.thehindu.com/books/destinys-child-revaluating-silappadikaram/article38301910.ece