Contemporary aesthetics, traditional sensibilities

Theatre group BeTaal is all set to regale Mumbaikars with their miscellany of Yakshagana shorts with a modern twist

The fascination contemporary theatre holds for the age-old practice of Yakshagana — which survives and thrives in its traditional form to this day — is heartening because of the manner in which its outdated structures are being challenged, without undermining the veneration its vintage aesthetics continue to command. For instance, in Sharanya Ramprakash’s Akshayambara, a female anthropologist infiltrates Yakshagana’s male-only bastion, not by reclaiming a female part like Draupadi, but by standing in as a male Kaurawa warrior revelling in his belligerence. In Ananya Kasaravalli’s film Harikatha Prasanga, the resident female impersonator of a professional touring company undergoes a serious crisis of masculinity, which is inextricably linked to an implied transsexualism.

Traditional modern

Closer home, the offbeat theatre group BeTaal — the brainchild of young collaborators Vaishnavi Ratna Prashant and Abhinav Grover — have mounted a miscellany of short works that re-purposes elements of Yakshagana, while translocating episodes from the great epics into decidedly modern settings. As part of its monthly ten-day residency program, Aaram Nagar’s Studio Tamaasha has invited Grover to work towards creating a new piece, Raamji Aayenge, while showcasing previously exhibited material. Grover is that none-too-rare species — a trained engineer turned actor — whose interest in the folk-theatre form stemmed from an extended stint at Udipi’s Yakshagana Kendra, where he studied under the tutelage of the charismatic Guru Sanjeeva Suvarna.

The Kendra, established in 1971, is one of the first accredited institutions that provides professional training in the Badagutittu variant of the form, and is run like a traditional gurukul.

One of the works to be staged at Tamaasha is Paanchavali, featuring Prashant as Draupadi. It started life as a piece that she had first performed as part of a student showcase at the Drama School Mumbai. Based on a script by Grover, it attempts to create linkages between ancient gender dynamics and latter-day relationships. Prashant later developed it further with Grover. In another piece, Krishna Sandhaan, Grover attempts to release one of the epic’s great anti-heroes, Duryodhana, from smoky purgatory. In an early showing, working with a ensemble of supporting players, Grover (as Duryodhana) winningly invests his character with an air of comic chutzpah rather than the familiar vintage swagger. The cast create farcical capers in the Mumbai of today, while harnessing aspects of Yakshagana, like its distinctive facial expressions and gestures. There are traces of traditional make-up and the ubiquitous curtain is used with a hilarious lack of ceremony.

Mythological characters

However, it appeared that nothing more needed to be done to redeem Duryodhana, that to mansplain Draupadi’s cheer haran, and somewhat disingenuously at that. So, although it is a piece forged on the anvil of a contemporary outlook, it doesn’t completely extricate itself from the established status quo.

Grover’s fascination with flawed icons continues in Krishna Karna ka Vaartaalaap, drawn from Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’’s 1952 epic poem ‘Rashmirathi’ (The Sun’s Charioteer), another piece in the line-up. He will be joined in this endeavour by livewire Kaustav Sinha, although he had first engaged with ‘Rashmirathi’ in an impassioned solo performance included in an anthology of rehearsed readings presented by Niketan Sharma, titled Na Aagey Naath Na Pichey Pagaah. He certainly brought emotional conviction to the character of Karna, while doing justice to the cadences of classical text, although it played out like the protestations of a ‘wronged persona’ unable to introspect on his own foibles.

Finally, Raamji Aayenge, of which a work-in-progress showing is scheduled for next week, is collaboration between Sinha and Grover. It explores “the intertextuality of the Kishkindha Kanda episode from the Ramayana with Samuel Becketts play, Waiting for Godot.” This is certainly an intriguing premise.

The episode in question deals with Rama and Lakshmana encountering the anthropomorphic monkey-king Sugriva, whose brother Bali must be slain for him to reclaim the kingdom of Kishkindha. Later, his army of monkeys would join the search effort for the abducted Sita.

Paanchavali will be staged on June 16 at 7.30 p.m., Krishna Sandhaan on June 17 (7 p.m.), and Raamji Aayenge on June 24 (7 p.m.); details at Abhinav Grover will also conduct a seven-day Yakshagana workshop for actors at Castiko, the Play Shed, from July 2-8, for details check out BeTaal's Facebook page.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 1:23:33 AM |

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