Many bridges, many images

The Ninasam Tirugata came on its annual tour with two plays -- Sethubandhana and Ascharya Chudamani. The plays, worked as contrasts, both as performance and as theatre

Ninasam Tirugata is travelling with two plays this season, Setubandhana, written and directed by K. V. Akshara, and Ascharya Chudamani, an ancient Sanskrit play written by Shaktibhadra and translated by B.R. Venkataramana Aithal, directed by Joseph John. The Ninasam Tirugata is a unique programme where the Ninasam troupe travels to many villages, towns and cities in Karnataka staging these plays for nearly four to five months. This has been going on now for three decades and the impact of taking theatre in this manner across the State has had a great impact on the theatre culture in Karnataka.

Akshara’s play is the last in his trilogy. All three plays are a sustained reflection on making sense of changes in society, particularly the growing alienation between the urban and rural societies. Setubandhana offers a metaphorical reflection on changes catalysed by a bridge that removes the physical isolation of a village from the mainland.

The notion of a bridge plays a powerful part in this play and elevates it into a philosophically rich reflection on the ideas of change, mediation, action and so on. It functions at different levels, starting from the bridge between thought and action. How is our thought connected to our action? The movement from thought to action has to cross a barrier and a bridge is what helps us cross any type of barrier - across the river, over a gully, between two mountains or even between two incompatible positions.

Many bridges, many images

There are many types of bridges that Akshara constructs in this play such as the one between thought and action, truth and language, memories and reality, stories and real-life happenings, past and the future, tradition and change. Each of these themes can be dealt with in different ways but, in this play, they can all be read as being two sides that are (or sought to be) connected by a bridge. The image of a bridge thus shows the presence of a deep divide between the two terms and an attempt to traverse that divide.

The play also alerts us to some neglected dimensions of a bridge. A bridge, by its presence and many times its majesty, makes us forget to ask many questions. Why was a bridge needed in the first place? Who built it? Who could find the resources to do it? What is the impact on the two communities who are connected by a bridge? Moreover, when the use of the bridge becomes habitual, we forget what we were trying to cross. The capacity of a bridge to make us forget the chasm which is being bridged should not be forgotten.

The most important bridge among all these is the one between real life and theatre. This play plays on this theme at various points and in the end uses the technique of a play within the play to suggest a powerful idea that any truth can only be discovered through a series of performances, through experiments or equally through theatrical rehearsals and performances. It is as if theatre is the bridge between truth and fiction but is a special kind of bridge in that every performance is a new bridge. The performance of the play, which was professional and polished, was able to communicate many of the complexities in the text.

The second play was a good contrast, both textually and as a performance. The play itself is a particular telling of the Ramayana and is about Sita’s abduction and eventual liberation by Rama. However, the director of this play, Joseph John, completely transformed the theatrescape of this play through powerful physical expressions, influenced by Koodiyattam among other forms.

There is a great challenge to performing a story that almost everybody knows well. In such a situation, the staging of the story becomes far more important and this is what Joseph has so admirably accomplished. By completely transforming how Rama, Sita, Ravana or Hanuman look and act on the stage, he creates new characters on the stage. In particular, he focuses on the physicality of the actors through their minimal costume and powerful expressions of their body.

Many bridges, many images

The bodies embody power and grace. There is an important sub-text to this form of presentation. There has been a great gentrification of the Ramayana narrative in modern Hinduism, also fuelled by various gentrified presentations of Ramayana on stage, movies and the TV. Even in cultural practice, there is an intellectualization of these stories such as in the reduction of religion to ‘shastric’ prayers. This play moves away from the intellectualization of this tradition and brings it back into a performative tradition which is how religion was, and is, for many communities. In a deep sense, the performance of this play suggests how belief and religion are only more and more complex performances.

How is it possible to imagine Rama, Sita and others “as they really were”, as told in the Ramayana? When a body is presented on stage - and this is how theatre is different from a story - the body itself is a character. A contemporary body is not the body of the past, definitely not of a past as in the Ramayana. So how can we get a ‘body’ to perform Rama and Sita as if they are bodies of the present? I would like to read the complex presentation of the body in this play as asking this question.

There is another important aspect of such presentations and re-presentations of the Ramayana. Although in theatre, Ramayana is not often seen as a religious text, there is a cultural imagination of the religious around any performance of the Ramayana. Rama and Sita are gods for many and performing Ramayana raises this question about representing gods on stage. I would like to think that Joseph’s play supports the view of some traditions that the true nature of god cannot be reduced to one representation. Infinite representations are needed to get a sense of the divine. Every new performance of the Ramayana with its own unique representation of the characters is one small part of the bigger picture. The high aesthetic qualities of the production, including the powerful music, and compelling acting by the troupe added great value to the director’s vision.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 7:21:03 PM |

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