Theatre

Raw and real

Brahannalai, a playful take on The Mahabharata, questions ownership of a story through absurdity and humour

It’s almost like sitting for a play at a local fair or a temple festival. We squat on the ground at the open-aired Spaces at Besant Nagar. Children run around the trees,with their leaves rustling in the evening sea breeze. Sounds of waves interrupt the dholak beats as the play, Brahannalai by Koothu-P-Pattarai, begins. The three narrators, dressed like jokers, with glitzy overcoats and funny headgear, lead us into the story. They hold up a green silk shawl as a curtain, to signal the drama about to unfold.

We know what to expect; the story of the five disguised pandavas in exile, who are about to hoodwink Duryodhana. But, the mythology comes with a twist in this play written and directed by N Muthuswamy.

In this, there are seven look-alikes of the Pandavas, and Duryodhana needs to find who the real ones are. The playful adaptation introduces a grumpy Indra, a feminine Arjuna and a bad-tempered Duryodhana. The war is showcased cleverly, with each of the two factions occupying one half of the stage; Pandavas in a chariot and Kauravas seated on a tower of black cubes. The play soon takes the route of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, known for its take on how one story can be told in multiple ways. The narrators befuddle not just the characters in the play but the audience as well, with their varied renderings of how Arjuna was cursed by Urvashi, the celestial dancer, to be born as a woman. Indra, who saw the event take place, is interrupted by the narrators for lack of spice. The latter then tell it with an added emphasis on the description of Urvashi’s physical beauty.

So, who owns this story? The one who has witnessed it happen, or the narrators with their flowery flourishes? The play poses this question.

A strong thread of absurdity runs through the entire play. For instance, Indra is always seen sporting head phones, the narrators look into the war field through a play telescope and the men dressed as women add to the element of gender ambiguity inherent in the narrative. In fact, even the stage setup is quirky. The chariot of the Pandavas are made of brooms, a drum and a Petromax lamp. The idea is to make even the stage transition of scenes naked in front of the audience. Actors come on stage, lift the heavy cubes, arrange them to look like a tower, drive the chariot around the stage — the labour is made visible.

It is a risk adapting an epic narrative in a minimalistic manner, without elaborate music or fancy lights. Yet, the play keeps us engaged till the end, even though at some junctures the energy drops; especially where Arjuna meets three of his senior mentors before the war. The separate encounters with each feels repetitive, and could have been condensed to fit a shorter duration.

The conversational dialogues, the flawed gods and kings, and the behavioural acting make The Mahabharata look more like a folklore of human conflict than an epic tale of warring kings. It is not detached like adaptations you see on television, but relatable. Koothu-P-Pattarai proves again that theatre in the local language, rich in regional flavour, can instantly contemporarise any narrative. There is something so authentic about the theatrical experience they offer that makes you feel an immediate sense of belonging.

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Printable version | Jun 2, 2020 4:06:46 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/raw-and-real/article22296326.ece

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