Talking in their own voices

Amazing performance Scenes from Rakshasa Tangadi and Karna Sangatya

Amazing performance Scenes from Rakshasa Tangadi and Karna Sangatya  

The Ninasam Tirugata plays, Rakshasa Tangadi and Karna Sangatya, brought memorable theatre. It also made a case for aesthetic value to have a room of its own

The play is not the performance. The making of theatre happens through various processes -- how words are interpreted, how visuals are constructed, how music aids the narrative and more. As the play moves into the performance space from its network of verbal signs, how do meanings get carried forward? Are they altered, magnified or diminished? Some of these questions arose when Ninasam Tirugata was in Bengaluru with two of its plays as part of its annual tour: Rakshasa Tangadi, directed by B.R. Venkataramana Aithal and Karna Sangatya conceived, written and directed by Ganesh Mandarthi.

Rakshasa Tangadi, Girish Karnad’s last play, captures the downfall of Vijayangar empire, presented from the point of view of people who were part of it. Political betrayals, palace intrigues, scheming lords, power games and more, Karnad takes you through the abundance of the empire and its ruin. Firmly based on historical facts, religion is clearly not the warring factor. Karnad adds layers of complexity, making it a story relevant to our times as well. He hoped the play would work as an antidote for the problems of the present.

The performance text adheres largely to the written text, it however introduces elements that enhances the royal backdrop and reinforces the secular narrative.

For instance, the Hindu and Sufi saint, and the chained vidooshaka (jester) who make their appearance at the beginning of the play. While the saints exchange their saffron and green scarves to suggest harmony and intermingling of religions, the vidooshaka in chains seems to make a larger comment about history being chained to standpoints, rather than truths. If this is perhaps how one can look at them independently, together they perhaps intend to say that this period in history must not be read as Hindu vs Muslim, but more as an outcome of human hubris. Unlike other plays of Karnad, this play gives no glimpse of the community, it takes place entirely within the confines of the palace. Aithal uses the chorus to create a sense of the people, who watch history unfold, comment and make choices.

They sing Adil Shah’s verses from his Kitab-e-Navaras, including the one on Saraswati, as also Purandara Dasa.

Tirugata team’s energy, professionalism and performance was of a high order. Each and every character -- Adil Shah, Nizamshahi, Satyabhama, Hakim, Begum... -- played their roles memorably. Ramaraya (outstanding portrayal by Manjunath H.), his perspicaciousness and brutality, comes alive in the performance. In fact, it almost appears like Aithal decided to play out the psychological self of Ramaraya, for, this 80-year-old man, with unfaded agility and aggression throughout, walks into the jaws of death. His grace and savagery manifest simultaneously. One cannot help remembering the Hakim of Gunamukha (P. Lankesh) as one watches Nizamshahi’s Hakim in this play. The two Hakim’s occupy opposite ends of the spectrum, yet, they resemble in knowing what the best medicine for their ailing king is. Ammaji, the matriarchal figure of the royal family, is blind and partially deaf. Nevertheless, she “sees and hears” that the autocratic behaviour of Ramaraya spells doom. Hakim directs history, Ammaji portends it.

Rakshasa Tangadi is a difficult play to stage, the suggestions encoded into it are subtle. In a bid to capture its registers, the play tends towards the loud. In this era of post truth, in which historical truths no longer matter, would the viewers then draw meanings that are omnipresent in our ecosystem.

For instance, would they read Adil Shah as someone who betrayed Ramaraya? And thereby ‘construct’ the relationship between the two faiths they represent? Karnad intended the opposite. Maybe with repeated shows, the performance will uphold nuance and complexity. With such an amazing set of actors it is certainly possible.

Talking in their own voices

If dramaturgy “forms the complex explorations of the context in which the play resides”, then Ganesh Mandarthi’s Karna Sangatya is solid work. Exploring the character of Karna in the texts of Kumaravyasa Bharata, Pampa Bharata, Janapada Mahabharata and a Yakshagana prasanga, the play presents a collage of various portrayals and interpretations.

The tragic nature of Karna’s life has been an eternal source of attraction to writers and artistes, with any number of renderings and stagings on him.

The narrative text of Karna Sangatya is particularly interesting, one of the reasons being its juxtaposition of the margi and the desi. The ponderous nature of the margi and the playfulness of the desi are presented, without slighting either. In fact, if you end up admiring the openness of the folk, you have to attribute it to the performance text and not your inherent biases. So much so, that the ‘loaded’ margi avatars get more human in the desi, and their failings appear like they are from everyday lives of everyday people. For instance, Duryodhana and Shakuni in the ‘Dana Shoora Duryodha’ story.

On careful reading, one notices that even Krishna is conceived as a folk character: his clothes are commonplace, he carries betel and areca, and a little stick is his armoury. The performance text therefore, is offering a ‘reading’.

The overall design of the play, construction of each scene, music, work with the actors, detailing, every aspect is impeccable.

The performance was so grand that the audience gave the team not one standing ovation, but multiple. Prashanth becoming Karna was most poignant. The lighting for the play was superb.

Ganesh not only reconstructs the character of Karna from various texts, he brings to life the beauty of Kannada language and the rich repository of Kannada Kavya.

What he also does is -- with utmost care and sensitivity -- he builds the tragic nature of Karna’s life through his caste and also dismantles it. To see the tragedy of caste is important, but it is equally important for Ganesh to take Karna beyond his caste. While it may seem unconvincing that he explains this through a tale of Karma, it is not quite so on a closer reading. Coming from the tradition of Yakshagana, Ganesh places texts and their meanings for an informed interrogation, without privileging any. Karna, therefore, has to be read in his caste and outside of it too. The Karma story -- like one sees in several pre-modern texts, as well as in works of Shakespeare -- works as a cosmic metaphor in the play. Had Ganesh left Karna in the cubby hole of caste, it would have meant flinging Karna once again into the river. Like Harold Bloom, the literary critic who passed away recently, said: “Literary culture was in the process of being sacrificed on the altar of social justice”, in our anxiety to fit a text into the ideologies we nurture, let’s not miss great theatre. Karna Sangatya is certainly an important play in the landscape of Kannada theatre.

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 9:45:19 AM |

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