Friday Review

When Raghavanka comes to stage...

Benaka -- among the oldest Kannada amateur theatre groups which was groomed by some of India’s greatest theatre practitioners – reclaimed its place in the sun with its recent production. What the 30-odd members of the group achieved was no ordinary task: in a pioneering effort they brought to stage the 12th century halegannada poet Raghavanka’s Harishchandra Kavya. The team comprising mostly of young actors held the audience spellbound with their superb rendition of the difficult text – they not just rendered it, but staged language so beautifully that not even once, in the two hours of their performance, was there a moment when the audience lost track of language that was displaced in time or the emotions it evoked.

Raghavanka was the cherished disciple of Harihara, the master of the ragale form. The devoted student remained inspired by Harihara’s narrative style and structure, but unlike his guru he chose the shatpadi form for his verses. Harishchandra Kavya, hailed as Raghavanka’s masterpiece excels in this form, which Kannada grammarians have felt has allowed for greater creative freedom. Harishchandra Kavya is not only a great contribution to Kannada language and literature, but also in the pan-Indian context it figures among the best. Raghavanka’s choice of language in this most significant work, is poised on the modern, halegannada here is inclined towards nadugannada.

Director of the play K.G. Mahabaleshwar Bhatt -- a teacher of theatre and former principal of the Ninasam Theatre Institute – achieved many things by choosing Raghavanka. Though Raghavanka was greatly influenced by the Marga tradition, his style is revolutionary. His radiant poetry is full of dramatic possibilities – it has great dialogues, fine characterisation, remarkable choice of words and embodies theatrical elements. Raghavanka’s canvas is mythological, the well-known story of King Harishchandra told by several writers before him. But with his unusual vision he gives the narrative a freshness. Kannada’s renowned poet and critic Ram. Shri. Mugali culling out Raghavanka’s own lines from the work -- “ Ee krutige pratiyilla, todagidenee mahakritiya” (there is no match to this work, as I write this epic work) -- says it is indeed among the finest, brimming with dramatic talent and an alluringly beautiful aesthetic consciousness.

With respect to both language and content, Raghavanka places himself within the tradition but takes it forward with his individual talent. Therefore, Raghavanka was an intelligent choice in all respects – KGM brought Kannada language back to centrestage and exploited its inherent drama and poetry to the fullest.

The play seemed to open on a note of hesitation, but within moments it picked up pace and showcased the grand rhetoric of Raghavanka. At a time when the general lament is about all things Kannada dead (from language to literature to culture), the large cast mostly comprising of actors in the age group of 18-25 years spoke Raghavanka’s Kannada as if it were their own. Long passages of poetry marked with pageantry was delivered effortlessly with not even a single case of faltering.

The highlight of Harischandra Kavya is the dialogue between Vasishta-Vishwamitra, and Harishchandra with the Holati women: both scenes were done with aplomb, particularly the latter. The Holatis danced extremely tastefully in their bid to entice Harishchandra, and in the conversation that ensued their performance was superior. Apart from Nakshatrika, Veerabahu, Vasishta, Chandramati, several minor characters put out memorable performances. The four young actors who played the vices were stunning in their body language and energy. The movement vocabulary was stylised and the young actors carried it with suave. Raghavanka dedicates a considerable portion of his text to Chandramatiya Pralaapa following her son Lohistashwa’s death. There was the danger of this portion swinging towards melodrama, but under KGM’s sensitive guidance, Chandramati’s portrayal was poignant and restrained.

Music (N. Raghu) was too understated, however the percussion design gave the play its necessary momentum. In a play of such ambition, minor faults and lesser actors are to be certainly overlooked. If in a month, a huge cast such as this, can be trained so immaculately in halegannada, it’s a Himalayan feat. KGM -- director of milestone productions like Kesha Pasha Prapancha and Karnadyumani -- got an overwhelming ovation from the audience.

Truly, there’s a positive stirring in Kannada theatre. We must doff our hats to practitioners who are mobilising youngsters and keeping them together in the interest of theatre.




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