Caught between fire and rain

PAST IMPERFECT: A scene from the play.   | Photo Credit: 26dfrAgni

Girish Karnad’s Kannada play “Agni Mattu Male” translated into Hindi by Ram Gopal Bajaj as “Agni Aur Barkha” is a multilayered work of theatrical art. For the first time its Hindi translation was produced by National School of Drama Repertory Company in 1996 under the direction of Prasanna which evoked a sense of shock and awe.

The Capital’s theatre world was, however, amazed to know the strong protest by Karnad against the liberty taken by the director in editing the play. The controversy raised the question of the relationship between the director and the playwright regarding the interpretation of the vision of the playwright. The NSD’s production of the play had 43 shows, including one in Kathmandu. Though Karnad’s “Hayavadana” and “Tughlaq” continue to be staged from time to time on Hindi stage, “Agni Aur Barkha” was staged after 19 years by Shri Ram Centre Repertory Company at its auditorium this past week under the direction of K. S. Rajendran, eminent stage director and scholar, who claims that to have maintained fidelity to Karnad’s text.

Basically drawn from Aranya Parava of the Mahabharata, this simple moral parable is redefined and recreated by a creative person with profound insight into an epic tale which reflects modern sensibility. On a broader view, it severely indicts Brahminical world view contrasting with democratic way of life of tribal community. The core of dramatic conflict is created by dramatis personae desperately pursuing their conflicting objectives. With profound practice of directing Sanskrit classical plays as well as modern dramas, Rajendran imparts epic force to the production, assimilating elements from both the styles.

On the surface “Agni Aur Barkha” appears to be a brutal family feud. Raibhya, a Brahmin, who in spite of having attained great knowledge of Vedic rituals, is malicious and revengeful. He has deprived his own brother of his place in the community of Brahmin scholars. Out of revenge he uses his power to destroy his nephew Yavakri and forcing his eldest son Paravasu to be the chief priest to conduct yajna to propitiate Indra to bring about rain with a view to end the long spell of drought that has ruined the region. His younger son, Arvasu, a rebel who is joining theatre company and is in love with a tribal girl, Nittilai. These two things are enough for a Brahmin to be declared as an outcaste. There is another character, Vishakha, the wife of Paravasu. She is deserted by her husband since he has been selected to head the ritual ceremony and has to abstain from worldly pleasures till the rituals are successfully completed.

Vishakha lives with her crazy, revengeful and aged father-in-law. What makes the play more significant is that the main characters are complex, intricate with intense hatred for their arch-rival. They all suffer from feverish mental agony and experience bitterness because of their inability to realize their ambition.

Yavakri has his own embittered life, though he is considered achiever of great knowledge that he acquired with the blessing of Indra. In his youth he loved Vishakha but he has to forsake her to achieve the ultimate aim of the Brahmin, the attainment of knowledge. To please Indra he wandered for many years in the midst of wild animals and poisonous insects in the forest. Finally, he attained what he wanted. But even in his highest state of enlightenment, he remains obsessed with the sensuousness of Vishakha. As soon as he reaches home, he meets her in a desolate place. They are caught by Raibhya in a compromising position. Structured as drama-within-the drama, the play at another level defines the origin of drama and the place of theatre in life of the community in ancient India. It also explores the relationship between actor and character and the mask actor uses to heighten the motive and ruthless innate power of the character. All these elements metamorphosed into the catalyst of social transformation. In terms of content the element of drama-within-the drama reinforces the perfidious character of power played by Brahmins that intends to communicate in subtle way.

Another significant aspect of the play is that various thematic strands and diabolically conflicting world views are woven into the fabric of power game played ruthlessly by the Brahmins.

Rajendran’s production is austere and ingeniously designed. A few small platforms with bamboo borders are designed to be placed at different places easily. A curtain in the centre upstage creates the illusion of fire burning in the sacred fireplace. The costumes of the learned Brahmins are imaginatively designed to lend an aura of religious grandeur. The performers in the roles of Brahmins recite Sanskrit shlokas in correct accent in synchronization with their highly stylized movements. Most of the situations are treated in realistic style. The denouement is enacted in a dramatically intense manner with the resolution of multiple conflicts. What all the group of learned Brahmins could not achieve after propitiating Indra for years, an outcaste rebel Brahmin achieves because of his simplicity, and profound humanism.

The members of the cast give brilliant performances. Indramohan Singh as Paravasu, the head priest, MD. Jilani Pasha as Yavakri suffering from existential dilemmas, Chandan Kumar as Raibhya, the learned and malicious Brahmin, Mazibur Rehman as Arvasu and Vritrasur, the outcaste with the moral conscience, Shruti Mishra as Nittilai, the tribal girl who dies for the sake of her love for a rebel Brahmin young man and Sugandha Shrivastava as Vishakha torn between the instinct of love and hate, act with remarkable intensity, vitality and conviction.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2021 7:11:24 AM |

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