Theatre

Emperor’s life goes full circle

A scene from “Samrat Ashok”   | Photo Credit: 06dfrBajeli

King Ashoka has been a source of inspiration for Hindi writers, poets and playwrights. We have seen Uttar Priyadarshi written by Hiranand Vatsyayan Agyeya directed by Ratan Thiyam. Remarkable for its stunning visuals, the play captures Ashoka’s Kalinga war “which was the turning-point in Ashoka's career, thus becoming one of the decisive events in the history of the world”. Another significant play was “Antaranga” by Rameshwrar Prem which was directed by Robin Das for the National School of Drama. The play explores Ashoka's relationship with his young wife Tishyarakshita whom he married when he was in his mid-sixties.

Now another play on this historically vital theme, titled “Samrat Ashok” was presented by Rangbhoomi this past week at Shri Ram Centre. The play is written by Daya Prakash Sinha, eminent Hindi playwright and Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee, who is known for writing plays like “Rakt Abhishek”, “Sidiyaan” and “Katha Ek Kans Ki” based on history. A former IAS officer, he is a serious student of Indian history. Without distorting historical facts, he portrays the emotional, material world of his dramatis personae and their rise and fall.

In his latest play Sinha tries to present a dramatic account of the bloody war between Ashoka and his brother to capture the throne of Patliputra, the former’s coronation, his cruelty displayed in wars, his gradual transformation as the messenger of peace and world brotherhood and the last phase of his life in prison. Thus the play presents nearly 70 years of Ashoka’s eventful life.

The play is directed by the playwright himself. It highlights the fact that Ashoka had already adopted Buddhism before he waged the bloody war against Kalinga for which he has a strong motive. As an emperor dedicated to the spread of Buddhism, he respected all religions. It was his state policy to maintain cordial relations between people following different faiths. The play does portray him as a super hero but also a mortal who rose to power.

Ashoka was brave, terrible, wicked and vindictive who finally transformed into a man of peace and charity, Like all ambitious mortals, after achieving great success, victories over his rival kings, ruthlessly crushing court intrigues, he has to face in his old age an absurd situation and died like a pauper in prison. The play stresses that all worldly achievements are indeed ephemeral. He donated tons of gold to various Buddhist institutions and for humanistic causes but towards the end he could donate just an apple to a Buddhist monk – this is the abysmally miserable fall of an emperor.

Despite the fact that the script does not follow unity of action and time, most of the action takes place in the palace, beginning with Ashoka’s palace in Ujjain and his confrontation with his wife Devi who refused to accompany him on his unethical mission of grabbing throne of Patliputra where his father, King Bindusara, lay on his deathbed. And then the action shifts to Patliputra in the royal palace of the Mauryas. The continuity of the narrative is ensured through dialogue, confrontations between the main characters engaged in court intrigues. The most vital and decisive event in the life of Ashoka is his aggressive war against Kalinga which is brought alive through Ashoka’s dictation of his message to be engraved on rocks. In one of the dictations he expresses remorse for the mass murder of the people of Kalinga by his soldiers.

Though the production is aptly rehearsed featuring some of the well-known performers of the Delhi stage, it tends to drag in the denouement depicting Ashoka’s life in prison. The production runs nearly for two-and-a-half hours. Some of the minor sequences need to be pruned to make the script tight and ensure uninterrupted flow of action towards climax and to sustain the dramatic energy of the performers. The set is designed by Ved Pahoja of “Andha Yug” and “Tughlaq” fame. To create period ambience, , he has erected huge pillars and panels on either side of the stage. The acting area is divided into different locales to shift action. This device makes the stage cramped hampering free movement. In fact, Pahoja is used to design in the open spaces. Sparse and symbolic set would have been more effective. R.K. Dhingra's stylish light design brings alive the vital scenes evocatively alive, providing essential emotional atmosphere.

In the leading role J.P. Singh gives a brilliant account. With remarkable subtlety he captures the contradictory world of Ashoka ranging from his cruelty to his compassion. The transformation of Singh’s Ashoka from a tyrant ruler to a man of peace and messenger of universal brotherhood is gradual and convincing. His Ashoka in the prison is the moving picture of a pathetic figure conjuring up visions of approaching death. Mandan Dogra as Radhagupt, a manipulative and self-styled defender of Mauryan Empire, gives an impressive performance. It is basically his character which sets main dramatic action afoot.

Sarita Rana as Tishyarakshita, the revengeful wife of Ashoka whom he marries at the age of 65, Nisha Bhatnagar as Nandita, the female attendant of Tishyarakshita who gets death sentence for working as the spy for her mistress and Rohit Tripathi as Sagarmate, a Buddhist monk in love with Nandita and blackmailed into spying against the Empire, give engrossing performances.

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Printable version | Jan 13, 2021 7:32:03 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/emperors-life-goes-full-circle/article5426127.ece

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