Marrying myth and mystery

Mukesh and Methil Devika in a scene from 'Naaga'   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Few Indian plays have been discussed and interpreted by the theatre fraternity across the world like Girish Karnad’s ‘Nagamandala’. A classic in all respects, Karnad’s play explores the energy of folk tales, which, according to him, springs from the fact that although it seems to uphold traditional values, it is also a powerful tool for questioning them. Also, its relevance to the cultural context of the Indian woman, who seeks to fulfil her needs and aspirations, is praiseworthy.

‘Naaga’, the Malayalam adaptation of the play, had its debut at Kalady recently. The audience were spellbound by the stagecraft and astounding artistry of Mukesh, his dancer-wife Methil Devika, and Sandhya Rajendan, Mukesh’s sister.

Directed by Suveeran, an alumnus of National School of Drama and winner of national and state awards for films and dramas, the play was anchored mainly on the theatrical part leaving behind the first part of the folksy tale. It picks up from the storytelling with ‘Story’, presented in Mohanlal’s voice. The ‘Story’ escaped from the mouth of an old woman while sleeping and it is related to a listener on the condition that he will pass it on to others.

Appanna, an allegory of male chauvinism, marries the innocent village girl Rani and takes her to his home. She is doomed to stay alone as Appanna comes home for lunch and leaves immediately after locking his wife in the house. The rest of the time he is in the company of his concubine as revealed by Kurudamma, a blind woman and a relative of Appanna. Grieved over the plight of the newly married girl, Kurudamma suggests a technique to Rani to attract her husband. She gives her roots of a secret plant, the paste of which is to be added to the food.

Rani does as she is advised, but is aghast when she finds that the curry explodes and turns red. Frightened, she pours the potion into an ant-hill. All of a sudden a king cobra (Naga) peeps out with a hissing sound. The potion seems to have worked on the serpent, which then visits Rani every night disguised as Appanna. Rani is confused by the amorous nature of her husband in the night as against his rudeness during the day.

The relation between Rani and Naga grows so intense that it leads to their physical union. Before long she realises that she is pregnant. Appanna accuses her of infidelity and the village panchayat wants her to prove her innocence by holding a hot iron rod or by putting her hand in the burrow of the cobra. To the surprise of all, she opts for the second option and escapes unscathed from the ordeal. She is deified. Even Appanna turns her devotee. The villagers carry them in palanquins.

A baby boy is born to them. Appanna laments over his fate of having a baby that is not his. As for the serpent, it can’t leave Rani for good. It transforms itself into a lean grass snake and hides in her tresses. Feeling something heavy in her tresses, she combs her hair and the snake falls out, writhing on the floor. As Appanna searches for a stick to kill the snake, Rani welcomes the snake into her tresses saying, “The hair is the symbol of my wedded bliss. Live in there happily forever”.

The dark setting eloquently reflect the strange mix of myth, mystery, reality, superstition and hallucination that the play embodies. And Suveeran has been successful in portraying these complexities with his ingenious directorial skill. The efficacy of the stagecraft especially Appanna’s home, where the major part of the play is presented, is singular. The portrayal of the union of Rani with the snake is a testimony of his inventive brilliance. Also, the dialogues true to the original text effectively communicate with the audience.

As for the actors, the role of Appanna is no challenge to a thespian like Mukesh. His mannerisms, stylised speech and gait go a long way in depicting the essential traits of the character. His transformation into a caring husband towards the denouement, though haunted by the dilemma of accepting a baby not born of him, is commendable.

Devika as Rani is very much an innocent village girl both in her antics and dialogue. “I am used to the support of music and rhythm on the stage (dance); but in the absence of those, I found it very challenging and even thought of backing out during the rehearsals,” said Devika after the performance. The very entry of Kurudamma (Sandhya) carried on the back of her son Kappanna (Sudarshan) evokes laughter. The contrast of emotions she could delineate, from her first appearance as a comedian to the description of the mysterious loss of Kappanna, speaks for her histrionic virtuosity.

No play seems to have made use of puppetry to the hilt like ‘Naaga’. Manipulation of the larger-than-life-size snake and its movements were awesome to watch.

Music by Sreevalsan J. Menon plays a dominant role in creating the rustic ambience of the village. Sure, as the ‘Story’ demanded of its listener, ‘Naaga’ will be retold many times in the days to come.

Produced by Mukesh, the play was presented by Kalidasa Kalakendram, in connection with the 55th year of the theatre group formed by Mukesh’s father, the thespian O. Madhavan.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 6:24:48 AM |

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