Dramatic dialogue

Mohiniyattam guru Kavalam Narayana Panikkar.  

The tiny and beautiful village Kavalam in Alappuzha is where the remarkable theatre director, playwright, poet and Mohiniyattam guru Kavalam Narayana Panikkar was born; and it was in the same village beside the flowing Pampa that he was cremated on June 28 this year. He was 87.

Even 10 days before his death, while on dialysis twice a day and almost immobile, he was seen rehearsing Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam with his repertory Sopanam in Thiruvananthapuram.

Panikkar was known for theatre that was both imaginative and traditional, rooted in Bharata’s Natya Shastra and in the desi or folk and margi or classical performative traditions of Kerala. His theatre has seemingly emerged from sources across the country. In that sense, though deeply rooted in his region and language, Panikkar’s theatre was a truly national one. He was perhaps the only person who directed plays in Malayalam, Sanskrit and Hindi. In doing so he kept the innate nature of each of these languages in mind and, therefore, discovered new ways of translating them on stage.

He was perhaps the only director who discovered the possibility of enunciating Sanskrit dialogue in a reworked Kudiyattam style or a Hindi dialogue in the altered way of vedic chanting. He had deep insight into modern, realistic theatrical practices, too, but took only those elements that he felt would add a new dimension. He engaged realistic theatre in a productive dialogue rather than mindlessly imitating it, something rampant in Indian contemporary theatre. He was, perhaps, a follower of what Kalidasa says in one of his plays: “Not all that was practised in the past is acceptable and not all that is new is to be rejected.”

Panikkar revived Sanskrit theatre in our times, a revival with many dimensions. First, he showed successfully that masters such as Kalidasa, Bhasa or Bhavabhuti present the complex nature of human relationships in a way that reflects the condition of modern man. This showed the eternal quality of India’s classical traditions and their potential to address eternal questions. The revival also suggested that Sanskrit dramaturgy could be employed in all kinds of theatre.

Panikkar was also a prolific playwright, who wrote at least 45 plays, most of them first-rate. There, too, he incessantly tried to find a subtle link between contemporary anxieties and fears and the deeply-rooted ideas that come to us through ritualistic and other performance arts. His plays Kalavarsham and Chhaya Sakuntalam are written in this complex way, where he questions traditions in the light of the contemporary and modern forms. We have, more often than not, rejected traditional forms of creating without much investigation and have accepted Western forms without much questioning. Panikkar undid this in an extremely sensuous way with his imaginative and desemitised theatre.

Perhaps uniquely, Panikkar used to first prepare a play’s subtext, which was a kind of working script that would finally pave the way for the form the play would take. Most productions were thus his own adaptations of older plays transformed through his imagination. This way, he developed a dialogue with the old masters and, in fact, his plays were a result of this subtle dialogue.

In his last years, he was interested in writing a play based on all three of Kalidasa’s plays because he felt they had one underlying theme: the man-woman or purush-prakriti relationship. I was fortunate he chose me to work with him on this project. After discussions that lasted more than five years, we finally sat down in Thiruvananthapuram for a few weeks and did something truly rare: we wrote the same play in Malayalam and Hindi simultaneously. Sangmaniyam was performed in Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan on the occasion of a festival of Panikkar’s plays.

Panikkar’s was composite theatre where the human situation was investigated from many angles. He could see a scholar in the character of Lakshman’s wife Urmila and imagine King Dushyant as a hunter who pursues Shakuntala as he would a deer. He studied the rhythms of Kerala and its indigenous music deeply, and both were essential components of his theatre. He wrote a book on the Sopanam music of Kerala and fashioned it to work with Mohiniyattam. As writer, playwright, director, musician and folklorist, he was a protean figure who enriched the fields he touched. In the last few months, he was writing his autobiography. It remains unfinished, much like life.

Poet and writer Udayan Vajpeyi is the editor of K.N. Panikkar: The Theatre of Rasa.

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Printable version | Aug 2, 2021 12:54:59 PM |

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