On a love that cannot be

Janani Narasimhan as Amrapali at Alliance Française. Photo: R. Ragu  

Monologues can be challenging, both for the actor and the audience. Attentions sway, energy flags, words are often lost when murmured in an endless stream. And that is where Amrapali surprises you — it manages to hold your attention right through.

Janani Narasimhan’s portrayal of the legendary courtesan of the kingdom of Vaishali takes you to the ancient times as she tells you her story. Her parentage is unknown — she was found under a mango tree in a garden (that is why she is called Amrapali or Ambapalika) and adopted by her finder. She grows into a woman of extraordinary beauty and charm and is, predictably enough, coveted by many a man. Too lovely to be possessed by a single one, she agrees to become a  janapada kalyani, the most beautiful woman in the land: the state courtesan.

She invites men into her home, offering them entertainment, amassing wealth and power in the process. Then she meets and falls in love with Bimbisara, the king of the hostile kingdom of Magadha, without knowing who he is. When she finds out, she asks him to leave, also extracting a promise to pull out his troops, which the smitten king does. She goes back to life, as she knows it, but something has shifted within her and there is a sense of emptiness. Then she meets the Buddha, and it all changes.

Though the sets are non-existent, Janani manages to fill the stage with her presence — her characterisation is excellent, the delivery is strong; her movements are perfectly timed and well-choreographed. Nithya Sivashankar’s rendering of Buddhist chants intermittently during the performance works well and the lights provide a perfect foil to the character’s many moods.

In some places the script makes perfect sense: the haunting verse and angst-laden prose manage to communicate the despair of a woman who is desired but cannot love. However, there is an occasional gaffe when language that befits a college-goer rather than a courtesan comes in. Also, a few more layers to the character were needed — she comes across as far more shrewd and hedonistic than one would imagine the ideal Amrapali to be.

The potency and transience of beauty, the shattering of peace, the heart-break of love that cannot be, the glory of spiritual awakening, the actor manages to hold her own, in all these spaces, subtly but extremely well, buoyed by a powerful script and poignant music. In all, an afternoon well spent.

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 8:51:39 PM |

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