Amphitheatre ambience

H. BALAKRISHNAN reflects on two amphitheatres - one from the ancient Second Century B.C. and the other, more modern, at Ekamra Haat — and the links between the past and the present as represented by the two.


A frontal view of the 2nd Century BC structure that exists at Ranigumpha.

A frontal view of the 2nd Century BC structure that exists at Ranigumpha.  

AN Open Air Theatre dating back to the Second Century B.C. exists at the Ranigumpha Caves of Udayagiri, on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar. The credit for discovering this wonderful monument, built to the exact specifications of the Natya Shastra, goes to the late Dhiren Dash who left an indelible mark in the cultural history of Orissa with his contributions to theatre and dance. Among his many laurels was the Stanislavski Award from Denmark for the best contribution to Theatre, in 1983.

Rangabhoomi, a leading theatre group of Orissa, organised a week-long theatre festival dedicated to Dhiren Dash from March 27 to April 1. Thus, the Festival began on World Theatre Day and the finale was on Modern Orissa Day (Naba Utkal Divas). The venue for the festival was a modern amphitheatre that has recently come up at Ekamra Haat, something that is being developed on a more extensive scale than the Delhi Haat.

The inaugural drama was staged by Satabdhira Kalakar, a leading group of Bhubaneswar nurtured by Dhiren Mallick, a veteran in this line. "Jeeban Nyasa" is a satire with a social message. It is a take on charlatans posing as Godmen who have a huge following among the powerful elite, and provide "opium to the masses". Day two saw a hilarious satire on the state of primary education in the tribal hinterland. A telling commentary on the degeneration of standards, all-pervading corruption involving the teachers, staff and School Inspectors, and the farce that the "midday meal" scheme is reduced to. "Khola Jharoka" (Open Window) was staged by Mirror Theatre, a young team in their teens and twenties who had come from Belpahar in Western Orissa. The story element and action did not pall even for a moment. One of the outstanding features of this drama was the total absence of sound effects and gizmos. This tight and crisp play was neatly packed into a mere 40 minutes.

The third drama was "Pheri Aso Bapu" (Come back, Bapu) from Mayurbhanj. Though the story was an interesting take on the rapid fall of standards in all walks of life since the death of Mahatma Gandhi, the actors were a little too amateurish for a State-level performance and appeared out of sync with the ambience of an amphitheatre. Mayurbhanj has a hoary tradition of drama and fine arts and one expected something better.

A scene from "Jeeban Nyasa", a satire with a social message.

A scene from "Jeeban Nyasa", a satire with a social message.  

March 30, Ram Navami, had two skits — one by Natyabheda of Bhubaneswar and the other from the Mirror Theatre of Belpahar — their second show. The former was a bold, one-man show, "Paap" — again a lament on the trend of the times — mainly against foeticide. It was an attempt to juxtapose a lofty thought with rustic panache. But unfortunately, the mix was not convincing. At the same time, the enterprise of of one artist, sans support, without any sponsorship, is laudable. Compared to the first, the second offering from Belpahar ("Dudung") was pale. It was a take on spurious liquor and the gullibility of the masses when faced with the merciless onslaught of the ad machine of modern times.

After four days of drama with a satirical streak, the penultimate day was a refreshing departure, both in content and treatment. Students of "Chinmoy Classics", Bhubaneswar, gave a credible performance of Odissi dance. This was followed by a tear-jerking "real life story" of an amateur dramatist and the impact of his passion for theatre on his family that is virtually ruined. This was followed by another dance (Sambalpuri). The curtain fall was on Utkal Divas, April 1. The amphitheatre was jampacked. There was no place to sit for latecomers. The programme started with a "Modern Dance" from Chinmoy Classics, which apparently gives scope for all kinds of `talent'. This was followed by a one-hour drama, "Jugantar" by the Song and Drama Division, which had a message about corruption and degeneration in babudom and the influence it has on the babu's family and children. The curtain came down with an "Adhunik Dance" by children in the 6 to10 age group.

On the whole, the Rangabhoomi attempt, which promises to be a regular feature every year on the same dates, was a programme with a difference. There was virtually no publicity but the number of spectators kept increasing by the day, obviously due to word-of-mouth publicity. Yet, for an event dedicated to the memory of an eminent dramatist and scholar like Dhiren Dash, the "modern dance" left a jarring note. Next year, one hopes the organisers would give more thought to planning by offering a more wholesome banquet to the senses.

The present amphitheatre is located within the premises of Ekamra Haat that came up three years ago. Asit Tripathy, Secretary of Culture and Tourism in Orissa, was one prime mover for its creation. The capacity of the amphitheatre is about 400, but he says there is scope for increasing it to more than 1,200. There are raised mounds of green lawn behind the gallery, where people can squat and watch drama, classical dance or folk performances from the rich repertoire of Orissa, and other parts of the country. Further, arrangements for the stay of artistes and artisans — who perform and display their craft — are being augmented, without taking away from the aesthetics of the overall design or performing area. Tripathy says that he was greatly influenced by the amphitheatre in Jawaharlal Nehru University where he studied, and that the present one at Ekamra Haat has been partly influenced by it.

Back to the amphitheatre of ancient times. Among the many people I spoke to on this subject was a remarkable sprightly 90-year-old J.M. Joardar, who bears a striking resemblance to Nirad Chaudhury. When I mentioned the amphitheatre of Second Century B.C., the first thing he said was, "yes, I used to go and sit there when I was in my teens", taking us back to the early 20th Century! He remembers having had many discussions with Dhiren Dash and admires his erudition.

Rangabhoomi's maiden event in Ekamra Haat started on the International Theatre Day and ended with Modern Orissa Day, linking the macrocosm to the microcosm, as it were. It also linked the present to the ancient past by evoking the pioneering spirit and persistent research of the late Dhiren Dash who discovered the ancient amphitheatre, just a few minutes' drive from the modern version. Historians continue to debate the antiquity and plausibility of his discovery. But, the documentation and recognition from across the world speak volumes. Indeed, during his lifetime, Dash did enact a huge drama in the same venue to convince the cynics about his findings.

One of the Chief Guests at the Festival, Dr. Saileshwar Nanda, evoked the grandeur of more than a thousand spectators watching performances at the Udayagiri Caves 2,000 years ago, without spotlights, halogen bulbs or acoustic-perfect electronic audio-systems. Maybe under the sheer beauty of the moonlight. Possibly with flaming torches to light the stage. This cradle of the Kalinga War casts a mesmeric spell on any visitor even today.

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