Horse of epic dimensions
Mythology got a contemporary touch in ``Ashwaha," a Madras Players production, staged recently. ELIZABETH ROY takes a look.
"Ashwaha"... exotic sets and lights. Pic. by K. Gajendran.
IF THE Oracle (Delphi, no less!) has to gift the Trojan Horse (meant for the Pandavas) to the Kauravas, in Chennai, it can only happen at the open air theatre at YMCA Nandanam. You journey over tarmac and sand to climb down under a magnificent canopy of ancient rain trees. There is silence, chill wind through the ruins, and Bhima's long tailed white mongrel, who alone saw the gates of heaven!! That's how the Madras Players opened the New Year on an epic scale.
"Ashwaha," from playwright Mohan Narayanan, is an uncomplicated statement about globalisation. Like the "Trojan Horse," it is an offer one cannot refuse. Like the Ashwamedha horse it roams free and wide, commanding all it surveys. And then it is too late to rein it in. There are Shakunis behind Dhuryodhans and you end up burning down the summer palace and the sacrifice is not the horse, but yourself. "And the horse will return!" The script does not encourage character development. It doesn't go into conflict or issues; it doesn't deal with shifts in perceptions. Instead, it draws from clichéd humour and punning to contemporise mythology. The High Priestess who is up for promotion as the Oracle is a pun on the software. That Helen of Troy parallels Sita of Ramayana leads to Intellectual Property Rights. There is punning around IT, Time-Shares, Genetic Modification... "We Two, Ours One" could have saved Mahabharata from a hundred Kauravas. All these apart, what was charming about the script was that from the Indian epic you meet only Bhima, Shakuni and Dhuryodhan and from Greece, an oracle, an emissary and two soldiers.
Dipankar Mukherjee, the artistic director of Pangea World Theatre (U.S.) who directed the play, spent much workshop time developing the script, fleshing it out and generating issues between the lines. His idea was "to give it epic dimensions through building an ensemble and by using a pictorial vocabulary. Mohan gave me a lot of trust and journeyed with me." The wooden horse developed into a human horse, twenty persons strong. Dipankar made it the backbone of his production. Armed with traditional bamboo pole, they were onstage throughout the two hours, pulsating and creating movement and epic dimension. They were also meant to act (one reckons) as the chorus or the Sutradhara, continuously commenting or interpreting the play to the audience. Unfortunately, it remained a brilliant concept that the horse failed to realise. There was almost no body language and at no point did they move as one being. As a result the choreography dragged and appeared repetitive. When will our actors realise that it is the seemingly insignificant or unspeaking part that can make or mar the production? Movement theatre cannot accept compromises. Rising above this confusion were five of Chennai's seasoned actors who answered the script in the best possible way. Kaveri Lalchand (High Priestess), Yog Japee (Shakuni) and Karthik Srinivasan (Dhuryodhan) stood out for their body language and movement. The Shakuni-Dhuryodhan scenes with their over riding motif of the game of dice were brilliantly choreographed and performed. Yog merits a special mention for the way he got his body to speak the message of his lines. P. C. Ramakrishna (emissary) and Shankar Sundaram (Bhima) gave very strong performances. And this, despite the motley attire of P. C. Ramakrishna. It did him grave injustice.
Sets and Lights design from Mithran Devanesan thrilled the audience. He indulged them one more time with his signature for the Nandanam space. A rather skewed game of dice with the over-riding motif of the horse head covered the walls in paint. One chair (used only once) and two stools made up the rest of the sets. The flaming torches against the dark night as the palace went up in flame was an exquisite touch from a gifted designer. Another point of lasting beauty was the `kongu' bridge which spanned the stage. The production however could have put it to better use. Coloured filters very dimly foot lighted the stage creating exotic effects. It helped take the contemporary theme back in time. Another strong point of the production was the live music from a young group of percussionists. Bhakti, Aditya and Vinod sustained their energetic drumming. One only wished the director had demanded a wider range of beats from them.
Costumes from Sarika were strikingly imaginative with a keen eye for detail. It interpreted the play at its own level. (One wonders though why the emissary had to be the court jester. It clashed with his lines and his character.) The horse costumes were perfect in shade and design and gelled well with the excellent make up from Yamuna and Vishalam.
At the end of the day, Ashwaha remains a big budget production (for Chennai) that went on the boards with much hype and more publicity, raising expectations. It was conceptualised on a splendid scale. Perhaps scheduling went amiss and loose ends were not tied up. Perhaps an ensemble production in an amateur situation is not easy. Perhaps movement theatre is relegated to dancers and vernacular performances. Perhaps we can't cope with fleshing out a text. Perhaps the average actor's level of commitment needs to be re-examined.
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