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Zen and the art of storytelling

"Zen Katha" was an intellectually stimulating experience

PHOTO: S. R. RAGHUNATHAN

RIVETING PERFORMANCES From "Zen Katha"

The nature of a Zen riddle is that it infuriates you, by forcing you to see things in a different light. However, even when you have turned it over and over in your head, and reached a deeper understanding, Zen does not bring joy, but rather a deeper calm.

This is also an apt description of the play, "Zen Katha", which traces the life of Bodhidharma, the Indian founder of Zen Buddhism, and the man who introduced martial arts to the famous Shaolin temple in China.

The play traces the life of Prince Dharma, a Pallava born in Kanchi, as he is rejected by his father and mentored by an ascetic, coming to learn the ways of Buddhism and martial arts. In the second half of the play, he is chosen to spread the word across the mountains to China.

Reflective

The staging of the play was nearly flawless, with strong acting, fluid martial arts sequences and moving music. However, choosing Zen and a Zen master as subject matter does not make for riveting entertainment, but rather a reflective, intellectual exercise.

The reason is that Bodhidharma, someone whose goal in life is to cut himself off from the outside world, is not an engaging character. Throughout the play, he is too austere, too perfect to pull at our emotions and cause us, the audience, to root for him. True, we respect him for what he has done, but do not feel any love for him. It is the nature of any history, that one must deal with the actual character, but someone who is constantly spouting such platitudes as "empty the mind, mind the empty", and who turns away from love, family and friends, does not create much empathy with us regular folks, with our failings and desires.

Directed by Lillete Dubey, veteran of English theatre, and written by Pratap Sharma, the play was hosted by the Taj Coromandel as part of its endeavour to promote theatre in this city.

"I chose to bring this play to the stage because it was challenging. Most people don't even realise that Zen Buddhism was created by an Indian. How does one make this historical, and somewhat esoteric subject interesting to the audience?"

In this case, strong acting, a dose of humour, a love story and a liberal measure of martial arts action attempt to turn this into a historical epic that leans more towards populist entertainment than elitist high art. "The play deals with a lot of issues that I think are of great interest today," said Lillete Dubey, "the search for meaning in a materialistic world, why we feel that there is something lacking in our lives. The play is not about religion but about self-evolution."

In the end, it conveys the spiritual and intellectual angles, but not the emotional. It accurately conveys the pursuit of betterment, and the search for meaning, but it does not transcend the ultimately abstruse nature of the material to become truly accessible, populist theatre.

* * *

A homecoming

The cast, featuring Denzil Smith, Rajiv Gopalakrishnan, Sandhya Mridul, Pallavi Symons, Vikrant Chaturvedi, Asif Ali Beg, and Pawan Singh, also included the homecoming of Anuradha Menon. Having grown up in Chennai "acting in front of a mirror", Anuradha was first encouraged to take part in theatre productions in school. "My mother threatened to go to the principal if I didn't stop bothering her," said Anuradha.

Her next step was the Madras Players, which gave her a good foundation, and then a year-long stint at a school in London. "But I knew I wanted to move to Mumbai as it is the hub of English theatre. I was lucky to taste success there."

Despite that success, "Zen Katha" represented her first performance at home. "It was a nerve-wracking experience," she said. "Many in the audience have known me since I was a child. I really didn't want to disappoint them!" Thankfully, the response to her role was encouraging. "It's great to be back," said Anuradha.

TEJAS EWING

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