Jul 1, 2007

Flame of the Forest


I had a lovely evening tonight. I got to meet one of my best friends from college and we spent the evening watching a play. The play was in English, titled “Flame of the Forest”, and was by Madras Players in collaboration with JustUs repertory. The theme was based on Kalki’s Sivakami yin Sabhadam (The vow of Sivakami.)

The novel is a mini-epic in modern Tamil literature, and is a saga on the lives of Sivakami, the supremely talented courtesan of the Pallavas, her beau the crown Prince, Mamalla (after whom the sea-side head-away Mahabalipuram aka Mammallapuram was named)., and the culture loving king Mahendravarma Pallavan.

It was a special play to me, because, I, however hard I tried, have not been able to trace my ancestry beyond the limits of Chennai, both my parents having five generations behind them rooted in the port-city. When talking to other tamilians from Thanjavur and Madurai , places where the grandeur of the ancient dynasties still speak tomes, I have always felt small. Chennai has always had a relatively recent history, gaining much of its importance on account of being a strategic port for the British colonizers. And that isn’t something one can boast of as a proud heritage, compared to the Meenakshi and the Brihadeswara temples.

I have had a vague feeling that Sivakamiyin Sabhadam dealt with a time of history where the Pallavas were at their pinnacle, I had never dared to read the book, as it had poetic descriptions, the language being more than what my command over my mother tongue could take. I had been pestering people to read it out to me, but no one had had the time and patience for it. So I welcomed this play with glee, and the discovery that Chennai was indeed a part of the Pallava Empire came as a bonus.

The play did not delve into the facts, but was rather a character portrayal of Mahendra Varman, the artist-philosopher-king. Sivakami, the jewel of his court, also occupied a significant part of the script, having been the protagonist of Kalki’s work.

The Storyline:

The first act had Kanchi, the flourishing culture capital of the Pallavas under the threat of a siege by the Chalukya king, Satyashraya Pulikesi. Mahendra Varman, the ruler of the land, had spent time in inventing the seven string veena, and patronizing the sculpting of the Mamallapuram rocks, that he had been oblivious to the fact that Kanchi would crumble, should Pulikesi set foot in it. An unwilling but able military strategist, he keeps his foe engaged in minor skirmishes, while he buys time to strengthen his fort. He finds an energetic general in young Paranjyothi.

Sivakami, whose divine dance Mahendra Varman worships along with the rest of his empire, is in love with his only son Mamalla. The noble king stoops low to prevent royalty mingling with common blood, and keeps his son within the confines of his fort, and offers to send Sivakami (who lives in a forest, and is exposed to attack) to safety. Sivakami, full of desire and will, refuses to oblige.

The next act was a personal favorite. Mahendra Varma is playing his seven-string veena, while Paranjyothi brings in news of the siege being even real than feared. Paranjyothi implores Mahendra to don his war gear and get into the offensive. Mahendra responds saying “ I took so many years to discover that seven strings produced the most divine sounds. I have composed a new raga, and it fills me with joy”. The vexed Paranjyothi urges the King to stop playing his veena and to come out into the fray. Disturbed from his world of creation, and rudely brought back to the reality of destruction, Mahendra whips up the hidden vigour of his lineage and dons the war gear.

By a twist of fate, Nature intervenes with the monsoon showers, depriving the Chalukyas of their provisions. Mahendra extends a hand of friendship and invites Pulikesi to his capital. He treats his new friend to Sivakami’s divine performance, and shows him the art and architecture of Kanchi. He reveals his plans for a culturally rich sub continent, where only constructive forces exist.

But the Chalukya king has other plans. He captures Kanchi by deceit and fatally injures Mahendra, and takes Sivakami his captive. On the death bed, Mahendra vows to destroy Vatapi, the Chalukya capital to avenge Kanchi, and bring back Sivakami, the living soul of Kanchi.

Paranjyothi and Mamalla(crowned Narasimha Varma) fulfill his last wish. Paranjyothi disillusioned by the war, becomes a wandering mendicant, healing people in his wake, he who once had a gory glory.

Mamalla, pining for his love, disguises as a merchant of bangles and attempts to rescue Sivakami. But Sivakami refuses deliverance by stealth. The soul of Kanchi refuses to be redeemed unless by war and valour. Mamalla, fulfills his sweet heart’s desires. But is forced to marry the Pandya princess, to gain reinforcements for his revenge. Sivakami, who once demanded Vatapi to be burned to ashes, just as Kanchi had been, pleads to Mamalla to leave Vatapi unhurt. Her change is attributed to the nine years of confinement and the maturity having born with age. Sivakami returns to her homeland, but not to her love.
She dedicates herself to the temple, and becomes the chief devdasi.

The Play:

Mahendra Varman played by Deesh Mariwala, (a popular artist, as I gathered from my friend) played the character well, but that’s where the accolades end. He was faithful to the script (by Gowri Ramnarayan, who writes for The Hindu) but if at all there was any spark in his performance it was because of the script. The relevance of Mahendra’s dilemma to today’s world was brought out subtly. A man of finer instincts, a lover of art, a just king, a patron of all religions, a man whose diplomacy resembled the CBMs of the Indo-Pak Governments. He was a man who aspired for the Satya Yuga, the age of truth, fully aware that he belonged to the Kali Yuga, the age of treason. Gowri’s script has done complete justice to this, although my mother tells me that Kalki himself had vividly sketched the character so, in the original. An idealist at heart, he responds to calls of duty, strategizing like a fox to save his kingdom from the enemy’s preying eyes. However dear Sivakami and her art is to him, he gets malicious, in separating the lovers. He might be a secular man, envisaging a temple for every faith, but he is unable to let go his hold on caste differences when it comes to his own son, a prince by birth, falling for a lowly courtesan, however divine her art may be. The irony of his character, speaks of the momentary demise that all ideals undergo, when it boils down to one’s own self.
Kudos to the script writer, be it gowri or kalki.

Sivakami, the younger version was played by Mythili Prakash. Her performances had more to do with dance, than acting. But that was nevertheless a treat. Priyadarshini Govind played the older Sivakami, the chief devdasi, and had also choreographed the dance sequences.

The stage setting had been quite lacklustre. Nothing spectacular for a backdrop, and the lights mostly yellow, served little more than to accentuate the silks and gold worn by the cast. Costumes were not garrish, as is the case with such historical plays, but that did have a downside as well. The grandeur of the King and his court were not brought out. He didnt even wear a crown.

But there were some impressive theatrics. Verses from the original were sung, and their meanings enacted or danced to, and explained in English, the translation paying attention to details and not ruining the beauty of the original. In one scene, where the declaration of siege is followed by diplomatic efforts of Mahendra, the happenings in between are gossiped by the courtiers who are busy getting the room ready for the entry of the two foe turned friends. The supporting cast go about getting the stage ready, while the play is still on. The setting for this scene was quite elaborate with lounges, umbrellas , and cushions, brass lamps, and flowers. All this would have taken more than a few minutes to get ready, and an unwelcome break in the flow.
V.Balakrishnan played many characters, notable among them being Paranjyothi and Pulikesi. He was so good, that I did not realise that Pulikesi and Paranjyothi were the same person, till he removed his head wrap(as pulikesi) during a fight scene. It was his wavy long hair that shook with the war moves, that gave him away. His diction and delivery were very good, but nothing much could be said of the expressions, while Dheesh (Mahendra) scored an edge over him in this department.
For the women, Mythili as the young Sivakami, had a soft but powerful voice and delivery, which emphasised the doe-eyed tigress that Sivakami was. Priyadarshini as the older Sivakami, was very convincing, her voice breaking with the weight of emotion. Both of them did not resort to any advanced theatrics, but did leave nothing to complain about.
Saving the best for the last. My most favorite part of the play was the concluding act. The time where the older Sivakami reminisces of her past. Her captivity in Vatapi, her pining for Mamalla, her fool hardy refusal of Mamalla's initial rescue attempts, and the rationale behind pleading for toning down the impact of a war that she had demanded from Mamalla. All these were performed as dance sequences that followed the english rendition of the verses. The dance was performed by Priyadarshini in the fore, with Mythili, as the younger Sivakami behind. Both their dances were choreographed similarly with subtle differences. Priyadarshni's brought out the emotions of a woman visiting her past, remorse and longing heightened. Mythili's was the new, raw feeling of the moment, the emotional roller coaster of the present. This attempt at a flashback, bringing out the then and the now, was very very novel and held me enthralled. The last sequence where Sivakami says that when she dedicated herself to the services of the temple "she lost herself in the divine. And she found herself in the divine", Priyadarshini's expressions and movements conveyed the soothing peace that she had immersed herself in, while Mythili's was rapture at a new bliss engulfing her troubled soul... Amazing synchronization by the duo. Was out of the world.
Stopped for a late night ice-cream, in Chennai's surprisingly not-so-balmy air, and came home with the satisfaction of an evening well spent.


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