Parva, the 7.5 hour long Kannada play, an adaptation of the Mahabharata opened to an enthusiastic response in Mysuru earlier this week.
Director Prakash Belavadi remained loyal to the text and faithful to writer S L Bhyrappa’s interpretation of the epic. But, he failed miserably in offering a total theatrical experience to the audience, who were expecting a spectacle of the epic in the theatre space.
Those who watched the play on day one, (mostly supporters of Hindutva forces and ardent followers of Bhyrappa) were of the view that Belavadi had struggled hard to translate the “monologic” narrative into a “dialogic” one to bring out Parva’s human drama on the stage.
This seven and half hours play (with three tea and one lunch break) proved more convincing as a parable for our times.
Belavadi, stuck firmly to the text of Bhyrappa, whose emphasis is on human characters, who are under extreme stress. He showed characters in Mahabharata as normal flesh-and-blood human beings and forced the audience to introspect after the lengthy play ended.
The limpid pace of the narrative along with the tactful handling of the plot keeps the audience absorbed in the initial stages. But, after the lunch break, the tempo slows down. From here it becomes difficult for the audience to focus and understand meanings embedded in the flow of dialogues of the pivotal characters.
The play opens with the apocalyptic aftermath of the Kurukshetra war and Dhritarashtra’s attempt to kill Bhima for eliminating his clan. The process of demythification of Mahabharata characters begins with Krishna liberating Gandhari from her self-imposed blindfold.
The play ends with Gandhari losing her eyesight (or she pretends to?) and wants to live blindfolded like before. The play raises the question of Niyoga (an accepted practice of the Aryan race of begetting a child from someone other than one’s husband who is impotent) and its propriety but ends by taking recourse to Niyoga for the continuation of the Bharata clan.
The director attempts to pieces together the past through the stories of Kunti and Draupadi with the support of their monologic narration and creating their younger versions by employing theatrical techniques.
Belavadi, who could have created a theatrical experience with the help of stage design and music misses the bus totally. Stage designer Dwarakanath has chosen a much clichéd theatre design to tell the unfolding stories and could not offer something different for this unique text.
Playing the traditional drum at times helps to some extent in underscoring shifting of the mood. It looks like Rangayana focused more on presenting the text, which had the approval of Bhyrappa. In the process, it lost an opportunity to make it a the pure theatrical experience through stage design (including lighting) and music to make Parva a dazzling piece of theatre and enabling the audience to contemplate the endless cycle of human destruction.
Hulugappa Kattimani as Duryodhana, Prashant Hiremath as Sanjaya, Pramila Bengre as Kunti and Nandini as Draupadi bring the play to life through their energetic performances. The way Prashant carries the burden of Sanjay, who represents the present-day media situation in the country and the suppression of dissent by the authoritarian state, is to be appreciated.
Similarly, other characters try their best to do justice to issues such as power-hungry politics in the guise of Dharma and caste configurations, while stripping down Mahabharata of its divinity and hagiography by humanising them in their respective roles.
The play depicts the war elaborately through theatrical techniques, including Sanjaya’s narration. Through a powerful narration, the audience can feel the ambience of war including the stench of human and animal waste, the lack of grains, water and other resources, the fear of death, the tactics involved, the slow decline of the rules agreed upon, the ego battles, the corpses increasing in the battlefield and being devoured upon by vultures and dogs.
Some of the conversations between individual characters provide comic relief, which counterbalances the overall grim narration. What remains in the memory of the audience is the way the director and stage designer jointly executed the scene of Abhimanyu who breaks the invincible Chakravyuha but gets sucked into it eventually.
The depiction of Suta (the marginalized community), the dynamics between two respected Sutas (Vidura and Karna), the role of Sutas as the bearers of Kshatriya children out of wedlock and their function as charioteers and narrators (reporters) are brilliantly portrayed, through the conversation of various characters.
The play also deals with the question of Dharma through the prism of politics and the strategy of Vedic times. Whether it is a battle between two rightful siblings or was it a conclusion of the long struggle between rival kingdoms — Panchala and Kurus — these issues turn out to be the hallmark of the play.
The play evoked mixed response from the audience. While Director, National School of Drama, Bengaluru chapter, C Basavalingaiah lauded the effort and observed that the play should reach every nook and corner of the country to bring home the message that the Mahabharata could be viewed from “this” angle too, besides its mythical and devotional qualities.
While one section of the audience took objection to the costume design, especially crowns worn by the lead actors, some pointed out the missing “sacred thread” in Brahmin characters.
But, the treatment of women characters drew widespread appreciation for their gender sensitivity. After the first day’s response, the director corrected the errors by having the Brahmin characters wear the sacred thread (janivara) and clipped a dialogue by Dhritarashtra which abuses Krishna with expletives.
The team also plans to cut down some portion of the Krishna Dwaipayana chapter on Niyoga system because of the “pressure” from one section of the audience. Belavadi is also contemplating pruning the play. Rangayana may also decide to divide the play into three parts — Aadi Parva, Niyoga Parva, and Yuddha Parva — with a duration of 150 minutes each.
The flashback technique employed by Belavadi worked well for more reasons than one.
Regardless of controversies and theatrical drawbacks, watching Parva is an experience for theatre enthusiasts. However, some drawbacks remain. For example, even after the play ends, a sense of incompleteness remains and few questions remain unanswered.
What one must keep in mind is that Rangayana has adapted not the mythical ancient epic called Mahabharata, with philosophical discourses, including the Bhagavad Gita but Parva, an eponymous novel by Bhyrappa, a recipient of the Saraswathi Samman and considered a Hindutva ideologue. The play is an antithesis of the mythical Mahabharata, and is a retelling of the epic from an anthropological and historical point of view.
The decision of Rangayana to adapt and stage Parva, which divests Mahabharata of its mythological and philosophical elements and shatters the centuries-old belief in the divinity of Mahabharata characters, especially Krishna raised many eyebrows. Some in the audience were at loss to comprehend how this adaption was undertaken at a time when the ideology of Hindutva is attempting to recreate a purported “prestigious past”.
What surprised many was how could the theatre repertory presently headed by Addanda Cariyappa muster courage to take up such a challenge and risk of producing Parva in the manner it has.
As one of the artists of Rangayana and member of the cast points out, opting for Parva is a deliberate choice to reclaim the liberal cultural space.
Undoubtedly Parva is the most controversial play Rangayana has produced in the last three decades. This play was embroiled in controversy for its ‘top’ ticket price of ₹1,000 (claimed to be costliest in the history of Kannada theatre).
Amateur theatre groups in Mysuru threatened to protest against illogical and absurd entry fee and for the decision to allow top ministers in the BJP government to watch the rehearsals.
The government’s decision to extend ₹1 crore worth financial assistance to the play in the state budget triggered another controversy just two days before the inaugural show. The issue rocked the ongoing Assembly session and Congress MLC, B K Hariprasad, accused the government of ‘politicising literature”.
An alleged derogatory remark about Draupadi by writer Bhyrappa at a seminar held prior to the show angered the Vahnikula Kshatriya community, who claim their allegiance to ‘goddess’ Draupadi. Congress MLC M Narayanaswamy accused the government of aiding a project which hurt the sentiment of a backward community in the state.
Nevertheless, none in either literary or in theatre circle questioned Rangayana for taking up Parva as it is a pure literary work, which frees Mahabharata from mythology and magic and looks at the epic entirely from a human perspective.
This classic novel was written four decades ago (1979) has been accepted and received with open arms even by Bhyrappa’s strongest literary critics because of its ability to create memorable voices especially for its women characters, Kunti, Gandhari and Draupadi.
(Muralidhara Khajane is a senior journalist, writer and translator specialising on cinema and culture)