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Sudraka's glimpses into ancient society

Photos courtesy: Chidakash Kalalaya

June 21, 2019

Kalamandalam Piyal Bhattacharya's single-minded effort of remapping Bharata's early first-millennium practices of Natyashastra had begun with his founding of 'Chidakash Kalalaya' as a center of art in 2013. Dedicated to preserve and propagate the wisdom of Bharata's whole gamut of Natya system, comprising Angik, Vachik, Sattvik, Geet, Vadya, Aharya and Sajja, his institution stands virtually alone amidst the Babel of modern society in its present milieu. Its endeavor has been to contribute to the richness and importance of Guru-Shishya Parampara - recognized by Sangeet Natak Akademi in 2017 - resulted into an exploration of the form of 'Marga Nritya' that has been bearing fruit of late.

Padma Pravritakam (the Lotus Consent), presented on May 26 by the same group, was a sign of the continuous effort to uphold the early first millennium Natya tradition of Bharata, covered in Chapter 18 of Natyashastra. The first fruition earlier was an Uparupaka - with dance direction and musical rendition by Piyal himself - in the form of Bhaanak, a Shaivaite male-oriented presentation. Then came another Uparupaka, this time as Bhaanika, which was a feminine version of Bhaanak. The main goal remained to groom the students in various forms of abhinaya and to ensure holistic development of the actor's language. Padma Pravritakam, in contrast, was with script written, music composed and Dhruba Gaana created by Sayak Mitra, a gifted disciple of Piyal's, besides essaying the pivotal role of Sutradhar (narrator). Only the artistic direction was kept by Piyal, which is an admirable effort to build up the disciples.

Padma Pravritakam, indeed, was not an Uparupaka, but a full-fledged Rupaka as one among the ensemble of ten distinct kinds of theatre of the Dasa Rupaka, stated by Bharata. Out of the ten Rupakas, the four major ones are: Nataka (grand play) dealing with larger-than-life heroes and covering a time-span of several years; Bhana (mono-act, built around a dhurta Sutradhar, or shrewd narrator), not grand and not covering a time-period over one day. The other two Rupakas are: Prahasana (comedy, based on hasya rasa); and Prakarana (fictitious social play, based on sringara rasa), both of indeterminate duration. Obviously, the range of each could be very large.

Padma Pravritakam, penned by Sudraka, was a Bhana, where Sayak - as the mono-actor -- was the crafty Sutradhar; the setting was Ujjain with its colorful ambience and the season was spring. Sudraka's characters - in departure from the tenets of Sanskrit plays - always represented plebeians, and not the nobility. Characteristically, the Sutradhar is himself from the middle class, acting as Beeta (messenger) of the King of Pataliputra and mimicking a large section of the ordinary society ad seriatim, imitating their dialogues in Brijbhasha, Pali and Sanskrit lingo (apart from providing the connecting narrative in Hindi).

Beeta's splendid mimicry covers a large span of the then society, before executing his main role, namely, to deliver the message of love to his chosen flame Devasena, who also happens to be the younger sister of his own principal consort! If this does not reflect enough of the profligate society, there are other characters equally dissolute. First, there is a stentorian grammarian who carries a useless baggage of knowledge, while secretly liaising with a prostitute. Then there is another Beeta of old vintage, who carries heavy make-up and attire, unbecoming of his age! Our Beeta then lands up in the red-light district of Ujjain city and meets an assortment of licentious characters there, including a slovenly-dressed harlot, who directly comes out from the middle of her act and invites him right in! To complete the scenario, there is a visiting Buddhist monk whom our Beeta chides: "Rinse the mouth with alcohol before preaching the principles of Buddhism," making him run away. As though to compensate matters, there is also the Nata (actor) in the castle of his destination playing the mellifluous raga Vasanta on his Mattakokila Vina (21-stringed ancient harp). Beeta's final encounter with young Devasena takes place among much lamentation from the latter, but without any resolution towards the desired union.

The chorus of Chidakash Kalalaya rises wonderfully to the occasion to provide support to Sayak's most spirited mono-acting, complete with his multi-lingual prowess (making Sanskrit and Pali sound quite colloquial) and physical acting (imitating the quirks of the characters he comes across). The sets are particularly noteworthy, easily manipulated and yet maintaining the complete credibility of the hoary period. Music is exquisite and lighting very much to the point.

As some spectators observed, it was a very representative piece of dramatic work representing its nearly three-millennia-old milieu and worthy of representing our land.

Extracts from interview with Kalamandalam Piyal:

Bhana and Prahasana of Natyashastra seem somewhat similar, both depending on intelligence and humour. Could you contextualize Bhana?
Bhana and Prahasana are both Rupakas that expose human follies and hypocrisies of the society, especially the sham and misconduct related to sexual activity. Bhana mainly uses Bharati (verbal dialogue) and Vritti (depiction), especially Kaishiki Vritti (subtle expression) to a great extent. Other than Sudraka, three other Bhanas are extant: by Vararuchi, Ishwardutta and Shyamil.

Are all Bhanas mono-acting?
Yes, Bharata enjoins Bhana to be performed by one actor - playing Beeta -- who would pretend to manifest other characters in his body whenever necessary and would also engage in conversation with other characters who would remain unseen. Instead, the latter would only be heard when Beeta repeats their lines in a sarcastic tone before shooting his own gibes at them. The other important tool of the play is the chorus who stays in the musical pit at the back and occasionally comes to the front stage to help create the environment.

Is Bhana always multi-lingual?
Not really, we have adopted this unique feature of multi-lingual presentation from Kerala's ancient Chakkyar Koothu. The story-telling there is a form of indigenous mono-acting, leading to the rise of the Koodiyattam dance form. Each language here is the natural expression of the character. The Vaishnavite characters, for instance, speak in Brijbhasha, while the Buddhist monk speaks in Pali. Don't you think this adds to the color of these characters?

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.

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