Opening of The Festival of India in Beijing
Photos: Thawai Thiyam
May 5, 2010

Uttar Priyadarshi is a verse play written by the renowned Hindi littérateur Sachidanand, aka Agyeya. Directed by Ratan Thiyam for his Chorus Repertory Theatre, Imphal, Manipur, this spectacular production is a high bench mark in Ratan Thiyam's career. He was invited by the Ministry of Culture, and Indian Council for Cultural Relations to design the inauguration ceremony event at Beijing, China, for the Festival of India in China. Versatile and with great artistic vision, Ratan planned a simple but impressive ceremony in the foyer of Forbidden City Concert Hall in the Forbidden City, made famous by Italian film director Bernard Bertolucci whose film Last Emperor, was shot in the said vast palace. The artists transformed the venue into an Indian chowk where imposing image of Goddess Mahishasuramardini was installed evoking devotional atmosphere with celebrated Baul singer from Bengal, Nimai accompanied by Dhananjayan on khol and young son Sanjive on a small instrument. Nimai singing Bengali songs full throatedly, created curiosity among the audience gathering slowly in the foyer. Hanging from the ceiling were long colourful hangings from South India and from Manipur, on sides were series of paintings, floor was decorated with alpana strategically arranged flowers and little unlit lamps, small statuettes, Tourism of India's hoardings and discreet placements of leaflets.
Foreign Minister SM Krishna and his counterpart from China and a few officials along with our foreign secretary and former Ambassador to China, Nirupama, current Ambassador Jaishankar and few dignitaries cut the ribbon as is the custom in China, declaring the opening of the Festival with usual speeches laying stress on building greater bonds between two countries with cultural festivals.

The charming compere with equal command over the English language announced about the play and within few minutes the auditorium was filled with the humming of the sacred Buddhist mantras and prayers when four monks appeared with staffs in their hands, clean shaven heads and appropriate brown coloured flowing robes created immediate impact followed by another set of nine monks, with nine staffs, with nine symbols and praying to Lord Buddha.
The Buddhist monks
reciting prayers
Young prince Ashoka coming out of his palace when he hears
Buddha waiting at his door for alms

In a moment with the loud sound of the gong, the monks formed as it were a gate of the palace from where emerged young Ashoka playing, dancing and carrying earth in his hands. The Bhikshu asked for alms and Ashoka without understanding, placed earth in the extended cloth of the monk. The monk blessed him and declared that he shall become ruler of the earth and the monks started moving. They held the cloth in a manner whereby it turned into a square and a wheel of time, moving in measured steps to the side wing.

With a clash of cymbals and sound of drums, the cries of the soldiers, we saw Emperor Ashoka, astride an elephant with a retinue of soldiers marching along the elephant, declaring victory to Emperor Ashoka. The march of the soldiers and slow gait of the elephant created wonder. Visually stunning, the sequence saw four monks laughing loudly when Ashoka demanded of his royal court poets to sing his praise. They mocked the Emperor for making such demands and reminded him that he was responsible for killing hundreds of soldiers and wailing of the war widows.
Prince Ashoka offers earth
to Lord Buddha
Emperor Ashoka is upset when the monks /poets in court
refuse to sing his praise for winning Kalinga war

Clad in spotless white saris and covering their faces, the war widows cried generating compassion in our hearts. The six soldiers holding flags on either side of the stage began to move in a circle with the long flags they were carrying. Ashoka heard the wailings of the war widows and his heart melted. He became conscious of what he had done, committed sins of killing innocent people, and caused rivers of blood to flow, causing devastation in name of winning war. The Emperor was shocked at this realization and agonized, holding a sword dripping with blood. His ears were filled with cries of the widows. He was caught himself in a whirlpool of blood, created with six soldiers dancing round him waving long flowing red flags one can never forget that image created by Ratan. Then followed the cries of widows coming from the opposite directions and wings, clad in white clothes, faces covered and crossing the battlefield, falling on the floor and crawling. The heart rending weeping of these women filled the theatre with indescribable sadness. Ratan, like a vastly gifted painter, drew on a large canvas as it were, paintings with colours that shook the very hearts of the audience.

I have seen the play several times, during the first USA tour and later on in Australia and also India. But the marvel and wonder have never stopped. I have relished the play each time I see it with great intensity. The entries, the exits, the music, the scenes, the groupings, and fantastic lighting leave an indelible impression. The gradual unfolding of the play, the appointment of Ghor as the chief of Hell, his retinue of soldiers, the witches, their cackling laugher, incomprehensible conversations, cries of joy when the weapons of killings in hell behead the victim, chopping of the head under the guillotine, holding it like a trophy and posing with it for a photo op, the witch with a camera clicking away and then the maddening joyous crackle of sound, bringing the message home that mankind will not stop at anything and would continue to invent machines to kill people, an electric chair, scaffolding for hanging, throttling, wringing out the neck and a chef as it were in a kitchen, preparing dishes, turning bones and skulls placed for frying! At one go, Ratan invests the play with contemporary sensibilities. The message he conveys is loud and clear.
The dancers inviting the monks to the land of Ghor
Ghor, who rules over hell, drags emperor Ashoka when he enters hell

In the final sequence, a monk enters the hell and is not disturbed by the goings on in the hell. Ghor gets worried as his power is loosened. Enters Ashoka whom Ghor punishes, dragging him with a rope. But he realizes that Ashoka's repentance is genuine. Ghor's soldiers fall on the floor round the monk who sits on a pedestal undisturbed. Ashoka asks him how come there is such peace and the monk says that it is his own creation, the hell and the heaven are within himself, and he should reconcile with the two. Ghor and Ashoka embrace each other and they kneel before the monk, the chanting of the auspicious mantras starts and there appear images of Golden Buddhas, which illumines the stage and metaphorically the hearts of people. On that note the play ends.
Ghor, who rules over hell, in a joyous mood
Buddhist monks who make the Emperor realize the path of Buddhism

Deeply seeped into the culture of Manipur, the rituals and religion, Ratan weaves a world which surprises the present day member of the audience. Never once is the intensity of the play lost. The chanting, the speech, the singing, have an even flow which remains within the rhythm of the play. Few subtitles in English on two screens placed on either side are enough to give an idea of link as in no way the language could be understood as it is neither Manipuri, nor Hindi - it is full of sounds and is not meant to be understood. The narrative has to be understood with the help of detailed synopsis. Ratan's own sensibilities, poetic imagination, and concern for peace find felicitous expression in the play. The versatile team of Chorus Repertory performs with uniform excellence. It would sound invidious to single anyone out. However, Soro as Ghor and Bhogen as Ashoka stand out for their contrasting characters etched so clearly. The teamwork had the customary finesse for which Chorus Repertory actors are known.

I have felt that this is a timeless production, a classic which audiences will cherish, relish again and again. As a director, Ratan has joined the league of world renowned directors including Peter Brook (England/France), Robert Lepage (Canada), Euginio Barba (Italian/Denmark), Lin Hwai Min (Taiwan), Sardono Kusumo (Indonesia/Jakarta) and the great choreographer Pina Bausch (Germany). I have seen their works. And I have been privileged to see from close quarters, how Ratan works for the last thirty years. Now one looks forward to seeing Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore's play Raja, which he is directing for the 150th year of Tagore's birth celebrations.

Dr. Sunil Kothari, dance historian, scholar, author, is a renowned dance critic, having written for The Times of India group of publications for more than 40 years. He is a regular contributor to Dance Magazine, New York. Dr. Kothari is a globetrotter, attending several national, international dance conferences and dance festivals. He has to his credit more than 14 definitive works on Indian classical dance forms. Kothari was a Fulbright Professor and has taught at the Dance Department, New York University; has lectured at several Universities in USA, UK, France, Australia, Indonesia and Japan. He has been Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific (2000-2008) and is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. A regular contributor to, Dr Kothari is honored by the President of India with the civil honor of Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi award.