Lanka Lakshmi 
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur 
e-mail: padmajayaraj@sancharnet.in 
 
 
January 12, 2007 

 
The epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, have been a perennial source of inspiration for artists in India. For, they lend themselves to be reinterpreted in changing times. C N Sreekandhan Nair, a renowned dramatist in Malayalam, wrote his Ramayana trilogy in the 1950s. Lanka Lakshmi is the second in the series.

Film actor Murali, the Chairman of Kerala Sangeeta-Nataka Academy, has adapted this play for a 45 minute solo recital for theatre. Cast in Sanskritised-Malayalam, the performance takes you to a super human level. "The two components of theatre are the actor and the viewer," said Murali, introducing his presentation to the audience of Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala.

The setting was stark, black; the costume, symbolic of the tragic grandeur. The play is about war. We experience the anxieties and agonies of war even when the war is not depicted on stage. Adapting the stage techniques of Koodiyattam, the gestures of Kathakali, and the postures of kalaripayattu, the actor performs various characters that surround Ravana in the momentous phase of his life. Sita and Mandodari, the two women are represented by two blazing traditional lamps, the nilavilakku of Kerala. Ravana directs his thoughts and words in critical moments to these lights, the spirits of these women. Voice modulation, emotive expressions, and body language, differentiate the other important characters that the actor impersonates. Against the backdrop of Chenda (drum), the quintessential musical instrument of Kerala, the play highlights multiple meanings for the present day audience from an immemorial source.

Lanka Lakshmi, is an attempt to read the plight of Ravana caught in the trammels of shocking reality. At the surface level, the performance reveals the character of Ravana. He is not a demon, but an egoist who has been revelling in his physical and mental prowess. For him, the glory of his clan is all that matters. His noble and powerful aspects form the foil to his tragic flaw on the eve of his defeat, an inevitable aftermath to his abduction of Sita.

At another level the play is a metaphor of human life. As one celebrates one's victories, one moves towards the inexorable. Death is projected in all its intensity; we hear the news of the death of heroes one after the other. With Ravana, we too are led to the appalling certainty of death.

Lanka Lakshmi is also a political play. When the ruler fails in his duty and public welfare is forgotten, tragic fall is unavoidable. The play holds a mirror to our own times when rulers are concerned with power struggles and vulgar show of wealth.

A slender thread of curse and remorse runs through the play with a gamut of questions about values in a materialistic plane.

Ravana is portrayed in heroic dimensions. His story is the story of his clan: its origin, expansion, and defeat. The legends that haunt him are made for the glory of his land.

"All the treasures in the three worlds should belong to Lanka," is the motive force that leads him on. If he went after women it was not just because he fancied them, but also to enrich his pedigree, to glorify Lanka. In its wake might have come lurking shadows of crime and curse that are, perhaps, part of the game. For Ravana they added grit to his challenges. He justifies his abduction of Sita. Sita is the priceless jewel that should be part of Lanka, even if she is married.

The drama reveals the history of the Rakshasas. Ravana's great grandfather founded the Rakshasa dynasty. Time and tide brought its fall.  Ravana was born to rebuild it. From a childhood of deprivation he climbed higher, conquered the worlds, and won laurels. Ravana and Lanka have reached the pinnacle of glory. Perhaps history has to repeat itself.

The play depicts Ravana's personality. The actor has selected only the most important characters for a linear projection of the central character. As the actor performs the roles of various characters, different facets of Ravana are revealed. The conflict between Ravana and his brother Vibheeshana goes back to their childhood. At a deeper level, it is the conflict between might and right. His companionship with his uncle Suparsan reveals the generosity of give and take, although decision-making is the prerogative of Ravana. The conversation between them is like an inner monologue. The love for his brother Kumbhakarna is another tender knot that breaks his heart. His pride in his son is a pointer to his shattered persona as he hears the death of Meghanadhan. His intimate bond with his wife Mandodari is another aspect of his noble nature. Soon the enemy enters his palace, ravishes Mandodari. As the blazing wicks burn and fade, we feel the end of an era. The still blazing lamp that stands for Sita, is the lone witness to a tragedy in history.

Lanka Lakshmi is an exclusive production meant for discerning students of Malayalam theatre. Rooted in the dramatic traditions of Kerala, the play would have been apt for a small auditorium, like the koothamblam of Kerala.  The facial expressions and voice modulations could have carried the power of Ravana in a more befitting manner. The full auditorium was a testimony to the popularity of the film actor. But the sterling performance proved his title Bharath Murali. 
 

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance journalist. She covers fine arts and travel for The Hindu, and is a regular contributor to narthaki.com