Prof. Ramanujam belongs to the first batch of students from National School of Drama (NSD), Delhi. A close associate of G Sankara Pillai, he has been involved with Nataka Kalari, the theatre, of Kerala from the very beginning. He has directed many of Sankara Pillai's plays. He recalled their life and work together in Gandhigram. He talked about the very first performance of Bharatha Vakyam, enacted by veterans like Bharath Gopi before he became a film star.
Prof G Sankara Pillai, one of the towering personalities of Indian theatre was the force behind establishing the School of Drama (Calicut University) in Thrissur. He was its first director. His students carry forward his artistic theatre movement. Ranga Chetana, based in Thrissur has been conducting memorial programmes for the past 26 years in connection with the birth anniversary (22nd June) of G Sankara Pillai. It was the final day of the eighteen-day workshop. The workshop selected Bharatha Vakyam of Sankara Pillai as the main topic of the camp. On the last day of the workshop the play was to be premiered before an invited audience in the cultural capital of Kerala. Directed by Prof. Ramanujam, Bharatatha Vakyam came alive in all intensity.
Introspective search is the theme of Bharatha Vakyam. Traditionally, Bharatha Vakyam in a Sanskrit drama, is the last words of an actor. Here too as the title suggests the actor utters his last words after his innumerable roles during his career. At another level it is the story of every man. The world is a stage and we are all actors. We watch an actor in his last phase going through the drama of his life as if it were a film. It is realistic as well as surrealistic.
The play asks the question, what is life? Is it a bundle of shattered hopes, hapless dreams, impossible imaginations, changing ambitions? Like an undercurrent it is also a saga of crimes fostered by circumstances and hounded by punishments; a betrayal of trust that can never be forgiven.
It revolves around the theme of love. Nostalgic memories of lost love, loveless marriage, conflict between love and passion, unrequited love, and friendship are its various phases that scald man's conscience.
A huge spider's web forms the backdrop of the stage. In front of this black and white screen, masked actors play a children's game: building a mansion of fantastic shape. The result: many frames that are swing-doors which open two ways. They could be entry points, exits, mirrors and what not. A circular row of doors that traps man! Ironically, like the spider, man weaves his trap around him in all innocence. The play acquires a philosophic and symbolic orientation in its stage setting and mime.
"Space is conceived in a poetic way here," said Prof Ramanujam, the director. The allusions to mythology and Bible take the story back to prehistoric space. Memories and inner conflicts take the drama into surrealistic space. The drama swings forward and backward in a stream of consciousness vein. The whole design is a mental space hounded by conscience. Face to face with death, the play is man's poignant commentary on life as he reluctantly bids goodbye.
Represented by three, the play features just one character, Man, the actor. On the verge of his last struggle, he faces his conscience and his woman.
The inner conflict is highlighted by Mitre, Friend, his conscience, pricking him, taking him to task, critically evaluating his reasons, and exposing his ruthlessness.
The woman is an inseparable part of his persona: mother, sister, lover, wife, daughter, or friend seeking him, suffering because of him, cursing him, yet deeply devoted to him. The mystery of man-woman relationship is fraught with tragic reality.
The psychological realism and the spiritual dimension overlap as conscience attain the lead role. The helplessness of human mind in the grip of passions and circumstances has an unusual authenticity. The revelation of its dark interiors is shocking. That a criminal is hidden in each one of us has a confessional element. That each one of us carries a kurukshetra, a battle field, within, speaks of the inner violence of human psyche. The tragic flaw is encoded in our genes: an arrogant Duryodhana, the Indian archetype, enamoured of success despite pitfalls is alive and marching towards self destruction.
The canvas paints the life of an actor. Loved by his mother a child, he grows up among poor circumstances. At some point in his childhood, Mitre comes down from the clouds to be his constant companion. Mitre can be his conscience or a guardian angel. He grows up nurturing changing dreams and ambitions. Yet the strong urge is to be an actor. Abandoning his sister on her death bed, he runs away with her gold-chain. He climbs up the ladder of life by cheating his well-wisher who groomed him. Finally, success crowns him with fame as an actor. He comes home with money. But by then his mother is long dead. He cannot repay his debt to his sister. She died like an orphan on the very day he left. The love of his life too is beyond his reach. The chronicle of betrayals follows his trail of glory. He rejects the plea of his uncle to marry and settle down. The artist seeks refuge in limitless imagination, creating a heaven of his own. Finally, as he loses his sight, as he gains insight, enlightenment dawns. Life is a lonely journey, however charming the woman is, or life is, there is finality. Yet life with all its filth is so enchanting that he yearns to be back. But, death is the reality. And he crumbles down at the victor's feet.
The poetic dimension makes the play profound. The play keeps alive the metaphor of life as a stage, and players enacting their roles. Literary allusions abound. References to mythology, Bible, parables of Christ, and literary works like, Doctor Faustus (Marlow), King Lear, Last Temptation of Christ (Kazanzakis) make it allusive. Watching the play is an experience. On the stage the play unfolds; on a parallel scene another kaleidoscopic panorama zooms in our mindscape: a magic land that we have acquired through our reading.
Lighting by Jose Koshi enhances the different shades of the canvas. As the play rounds off, we understand that each frame on the stage has opened a door to different compartments: the vista of myth and history, psychological and social realism, and the enigmatic spirituality. These frames open different casements in our minds too, perhaps too personal and revealing.
The play was a revelation. A dark monsoon day with incessant rain was a sobering agent after such a bitter doze.
Padma Jayaraj is a regular contributor to narthaki.com