Reading the language of theatre
- Dr. S D Desai

April 12, 2018

The folk theatre form used by K G Krishnamurthy to give noted playwright Chandrashekara Kambar's Kannada play Huliya Neralu is Sannata. The word means a short narrative in the language, he said at Meet the Director event following the performance, at the Theatre Olympics at the Tagore Memorial Hall in Ahmedabad (April 4). Sannata in Hindi can also signify the deathly hush that descends on the village Shivapura as word spreads that a tiger has entered it and has gone on the rampage.

The playwright has used a folklore narrative that the director visualizes on stage with insights into the indigenous folk form popular in certain districts of Karnataka. He gives in this production a feel of both Kambar's creative power in turning a tale known among the masses into a dramatic metaphor and the artless expressive richness of the Sannata form. Having had not even a nodding acquaintance with Kannada, this writer had yet again the opportunity to test his belief that whatever the language of the text, if it is competently translated into action - provided it can be visually translated - theatre gets across to viewers as an intelligible language and gives glimpses of the meaning in the text. Fortunately, neither was the text nor a discussion on it available on the net!

The director has, of course, given broad hints as to what happens in the play in the brochure. The normal flow of life in village Shivapura is interrupted with the entry of the metaphoric tiger, which is never seen on the stage even symbolically except that there is a hint of a faint sound of a ferocious animal's clenched teeth for a second or two. Gowda (Sateesha Hinsodi) sets out to challenge the tiger. News of his having been overcome by the tiger comes, instead. Lo and behold, soon enough Gowda appears on the stage behaving, in a subdued way, like the tiger. The tiger, the folklore goes we are told, has entered Gowda's body. Before all this happens, there is an all-pervading sense of awe, mixed with circumspection, among the villagers.

Instead of the tiger, four aliens - men attired unlike the natives, small bags in hands - quietly walk across the stage. The hint is clear. Without any sound or fury it is given. The tiger invisibly on the rampage is a metaphor for greedy men living a different lifestyle invading the indigenous self-contained one. More hints follow. There are depictions with glimmers of the simple life led here in the village in the midst of nature on four narrow vertical screens downstage. With an axe, blows are being made at the root of a tree on one of them. There is a threat to the whole native lifestyle.

Huliya Neralu gives an idea of the encounter between the ubiquitous aggressive forces of modern civilization and a group-specific culture as also the resistance from the natives. Can the resistance lead to its survival? Sweet soft music of the land, both instrumental and vocal, and pleasing group appearances with a rope held together in varying forms from time to time win the hearts of the viewers. The musicians sit on the stage, upright, unobtrusively where the use of a keyboard looks and sounds disturbing.

A couple of images the director has used in the play are those borrowed from western culture. They stand out in sharp contrast to the core of the theme and a subdued and suggestive treatment it has otherwise received. There is one, for example, in which mother Gowdthi (Susheela Kelamane) is lying astride and son Ramgonda (Santosha Shetty) makes repeated thrusts with a sword-like weapon he has in his hand.

A learning experience of reading the language of theatre through the performance of a Kannada play Huliya Neralu in the Sannata style!

Dr. S.D. Desai, a professor of English, has been a Performing Arts Critic for many years. Among the dance journals he has contributed to are Narthaki, Sruti, Nartanam and Attendance. His books have been published by Gujarat Sahitya Academy, Oxford University Press and Rupa. After 30 years with a national English daily, he is now a freelance art writer.