Thursday, February 16, 2006


`Upakathai', a five-act play, is a set of stories from the Mahabharata, Ramayana, the Mughal period, the Vedas and a modern tale of classroom woes created by playwright Pralayan. A single thread runs through all these tales. All of them are of a victim and are told from a victim's point of view.The first of these is of Ekalavyan, the mythological ruler of Nishad in the Mahabharata. Vyasa's version is that Ekalavyan, the tribal king of Nishad, after a showdown with Pandava prince Arjuna, cuts off his own thumb as a sacrificial act for his guru Dronacharya.
Prayalan inverts this myth in the first act and then uses Ekalavyan in the rest of the play as a surrealistic narrator, sending him back and forth in time, from the Ramayana to the modern era and back to the Vedic period.The playwright doesn't show much respect for either mythology or history, but has a rich knowledge of their intricacies. He blatantly and brilliantly changes each myth and tailors it to suit his theme of Dalit oppression.Pralayan's stripped-down, on-your-face direction suffers from over-exposition, but makes sure that every single soul in the audience understands this complex story. His protoganist, Ekalavyan, meticulously explains each detail of the text and warns the audience of impending changes in the time period to ensure comprehension.
The first act is a Dalit take on a Mahabharata`upakathai'. Arjuna after suffering defeat at the hands of Ekalavyan, returns with his guru Dronacharya, who threatens that Nishad will be razed and its tribal population exterminated. To save the people, Ekalavyan lets Arjuna cut off his thumb. An anonymous character accuses Ekalavyan of changing the popular myth. ``Everyone knows that you gave up your thumb for your guru to please him. Now, you are changing the story to reflect your needs. These changes are outrageous. Who would believe that you defeated Arjuna, the famous warrior and Pandava prince?''Ekalvyan, however, insists that his story is the truth. ``The victors gave their version. I have given mine. I am not Vyasa to tell the story in a way that does not shock you,'' he replies.Inversion of popular myths are not new to Tamil literature or art. Puthumaipithan (1902-1948) had established this as an art form in his lifetime. The genius in this play lies in the eclectic and heady mixture of mythology, history and modernity that the playwright brings to his theme.In the next act, Rama, helpless and lonely after sending Sita into exile, is led into believing that he must kill a lower caste boy to prevent him from learning the Vedas, a right which only Brahmins enjoy. ``I murdered Taraka because sage Vishwamitra asked me to. Then Sugrivan asked me to kill Vali. Up to this day, I have not done anything for myself. Now, you my ministers, are asking me to kill Sampoka,'' the king says. In thus mocking Rama, the playwright is savagely destroying ``images of the golden period of the Ram Rajya.''The hero has been made the villain, his murderous act is one of meaningless vengence to preseve caste heirarchy.The next act, which jumps a few centuries forward in time, is perhaps the weakest. This is the when the play gets a bit contrived and sentimental. Set in the modern period, this is a parody of the education system, and like all good parodies hits straight at the truth. The hero of this act, a Dalit boy, is a budding poet and painter in his school. But his talents go wasted in a school that confines itself to the textbooks.The next tale is of the Mughal prince Salim's love for court dancer Anarkali. Ultimately, despite Akbar's misgivings, she too is beheaded.Salim's mother was a Hindu Rajputan queen. When Salim points this out to Anarkali, the court dancer replies that Hindustan may tolerate a Muslim Emperor marrying a Rajputan, but won't allow a marriage between her and the prince. The playwright rightly points out through this story that the difference between Salim and Anarkali is one of``caste''. Caste divisions till today dominate over religious differences, he points out.In the fifth and final act, Renuka finds herself with a upper caste head and lower caste body after she is first killed and then brought back to life by her son.The play was performed by the Chennai Kalai Kuzhu, an amatuer group of 40 players, some of them very new and, therefore, under rehearsed. The stage, sparsely lit, had a superb and unusual backdrop, a lit tree.Right from the beginning, the play is moving.
In the first act, when a furious Drona arrives at Nishad, he finds every tribal willing to give up his life for their king Ekalavyan. Later, Parasurama, in a emotional moment, says, ``Father, this is not some woman you are asking me to kill. This is my mother.''There was irony in that fact that these dialogues - deceptively simple and deliberately overwritten - were delivered in traditional Tamil theatre style, while the content of the play itself was anything but traditional.This is a play with a hard-hitting political message that uses the art of the theatre to convey it. As a playwright, Pralayan, well-known for his street plays in Chennai, is probably incapable of creating art without politics.
Staged with very few props and almost ``devoid of stylistic and illusory devices,'' the play is a testimony to the power of the theatre and a reiteration of its relevance during the age of the TV and cinema.Everyone in the audience - over 1,000 of them - understood the story, going by the laughs and claps. A few kids were seen enjoying every bit of it.Though this is a play heavily dependent on dialogue, its visuals are also extraordinary. The stage is divided into two - the lower level a few feet above ground and the upper level, an eight-feet tallplatform. The upper level is for what the playwright calls his ``heirarchy characters'' and another for the lower castes and ordinary people. Rama, Akbar, Arjuna, Drona, the school headmistress and drill master appear either on the upper level or are carried on stage in a moving platform. All the victims appear on the lower level.By inverting existing myths, historical and modern narratives in favour of the Dalits, the playwright is in way empowering them. Instead of the Khastriya Prince Arjuna, the tribal warrior Ekalavyan is here their hero who speaks in their voice. The sham as old as Hindu civilisation itself stands exposed. Conventions shatter, images crumble and out of it the Dalit voice is finally heard.
`Upakathai', written and directed by Pralayan, was staged during the 10th state-wide conference of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association on the eve of Gandhi Jayanthi at the Danish Mission School in Tiruvannamalai.