Indianness in Contemporary Indian Theatre

A production of Girish Karnad’s Naga-Mandala worth mentioning is Vikram Iyengar’s representation in 2005 combining Indian classical dance Kathak and contemporary dance forms. It has not been revived until date but the director shared with me the details of the same by sending an exhaustive document to give an idea of this rendition since the video of the same production is also unavailable. The original copy of the material supplied by the director lies in Sangeeta Natak Akademi(New Delhi) Archives.

Iyengar’s production places Karnad’s Naga-Mandala in an urban locale. It is an Unabashed ‘High Life’ where every kind of hedonistic pleasure becomes possible for a rich man. Iyengar’s Appanna is the product of this pseudo modern society. He is a
rich businessman who has not only lost his virginity several times in the company of his rake friends but also has a concubine to boast of his masculine vigor and potential.

Rani is a small town girl married off to Appanna just because of his grand social status. It becomes evident that despite locating his characters in an urban setting, the director conveys that the position of women in rural and urban middle class conservative families is no different. They are not given the privileges afforded to the men and are supposed to be ‘virgins’ waiting for the men to initiate them into the matters of love and sex.

In this sort of a milieu, a woman needs a companion to be with her and thus, the story becomes Rani’s friend. For giving an urban feel, the director chooses to make story and Rani huge Bollywood(Hindi Cinema) fans and in fact, it becomes very amusing to see that the production became a means of paying tribute to the Indian cinema in the early 60’s and 70s. The costumes and make up all pertains to this golden era of Indian movies with actresses in their typical Georgette shimmering saris, tight Punjabi kurtis and uniquely prominent hairdo’s with spectacular eyeglasses that add to the modern locale in the play. This is specifically done to add humor to the rendition that is important while depicting the jesting conversation of the flames as well as Kurudavva’s funny remarks to Rani etc. However, all this comedy is incorporated in the Kathak dance style which seems a unique combination.

Another interesting facet of the production is the manner in which the director interprets Rani’s character. The text shows her journey from an innocent woman to a Triumphant Goddess. Director tells his heroine playing Rani to identify the ‘Nayikabheda” (Iyengar’s Brochure) or the varied states experienced by the leading lady of the play when she is with her husband and with the lover. This becomes vital to convey the journey undergone by Rani from an innocent maiden to a devious manipulator well-versed into matters of sexual adoration managing to find a lover and also earning a social reputation. This sort of interpretation enables the director to modify his ending and yet adhere to the play’s basic idea of a woman’s ability to undermine patriarchy. Rani manages to prove her innocence. She is deified and Appanna has to acknowledge her awesome image in spite of his reluctance to do so. However, he selfishly makes a huge profit out of his wife’s high-sounding image in the society. People request him to convey their wishes and desires in front of his wife on their behalf. Thus, Appanna also gets importance and reverence and finally he writes an autobiography called ‘Married to a Devi’. Moreover, what occurs in front of Apppanna is incomprehensible for him. It is as the director says, “by far, the best and most successful fantasy he has ever lived – a fantasy beyond his wildest dreams!”.
(Iyengar’s Brochure) This brings out the implication in Karnad’s play that the patriarchal world does not accept a woman’s integrity unless asserted by some extraordinary means. A novel aspect of the production is that while the text shows that the role of Naga and Appanna can be played by a single actor; two different actors play these two roles in Iyengar’s production. Thus, the director accurately identifies that the play is not only about the quandary of a woman to decide whether the man that she sees as the lover at night and the husband in the morning are both the same or not. It is about a woman’s urge to fall in love with a man that enters in her life as a lover and disregard the man who is a nominal husband in her life and has failed to give her the status of a wife in the real sense of the word. However, Naga’s entry was always characterized through stylized movements of dance which conveyed that perhaps the play is about a woman’s dream to have a lover that fulfills all her wishes, removes every hurdle in her life, gifts her honor of motherhood and also exalts her station as a goddess. It is thus that despite using two different characters in the play for Naga and Appanna, the director creates the character of ‘NAGAPPA’ that is both similar as well as different. He thus got a wonderful complement from the audience member that without using classical sarpamudra or codified hand or body gesture in suggesting the entry of the snake, Naga appeared as the snake in the play conveyed through the mode of Kathak.

The area chosen for performing this play was outdoor locale of UMA gallery lawn. This reminds of the fact that folk stories are generally narrated outside among the folk and the natak performances based on the same are also often presented in an
open-air environment. However, the director gives an elaborate description of the kind of advanced sophistication that was maintained in designing the milieu,finalizing the costumes, sets and props etc. This implies that the performance based
on a simple folktale required a lot more of technical specification for representation in front of the contemporary audience. This is the most appropriate illustration of tradition blended with modernity. It can be concluded that Vikarm Iyengar’s
performance of Naga-Mandala exemplifies the manner in which a director takes artistic liberty without losing the core of the text.

As a theater critic and an admirer of Karnad, I must say, I have encountered several stage productions of Naga-Mandala (particularly as a part of my research project) but the dexterity with which Iyengar has cultivated this production is matchless is what I feel. In spite of not being able to watch the rendition live, I feel the inimitable work of the director makes its pleasant debut in front of the eyes as one reads the exhaustive Brochure presented by him. I am confident that Iyengar’s actors would have done full justice to his extraordinary vision of transforming Karand’s initiative of working with the tenets of folk tale and folk theater into a ‘Bollywood” entertainer of the 60s and 70s without losing its core. It is indubitably a ‘Timeless Classic’ and needs to be retrieved for the audience today.

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