Girish Karnad’s voice echoes over the PA system. His pre-recorded message requesting the ever-accommodating audience to “please switch of your mobile phones,” is met for once by the chitter-chatter of a house-full show audience, that’s has surprisingly turned out for a play, not representing anything relatively mainstream Indian.
The last two days have been surprising to say the least — at least for someone like me, who has been attending every single performance at this year’s Ranga Shankara theatre festival!
The festival opened with Rama Bijoya, a treat to anyone who has never seen the quaint theatrical-dance form of Sattriya. This particular piece was performed by the Sattriya Monks of Uttar Kamalabari Sattra, in Majuli, Axom.
Now I am no master in the art myself, but I have seen Sattriya performances before this, and this wasn’t the best the art could offer to a new audience. The monks performed the life of Lord Rama, till his betrothal to Sita, which was interesting enough a theme, but it didn’t work for me…
Why it didn’t work for me on principal, is basically because the art has not developed at all. Being practiced by the monks in closed almost Nazi camp like Sattras, the art is still lost in an old world full of hierarchy, which is not necessarily charming.
Consider the fact that male artists still perform the female roles and that the male actors are not far from being actual castratos and you suddenly realize how sordid the art is.
The performance was average to say the least, it didn’t inspire me in parts nor did it evoke any exclamations of joy at discovering something astoundingly aesthete at any moment!
It warbled on, in the amusing Brajawali dialect of Assamese and while it was fun to watch how words were ‘o’d and ‘ou’d every now and then, such accentual differences couldn’t keep me or half the audience too interested for too long.
But the God’s of Theatre have a lot of mercy and the very next day, almost to make up for the downer on Day 1, we were brought two Kattaikkoottu performances.
Now what is Kattaikkoottu you must be wondering? Well, this old folk art form from the Northern Districts of Tamizhnaadu, is a performance based narrative art, that beautifully mixes, Koothu (street dancing), with folk music, a mask-drama-dance and several other such elements, creating a performance that is raw, sensual, fabulous and well-worth several views! To find out more, just visit this link: http://www.kattaikkuttu.org/
The Tamil Nadu Kattaikkuttu Kalai Valarchi Munnetra Sangam from Kanchipuram, more simply known as the Sangam, was invited to perform two pieces from their repertoire on Day 2 of the festival. The first performance was a from the normal ‘Southern Style’ cannon — Subhadhira Kalyaanam and this piece was extremely exciting as it featured the All Girls Kattaikkuttu Company, which is probably the ONLY all-female Kattaikkoottu company in the whole wide world! The Sangam is single handedly responsible for the introduction of this art to women. And even till today, women have to overcome quite a few obstacles posed by family and society to learn this art.
The performance was amazing and so full of energy and comedic timing, while the young artistes, who performed the role of Arjunan and Kannan (Krishna), were astoundingly good too!
I was more than ready for the next performance, later that very evening and my hopes were kept up with, thankfully.
The Kattaikkuttu Young Professionals troupe set the stage on fire with the evening performance, when they performed an abridged version of their repertory regular Pakatai Tukil, this time however called Diraupathi Tukil, a shortened version.
My favourite character from the previous performance, the young energetic pretty looking girl who played Arjunan, played one of the several Draupadi’s in this energy-ravishing performance.
What however added to the overall exuberance and energy was the last extended, exclusively Tamizh addition to Draupadi’s Vastraharan — the last dice game! I was as elated and impressed by this local twist, and believe me; I really wish this was added to all versions of the Mahabharata.
Impressed enough, I looked forward to every other performance in the festival, but was extremely disappointed for the next few days.
The next Wednesday, I was dragged, and I actually mean dragged to watch Dastangoi — new tales from Tilism-e-Hoshruba, a Hindustani performance that turned out to be in too chaste Urdu for anyone like me to follow or appreciate.
Firstly, I do not like narrative forms that involve one performer telling me a story, no matter how good the performance is! Secondly, I need to at least grasp the gist of what is being said on stage to understand and appreciate any art — however simple or rustic!
Now in this case, we were given print-outs with a general explanation of what this Dastangoi was all about, but even after almost memorizing it, the strangeness of the language and sheer bias against the style of art, left me bewildered first, and then terribly bored later.
Bewildered, why you ask? Well, I had no clue Bangalore had such a well-learned Urdu audience. Everyone seemed to be enjoying it but me. Co-viewer Faiqueee, however, also enjoyed the show, and he had reason enough to do so — he understood Urdu like he was supposed to! But I am still left wondering if that was the case with most of the audience, who predictably laughed at every funny looking comment and applauded every time one of narrators reached a crescendo. It was pitiable and sad and I am happy it’s over.
No more Dastangoi for me, ever again and I assume I don’t need to reiterate why I was bored?
The next day was Bangalore-is excited-day! Teejan Bai, the lone champion of Chhattisgarh’s native art of Pandavani was in town! Now, I’d heard so much about Teejan Bai that I was extremely apprehensive of even going for the show. I have learnt the hard way, that when people talk a lot about a particular performer and their abilities, more often than not, you’re left wondering what all the fuss was about in the first place.
My apprehensions were quite justified and the performance was just mediocre. Teejan Bai has lost her voice and the Draupadi Cheerharan (which is what the performance was all about) lasted for just 5 minutes! Yes, those five minutes were so raw and powerful that it made the rest of the boring 45 minutes or so seem so worth-it… But really, is a good 5 minute performance what people rave so much about?
What I must agree however, is that the use of English words that have become commonplace, like Total and Timepass, were effectively used in perfect comic timing and incited quite a few hearty laughs.
The only bit that stood out for me was the joke of Krishna asking Draupadi how she could blame him for him coming so late to the durbar, when she decided to call him Dwarknath, of all his names! He had to go all the way to Dwarka before he could come and save her, thanks to her choice of calling him that! Kinda stupid, but Oh! So enjoyable!
And then there was today! Yes, I finally manage to connect back to where I started this LONG LONG post!
The moment I saw how the director/set designer had set up the stage, I knew I was going to like it. Reminiscent of a village Laai Haraaoba platform, with a Bamboo fence and a plate of offerings — the stage suddenly seemed to posses depth that I didn’t know Ranga Shankara was capable of creating… and superbly organized lights, that looked professional for once! And then there was the entrance!
Goosebumps and more goosebumps erupted all over me, when I heard the familiar sound of a Pena with the accompanying Pung and Dholok. The Tangkhul flute was almost magical in the way it was used and so was the atypical double conch… and then it all began…
First the much-seen circular formation, with musicians and narrator at the side and background and then the slow unknotting of an ancient tale, so typical a form to Meitei performing arts!
A friend just asked on FB, why it was called a ballad and all I can say to him now in reply is — what else can you call something that has reached such a sense of purity and finesse? No other word would justify the story of the Goddess of Rice, when said with such style, depth, rusticity and in such a huge emotional range.
The music was amazing, the writing even better and the performances — like I’ve never seen before. The lyrical quality of chaste Meiteilon came to life in this play, and the scenes with the interactions between the Goddesses, broke me down out of sheer joy at the beauty witnessed.
What really worked for the play was the wonderful mix of myth, religion, a love ballad and powerful narration, all interspersed and so beautifully directed into a perfect whole by M Mangangsana.
The proposal scene and the final day of meeting between Phou-Oibi and Akongjamba were the most beautifully etched. With a spirited mix of narration and beautiful sing-song folk-tune inspired interlude every now and then, the mood of these scenes brought a lot of warmth and excitement to the viewer, memories even!
Phou-Oibi showing her true colours to Akongjamba’s mother, was a scene also done very cleverly. Keeping in mind the subtlety of the form, the power and all encompassing rage of Phou-Oibi was amazingly portrayed, invoking awe through the restrain used by the actress in almost everyone sitting in the audience.
To summarize the whole experience, if that’s even possible — The Laihui troupe’s presentation of Phou-Oibi was probably the best performance seen at this year’s festival. I do realize there are three more performances, but I’m kinda convinced they will not reach this level of the mastery of an art. I am impressed and am officially now a fan!
Phou-Oibi has given me new goals in life. I hope to one day act in a Meitei theatrical production and to at least learn, if not master, one of these extremely refined arts, which were and still are, all mine for the taking!
I have new found joy in being Meitei :)
May your art find you too!
If you would like to see what the Laihui performance looks like... check out the directors channel on YouTube: