The two Hindu epics are majestic pieces of literature, grand in their sweep of space and time; they stand as beacons of moral and ethical values, and we generally hold them in awe and reverence. We certainly do not associate them with humour, or light-heartedness.
So, when I got an email from Ram Ganesh Kamatham about his award-winning play, “Ultimate Kurkshetra” which deals not with the forefront, and the heroes of the Mahabharata, but of the very ordinary people who populate the fringes of the army on the eve of the great war of Kurukshetra, I was intrigued and rushed off to watch.
The first attraction was the sumptuous “ratha” (chariot) that stood on the stage, with several weapons such as the mace, spears and so on. When the play started, Yuyutsu, that single Kaurava who suffered pangs of conscience before the war, appeared, and took the trip to bathos with his announcement that he was called “Yuyu” for short! The other characters then took the stage: Sudarshana the warrior and Adi, his charioteer, who have been issued a chariot but no horses (Adi has been given a token and a promise of payment after the war!). Daksha, the mahout, who is busy calculating just how much poop and dung all those horses and elephants on the battlefield will generate. Maya, the courtesan, who wants to be paid for her work last night…and whose relationships with other men are slowly revealed, the last one being the high point or climax on which the interval happens. And most delightful of all, just as Adi says, “This is a battlefield, I don’t see people wandering around”…there comes Vyasa himself, in a hilarious camp version, prancing through the battlefield as if it were a field of lilies, making observations that had the audience in splits, sporting a peacock-feather pen and a palm-leaf to write on.
Incident follows hilarious incident. Daksha has devised an elephant-head mask (it’s that of a young elephant) that will prevent the war elephants from trampling on the warrior wearing them, even though the elephants themselves seem to have been conscripted from various other callings in temples and zoos! The mask is too small, and gets stuck on Sudarshana’s head, prompting Vyasa, in one of his numerous appearances, to say that he’s been looking for a scribe to write the epic (or as he calls it in true Malayali style, “yepick”!) and (with a sideways look at the so-called elephant) that he seems to have found one. Some important incidents from the epic are referred to, such as the lacquer house built by Purochana for the Pandavas, which is burnt to the ground to kill them off; Bheeshma’s “iccha mrithyu” or death at his own wish; But through all the comedy runs the thread of deep philosophy: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets hurt” is one line that has stayed with me well after the play. Another beautiful and moving sequence is when Sudarshana describes how he, too, heard Krishna giving the Geetopadesha to Arjuna.The words showed the playwright’s prose rising to poetry.
The play winds on to a very satisfactory conclusion, with Maya also entering the battle as a warrior, equal to the men she has been dealing with. As the conch of war sounds, Vyaas in his batik top and pista-green dhoti sums up the premise of the play, and Yuyutsu reappars to state it: the ultimate Kurukshetra is not a battle in the distant past, it is a battle in every day of our lives, with the choices we make.
Enjoying and laughing my way through the performance did not prevent me from noticing and appreciating the technical aspects of the production. First of all, even before we entered the theatre, the excellent three-page brochure gave us an introduction to the cast and crew, and what we should expect in the two hours ahead. The play won the Sultan Padamsee Award for Playwriting in 2011. Apart from the information about the cast and crew of the play and about the group itself, I enjoyed the director’s note about the rasas to be found in the Mahabharata, and how he came to write the play, with a “notable absence of grandstanding champions, and a surfeit of flawed, under-equipped and everyday heroes doing their best to get by in a very challenging situation”.
The stage design was done so that the cast could move backwards and forwards, to the side and centre of the stage, easily. The properties and production values were lavish and unstinted: the weapons, the golden chariot (alas, no horses to move it!) all added to the effect.
The costumes, too, showed that a lot of thought had gone into them…the photograph I have posted here, of the cast taking their bow after the performance, shows the spectrum of colours which made the costumes a visual spectacle.The dhotis, the courtesan’s robes, the armour…all were well-designed and added to the eye appeal while not hindering the movements of the artistes.
Indeed, movement was something there was a lot of. Well-choreographed fight sequences (and most of the fights except perhaps the sequence of Arjuna and his bow, Gandiva, were not of the great war, but skirmishes amongst the characters, as personal frictions came in the way of being united as a part of the Kaurava army), the amorous moments between Maya, Sudarshana and Adi, they all flowed smoothly.
I must say that in the performance I watched, there was some fluffing of dialogues by the characters who played Daksha and Sudarshana; my daughter and son-in-law, who watched the play the next evening, reported much less of such glitches. In the main, though, the dialogues and the punch lines were well-delivered, and the audience’s laughter showed their enjoyment.
The sound design, and the music, added to heighten the denouement of the play, and were very effective indeed, without resorting to the usual noises that sometimes accompany comedy on the stage.
The lighting was also excellent. Highlighting and general lighting, some strobe effects and other areas were handled very well, evoking the battlefield in both its majesty, and its bathos.
I must,however, add that not everyone in the audience liked the play equally; my daughter’s friend,it appears, was “quite disgusted” and said that she did not like the great epic being thus parodied. Different opinions for different people, of course… I must say that I enjoyed the humour and the dialogue very much! I happen to think that a good satire pays its own tribute to the majesty of the original.
All in all, a rollicking run through the prelude to the great war of Kurukshetra, which yet showed up human frailties, egos and the interplay of personalities, and put forward, at the end, the truth that with every choice we make, we fight our own Kurukshetras every day.
Looking forward to the next play from the pen of this talented playwright!
“Ultimate Kurukshetra” by Actors Ensemble
Duration: 120 min with a 10 min interval
Written and directed by Ram Ganesh Kamatham
Designed and Produced by Mallika Prasad Sinha
6 and 7 June, 2019, Ranga Shankara
Vyasa: Anil Abraham
Adi: Harish Seshadri
Sudarshana: Karn Malhotra
Daksha: Anirudh Acharya
Maya: Mallika Prasad Sinha
Yuyutsu: Ram Ganesh Kamatham
Costumes: Sankeerthi Aipanjiguly
Backdrop and Daksha’s house: Prasanna D
Chariot and Floor: Sridhar Murthy
Tracks: Aman Anand, Snehal Pinto
Make-up: Uma Maheshwar
Props: Ullas Hydoor
Lights: Naveen M G
Front of House: Vinay Shastri
Stage Manager: Lekha Naidu
Poster Design and Illustrations: Sachin Jadhav
Stills and Video: Cletus Rebello
Backstage Crew: Disha Rao, Srinivas Gowda, Prashanth M, Lakshyaraj Rathod
Venkatraman Balakrishna and Meera Sitaraman provided “Gandiva”
Patrons: Dr Vibha Prasad, Mrs Pratibha Prasad, Rahul Raghuram, Shantanu Prabhu, Swaroop Srinath.
You can see the trailer
Suitable for audiences over 13 years