It is not a common occurrence for me to be able to watch a well-made promo video of a theatre school; I did that for the first time when I reached out to the Drama School Mumbai, and the programme coordinator, Neeraj Panchal, sent me the video, which you can see
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I noticed the words “Annual Student Production 2018-19” on the excellent brochure that was given out before, and about, the play This intrigued me and I found out that the play was staged by the students of this school; some of them told me, after the play, that it was a one-year course that they were doing in Mumbai.
Even if I had not noticed the words, I would have been impressed by the professionalism that marked the production. The play, Rakta Kalyan, is Ramgopal Bajaj’s translation of the original “Tale Danda” by Girish Karnad, which he wrote in 1990.
As both the brochure and the Wiki entry about the play describe it, “Eight hundred years ago in the city of Kalyan a man called Basavanna assembled a congregation of poets, mystics, socialrevolutionaries and philosophers, unmatched for their creativity and social commitment in the history of Karnataka, even perhaps of India itself.
“The group opposed idolatry, rejected temple worship, upheld equality of sexes, and condemned the caste system .But events took a violent turn when the Sharans acted on their beliefs and a Brahmin girl married a ‘low caste’ boy.The movement ended in bloodshed .Rakt Kalyan, or Tale-Danda (literally, Death by Behading) deals with few weeks during which a vibrant, prosperous society plunged into anarchy and terror.”
The play is an unusually lenghty one for these times, and lasted two and a half hours, with an interval of ten minutes. Having watched the original play in Kannada, some years ago, I was familiar with the narrative. It is a powerful one, and deals expertly with the way a leader may rise amongst the people with revolutionary new thoughts, with the movement losing its way in the desert sands of established prejudices and entrenched ideas.The interplay of personalities, the change of behaviour due to the pressures of court politics,the greed of the weak for power which is often assumed at the cost of both human lives and moral values, all these are powerfully dealt with in the play.
My point of dissonance has always been with the play itself; in it, Basavanna comes across as a weak character, who is unable to push through the reforms he has been proclaiming must happen. When the lower caste young man and the upper-caste young woman wish to get married, he and his cohorts announce that the time is not yet ripe for revolution. To me, this was unacceptable even when I first saw the play. Those who preach revoluntionary ideas cannot wait for a comfortable time to implement those ideas; the time to do so is as the situations arise.But Girish Karnad, I think, wanted to show that revolutionary figures also have their points of weakness.
The staging of the play was excellent. I was most impressed by the professionalism of the stagecraft, and even more so when I learnt that everything had been managed by the students themselves: on and off the stage.
The stage was simply set, with a large Sivalinga (the form of Siva worshipped by the Lingayats) and a slightly raised platform at the rear, seen through a translucent screen. This acted as a Siva temple as well as the private quarters of the king. The front of the stage was used for much of the action, and a simple bench was used at various places as a throne, a sick-bed, or just a seat. Some rush mats that visitors were offered seats on, some daggers and swords, completed the props, which were used to full effect.
The costumes were very good too, in what I call the “generic ethnic” style. Flowing “panchas” and sarees worn in the nine-yard way, in pleasing colours, made for a historic look without being too fussy. A few pieces of jewellery for the royal characters (none of them wore crowns, their personalities being brought out more than their royalty) completed the costumes; the white of some of the sarees blended neatly into widow’s weeds in one instance.
The music: there was none…not in the sense of a musical instrument being played or vocals being sung: the tension was taken up,and kept up, by two percussion instruments: the chenda (the Kerala drum) and the djambe. These brought the feeling of war and conflict on the stage and kept it going throughout the production.
I must mention that the cast delivered the dialogues extremely well. The play is very heavy on words, the language was quite “shuddh” Hindi, and lengthy speeches were delivered, not only without a slip (well, I noticed just one!) but also with great feeling. The sardonic wit of Bijjaila, which provided a lot of the humour in an otherwise tense performance, the stupidity of his son, the shifting loyalities and actions of the various characters, all these were brought out with very subtle direction, and great performances by the cast.
The lighting was equally effective in enhancing the mood of the play and underscoring the denouement. Short periods of darkness when the scenes changed, and the actors moved the props,alternated with excellent highlighting of the action as the play proceeded.
The female characters, whether it was Bijjaila’s queen, the philosophical Akkamma, or the pragmatic mother of the bride, were well-nuanced and emoted. But in a play about political and temporal power, the male characters were the dominant ones. I am not mentioning names as I will list the cast later. The choreography of the fight scenes was very well done, and the litheness and agility of the cast was a treat to watch.
It is a mark of how well the play was staged that in our usual post-play discussion (which I generally have with my friends), the points raised were about the character of Basavanna, or about other characters,and not about the production itself. The paradox that Girish Karnad brought out, 30 years ago… the permanency of the caste system with its entrenched hypocrisy, and its ability to defeat all new-wave ideas… were all brought home to us in the present day, and served to make us both thoughtful…and pessimistic.
In bringing out the tension of the performance, and keeping it up through a long period of time, the direction has to be appreciated. At no point was the direction very apparent, but its results were there in the polish of the production. I do not know if Sunil Shanbag is also a student…if so, he, like many of the members of the troupe, a talent to be watched.
I do have a few nits to pick…many of us felt that the characters of Sheel and Kallayya were rather mixed up and the audience were not easily able to separate them. Also, it was never clear as to why Jagdeva and his two friends had to finally kill the king, who was anyway mentally unhinged after his queen died.
The biggest nit, however, is the fact that though the cast (who are also the crew, since the students are trained to handle all aspects of stagecraft and theatre) took their bows, they did not spend a little time giving the audience their names and introducing themselves. As there are alternative names in the brochure, we had no way of knowing which actor was performing the role on this particular evening. A reading of the alternative roles the group members are doing in the list I am providing at the end, wiill give an idea of how several roles were done by one person.
Many in the audience left without knowing that this was not a professional,but a student production; that would have raised the level of appreciation considerably. I was fortunate enough to meet Anmol, Prajesh and Dusha, and later, Neeraj, too, and learn a little more about them. This was, they said, their fifth show. I was very impressed at the finesse they brought to the production values, and wished them well in the tough (and often financially unrewarding) path they have chosesn to follow.
Congratulations on a great production, Drama School Mumbai! I look forward to your further performances, whether by professionals or students, with avidity.
Written as “Tale Danda” in Kannada by Girish Karnad
Translated in Hindi by Ramgopal Bajaj
Directed by Sunil Shanbag
2hrs 20 min, with 10 min interval
Manchanna Kramita: Nihir/Sanket
Assassins: Aaryan, Dusha
Sharnas: Shimili, Nihir, Sanket, Apeksha, Nitya, Vrinda, Mallika, Dusha, Nikita
Braahman: Sanket, Nihir,Aaryan
Assistant Director: Abhilash Grover; Stage Manager, Vaishnavi R P; Set and Lights: Niranjan Jadhao; Costumes: Sonal Kharade; Fight Choreography: Arpit Singh; Publicity Design: Maneesh Verma; DSM Operations: Prachi Koppikar; DSM Progamme Co-ordinatore: Neeraj Panchal; DSM Producer: Maneesh Verma; DSM Programme head, Ragini Khushwaha.