A tribute to theatre titans
By Shrinkhla Sahai
The 19th edition of the annual theatre festival organised by the National School of Drama, Delhi, promises a treat for theatre lovers through the month of February. The first act of the festival opened with a tribute to three theatre personalities who passed away last year—K.N. Panikkar, Heisnam Kanhailal and Prem Matiyani.
Poet, playwright, theatre director, writer, musician, lyricist, K.N. Panikkar (1928 - 2016) was a multifaceted genius. Uttara Rama Charitam was the inaugural play, performed in Hindi by Sopanam Institute of Performing Arts and Research Centre, founded in 1964 by Panikkar in Kerala. As a leading exponent of traditional and folk theatre, Panikkar is revered for his successful productions of traditional Sanskrit plays. Bhasa’s Madhyamavyayogam, one of his signature directorial ventures, set the stage for the theatre festival to take off.
Kanhailal’s Pebet was first performed in 1975. It is a landmark production in the remarkable trajectory of the Manipuri director. Anchored in a fable about a mythical bird called Pebet, the play weaves a narrative around the Mother Pebet (Heisnam Sabitri Devi) as she creates a safe and peaceful world for her children. She is soon interrupted by a wicked cat that eyes the baby birds and attempts to sweet-talk and strategise its way into luring them away for its own use. The innocent young pebets get trapped in the cat’s clever mechanisations. Before they realise what is happening, the cat manipulates them like puppets, inciting them to act against one another. A poignant and apt metaphor for our times, the play is politically potent and emotionally powerful. Pebet signifies the essence of Kanhailal’s theatrical language—intense engagement with non-verbal language, minimalist scenography, a simple narrative that reveals the nuances of human life and a pointed social critique. After all these years, the play continues to resonate the deepest fears and desires that underlie interaction between communities. The director’s vision is matched with H. Sabitri Devi’s moving performance. A befitting tribute, this production has worked its way into the annals of theatre masterpieces.
Director Prem Matiyani had also worked with the Song and Drama division of Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and was the director of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. A recent production, Gadal Gunda, was his adaptation of two short stories by Rangeya Raghav and Jai Shankar Prasad. Set in Rajasthan, Gadal portrays a strong and fiercely independent 45-year old woman. She flouts social norms and is criticised by her own family as she decides to move in with a man ten years younger to her. This is her effort to shake up her brother-in-law Dodi, who loves her but does not have the courage to make their relationship known to her sons and the village community. Hema Singh, as the protagonist Gadal, gave a nuanced and powerful performance, bringing out the dilemma, loneliness and stubbornness of the character with great skill.
The second story, Gunda, transported the audience into the heart of 18th century Varanasi. The city faces turbulent times under the dictatorship of Hastings. Nankhu Singh—feared by the aristocracy and loved by the marginalised sections of society, attempts to safeguard the cultural values of the ancient city as it buckles under political conflict. Again, the protagonist, played by Govind Pandey, emerged as a convincingly real and conflicted character. However, in both the cases, the supporting cast often lapsed into exaggerated gestures, superficial and stereotypical depictions of rural life that undercut the effect of the lead actors’ performance. The music, design, direction and dramatisation by Prem Matiyani evoked an authentic world, one that only a master storyteller can weave.