‘Crossing to Talikota’: a review

How do you bring a historical play to the stage, whose structure is defined by the quick succession of scene changes?

Arjun Sajnani’s production of Girish Karnad’s last play ‘Crossing to Talikota’ tries to answer this question by the liberal use of technology and a minimalist set.

The play deals with the fall of the Vijayanagara empire following the fierce battle at Talikota, and revolves only around the different royal households of Deccan Sultanates and Vijaynagara. The absence of voices from the masses doesn’t reduce the onus on the production designer to capture the architectural aesthetics of these households.

Veteran production designer, Arun Sagar used nine panels on the stage, onto which the images are projected. They serve as a readymade set and give a much-needed depth, creating an illusion of wide spaces.

The play sticks to the non-linear structure of Karnad, opening in Vijayanagara, in the aftermath of Ramaraya’s death. It picks up in the second scene with the entry of ‘Aliya’ Ramaraya (Ashoka Mandanna), the de-facto ruler of Vijayanagara. Mandanna is excellent in his role of a proud man who is also insecure and bogged by his status as ‘Aliya’ (aka son-in-law). Apart from Mandanna, the performances of Shashank Purushottam (Ai Adil Shah) and Viveck Jayant Shah (Sultan Nizam Shah) too were brilliant. They successfully embodied the characters and proved to be worthy rivals for Mandanna’s Ramaraya.

In one of the early scenes, Begum Humayun Sultana (Susan George), wife of Nizam Shah, talks about how she feels sorry for Satyabhama (Veena Sajnani), Ramaraya’s wife. I was surprised by her decision to play this in a sarcastic tone, rather than a show of solidarity to a fellow royal woman. Though the text does not betray either way, it was amusing for me to witness the unsteady nature of interpretations.

Finally, the projected image (found in the Tarikh-i-Hussain Shah Badshah Dakhan, an eye-witness account of the battle) at the beginning of the war seemed like a tribute to Karnad, who chose the image as the cover page of the texts in both languages. The spectacle of war mainly takes place on the screen, giving the actor plenty of space to physically emote. The final scene is brilliantly executed scene. From the superb use of lighting to accentuate the drooping shoulders of defeated Ramaraya to the composition of actors on stage, the scene struck to me as a painting.

Pia Benegal’s costumes are understated but elegant. She has used the sari as a base for all the women characters, though the style of draping is changed depending on the royal household and the ranks they hold within it. The historically accurate depiction of quilted kulavis, or the conical headgears of the noblemen was especially delightful.

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