An epic stamp on stage

This year marks the 50th year of Sri Ramayana Darshanam receiving the Jnanapith award. It took its author, Kuvempu, nine years to complete this magnum opus. Hailed for its literary brilliance, lyrical quality and its analytical and incisive take on Valmiki’s epic, the Ramayana, the work is a unique blend of Halegannada and Hosagannada. Now, this classic has been brought on stage by the theatre institute, Rangayana. The group is touring the state and running to packed houses, providing glimpses of the past to the current generation.

“I was watching Vaali Vadhe, a play that takes inspiration from the two episodes of Kuvempu’s Sri Ramayana Darshanam. The bond between the two monkey brothers was depicted so beautifully that it tore my heartstrings. I then realised what a powerful medium theatre could be and thus embarked on this idea of bringing the entire Ramayana Darshanam on stage,” explains N R Vishu Kumar, who recently retired as the director of the Department of Kannada and Culture while talking about the genesis of this stage presentation.

When Vishu Kumar pitched the idea to the artistes of Rangayana in Mysuru, they were initially hesitant. Although this autonomous theatre institute is well-known for its experimental plays and its successful staging of popular literary works, this was a different situation altogether. “The challenge was to bring out the essence of Ramayana as seen by Kuvempu — the stress on the essential humanity of all characters including the likes of Ravana and Shoorpanakhi,” says Bhageerathi Bai Kadambi, the director of Rangayana who plays the role of Manthare in the play.

Collective effort 

She and her team decided to call in experts from the literary and theatre fields for a dialogue. It was decided that apart from senior artistes at Rangayana, auditions would be held for artistes from other parts of the state too. Jagadisha Manevarthe and Krishna Kumar Naarnakaje have adapted the epic work to the theatre. The essential Kuvempu style was retained and the duration of the script was reduced to an acceptable five hours with a short break in between. K G Mahabaleshwara who had earlier brought classical works of Pampa, Ranna and Kumaravyasa to stage was roped in to direct the play.

Mahabaleshwara elucidates, “You have to bear in mind the period in which
Kuvempu wrote Ramayana Darshanam. It was a time when the Second World War prevailed and Europe saw the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. Here was the young poet influenced by Gandhi. He sees the ongoing conflict between violence and non-violence and draws parallels with the conflicts among the three cultures of Ayodhya, Kishkinda and Lanka in the epic. The book and the play show how characters transcend their original demonic nature and demonstrate moral consciousness.” 

When asked about the challenges he faced in directing this particular play, especially with enunciating Halegannada and lengthy lines, Mahabaleshwara said, “The use of the principles of dramatics and voice culture and rigorous practice made it possible for the artists to master them. Selecting the right costume and dance styles was tough though. For Ayodhya, we used Yakshagana dance form, for Lanka, we chose Manipuri and for Kishkinda, Kalaripayattu. We had to assign suitable roles too as we had veterans as well as youngsters. Some roles demanded physical feats and some a lot of emoting. But over four months of practice, we were able to bring forth a play that has given us all happiness and satisfaction.”

This creative satisfaction and joy are palpable in the words of Prashanth Hiremath, a senior Rangayana artiste who plays the role of Maareecha. “A lot of people have worked hard to convey the writer’s vision in this theatrical form. The scriptwriters succinctly condensed the magnum opus. The music, the settings, the choreography... everything has been carefully put together to make the characters of Ramayana relatable to the audience. We are overwhelmed by the public response to the play. They have a strong emotional bond with Ramayana and Rashtrakavi Kuvempu. Young and old, litterateurs and common folk, audiences in big and small cities, have given us standing ovations. People have stayed back for interactions with artistes after the play that ended by 11 pm.’’  

Compelling presentation

The emotional connect may initially draw people to the play, but ultimately, it is the sheer talent and hard work of over 50 artistes on and off stage that holds the audience spellbound. And after returning home, the epic’s compelling lines definitely resonate in their ears for a long time. 

“I was bowled over by the music, the setting and acting; it was pleasant to hear Halegannada being spoken with ease. There was not a single dull moment in the five-hour long play,” says Keshav, a theatre-goer. Rangayana plans to take the play to larger and wider audiences in the coming days.

For more on Sri Ramayana Darshanam –a stage presentation and its schedule, visit www.rangayana.org. 

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An epic stamp on stage

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