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‘Parva’ without its edginess

It has been over a decade since I read S L Bhyrappa’s ‘Parva’, the Kannada classic originally published in 1979. A particular scene in the novel is etched in my memory — Gandhari reveals that she covered her eyes with a blindfold not out of any devotion towards her husband, but as a mark of protest against everyone involved in marrying her off to the blind Kuru prince, Dhritarashtra.

As iconic as Henrik Ibsen’s Nora Helmer slamming the door at the end of ‘A Doll’s House’, Gandhari uncovering her eyes is a feminist statement. The scene appears at the end of this 600-odd-page tome, hinting that not just Gandhari, but everyone who has read this work must open their eyes and look at the classic text in a new light.

I was curious how this particular scene would be presented on stage, in Prakash Belawadi’s eight-hour stage adaptation of ‘Parva’, presented by Centre for Film and Drama and Eneno Ase in English. My curiosity soon gave way to disappointment.

Belawadi chooses to begin the play with this scene. But, its impact is limited, as Gandhari’s eyes continue to be blindfolded throughout the rest of the play. Contrast this with the book, where Gandhari continues to see with her own eyes, until one morning she finds she has indeed turned blind.

Crushing weight

The dialogue-heavy play underutilised the potential of stage—from actors to costume and music. This was apparent in the very first scene, when Gandhari stood in one place, delivering her monologue. Of course, ‘Parva’ in its novel form contains monologues that span multiple pages. But, when a text is adapted to stage, you expect an exploration of its possibilities. The boundaries of what theatre has done and what theatre can do arebarely touched.

This is especially ironic, considering how much of a game changer ‘Parva’ was in its time, effectively using the novel form to approach the epic from a humanistic angle — stripped of any allusions to magic or divinity. I was confused about whether this was an adaptation of ‘Parva’ or the standard ‘Vyasa Mahabharata’. This confusion persists in the wake of Vivek Agnihotri’s announcement of a film adaptation of the novel, with a poster and video that is antithetical to what ‘Parva’ is all about.

The deva people whose seed is used by Kunti to beget the Pandavas are described as people who wore “thick wool clothes and looked like hill tribes” in the book. This otherness of the devas is an important plot point as it directly bears on Duryodhana’s argument that Pandavas are not “aryas”. But, this difference is hardly registered in the play, with their costumes and mannerisms being close to the popular imagination that we have seen in countless Kannada movies. The caricaturish portrayal of Indra, in particular, reinforces this point.

Lack of cohesion

The play as a whole does not appear as one cohesive unit, with each element of storytelling doing its own thing. What is the need to include Hindi songs when characters call each other using terms of endearment such as Anna, Akka, Chikkappa? It is difficult for the audience to immerse in a world where nothing is consistent. The static energy found in the beginning of the play, partial to realism, moves into a quasi-expressionist approach with exaggerated movements and a usage of masks, before it completely transforms into a comedy.

But the play shines the most where it unflinchingly embraces the expressionist techniques as in Bheeshma’s death surrounded by vultures and the fight between Alayudha and Ghatotkacha, which lasts barely a few seconds. It is a pity that the whole play did not choose to be this subversive.

The gambling scene, where Draupadi questions whether a man who has lost himself has the right to stake his wife, had the most potential to be powerful and dynamic. It had to capture the fervent rage of Draupadi as she begs each of the elders to save her from humiliation. Remember there are no deities in Parva’s world. No Krishna to save her. Siri Ravikumar (Draupadi) puts in her best efforts, but the lacklustre direction lets her down.

Similarly, Abhijeet Shetty (Duryodhana), Divya Raghuram (Kunti, Shikhandi), Srinivasa Beesetty (Bhima), Naima Nagaria (Hiranyavati), Teju Belawadi (Young Kunti) and Leena Samad Bicha (Madri) do their best, despite limited opportunities. But, it is Aarya Sharma, who plays a minor role called Havya, who shines the most in the second half. He was more involved and had greater stage presence than most actors playingmajor roles.

In his portrayal of Bheeshma and Yuyutsu, two prominent roles in the second half, Belwadi as an actor managed to single-handedly bring the energy of the play down. Taking the post-play comments from fellow audiences into consideration, I can say I was not alone in thinking this. His pauses after each word gave the impression that he was trying to jog his memory. Perhaps he should stick to direction alone and only take upminor roles.

Lost opportunity

The Pandavas of ‘Parva’ lie in the liminal space between multiple realities: ‘arya’ and ‘anarya’, ‘dharma’ and ‘adharma’. But they are repeatedly called on it. They eat beef, mate with Rakshasas, follow polyandry. So, the play had enough space to structure itself around the questions of what it means to be an ‘arya’ and what exactly is ‘dharma’ in the context of these men, who were born of Niyoga (out of marriage) and not a result of chanting of mantras. But such questions are lost in the glitter.

The adaptation neither makes the Mahabharata new nor its own. If Indian theatre has to grow, we have to hold our theatre makers to a higher standard — especially when they charge Rs 1,000 to Rs 3,500 for a ticket!

If there ever was an argument to be made why we need new voices in theatre — especially of women and the marginalised — this adaptation would be it.

(Published 27 October 2023, 19:45 IST)

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