How to be one and also many?

January 3, 2017 § Leave a comment


Recently, I read in one of theatre magazines that one-act plays in the Indian languages are imported from the West. Is this true? It only betrays lack of acquaintance with our traditional past.

One-act plays constitute as the last division of dasarupaka in our ancient theatrical manuals.  Their dramatic content may vary, covering a wide range of theatrical types, from the funeral comment to farcical comedy. But it should have one mandatory structure, the action should take place within the confines of a single day  or precisely, of one phase of a single day.

In fact, our theatre manuals have delved deeper into this aspect of one-act plays and sub-divided them into six groups (1)  vyayoga (2) ihamrga (3) anka (4) prahasana (5) bhana  and (6) vithi.

Some of the manuals  mentioned by Adiyarkunallar in his commentary for ‘Silappadikaram’ ,which are now irretrievably  lost might have dealt with these ‘Pothuviyal’ (Lokdharmi) plays. This category of plays  were intended for the masses unlike the ‘Vethiyal’ (NatyaDharmi) narratives.

The ‘vyayoga’  deals with the theatre of war .The number of characters should not exceed four or five  charactes  ,all males except one or two women , perhaps, as  attendants  to the hero, who is essentially a human being or an epic character and mot a god. The best illustration is Bhasa’s  ‘Urubhanga’.

‘Ihamrga’ is not about any military challenges, but basically about a conflict like snatching away a damsel against her will. Like Ravana carrying away Sita to Lanka. ‘Anka’ is primarily a lament describing the horrors or miseries of war.

‘Praharsana’ and’bhana’ , as one act plays venture to explore the lighter aspects of  the then-existing  contemporary society , to satirize and make comments onthe human frolics and weaknesses.

‘Praharsana’s  main objective ,as its name suggests, to regale the viewers with mirth and laughter and nothing like satire is an apt tool to do that.  It exposes the hypocrisy of those on the higher order of social hierarchy like the Brahmins, the monks, rich knaves belonging to an higher or lower social status, recluses  and  prostitutes,  Depending on the characters  depicted, the language of dialogues in the play could be a mixed bag of sublime sophistry and also indecent dialects.  That these are mentioned in the theatre manuals, this comes to us as a big surprise  that such types of plays could have really existed  in those days , when moral-mongering and ethical rigidity  underlined the social climate.

But the closest approximation to such a conceived satire could be Mattavilasa  of King Mahendravarman (7th century CE) of Kanchi. It  beautifully portrays the  drunken revelry of a kapalin, who quarrels with an innocent  Buddhist monk over his lost begging bowl, which is ,at last, recovered from a lunatic, who has retrieved it from a stray  dog!

The Bhagavadajjuki y deals with an equally hilarious subject. It deals with  a theme involving a recluse of the Bhagavata sect  and a courtesan.

The   courtesan dies of a snake-bite. The Bhgavata, who sees this ,wants to demonstrate his yogic power to his disciple and he enters the body of the girl. The messenger of the God of Death, Yama,  who had come to fetch the soul of the girl, allows it to enter the body of the Bhagavata. Now we have a courtesan with the Bhagavata’s soul and a Bhagavata with a courtesan’s soul! This leads to various hilarious situations. Ultimately, things are set right by Yama’s messenger.  Both these satires are social comments , potraying   the petty, religious quarrels and also mocking at the sacredness attached to  pretenders in the name of holy faith.

Bhana stands out from the rest of the categories in its being a monologue play, where  the  vita(companion of the hero) delivers all the dialogues in multiple roles.  The rest of the characters with whom he is supposed to be in conversation ,  are assumed to stay off stage.  The hero, for whom he goes on a mission also remains off stage. The  vita  goes around the city, its nooks and corners, confronts different kinds of people from all strata of society, mostly swindlers, cheats, prostitutes and con men and all these interactions are vividly described  by him in multiple voices and action. in the most non-judgmental fashion.

Interestingly, most of, these satirical plays were written in South India, in Kanchi, to be more precise, which was the cultural capital of India, after the decline of Pataliputra. One play, whose authorship is not known, said to have been quoted by Abhinava Gupta ,reads thematically like a modern absurd play. It is entitled ‘Padataditaka’.

A high official of the king seeks the advice of the Vita , his friend. (Invariably, the Vitas, Vidushakas and all those who hang around the royalties and aristocrats, are Brahmins,  who were known for their ready sharp wit and ready wisdom) . The advice he needs is in regard to reclaim his aristocratic dignity that he had lost when one of his favourite courtesans, kicked him on his head , when both of them were in a state of intoxication.  Seized with this commission, the Vita  organizes an assembly of his fraternity to discuss this serious State issue, to find a solution.  Analyzing this  problem thread- bare ,they come out with a solution that the said courtesan should place her

feet  on the King’s head, that would lift the official’s head to a  royal status, that would restore his own lost dignity!

An actor must be enormously gifted to do such a role ,not only speaking in multiple voices  but, at the same time, participate in enacting  them out for a visual appeal!

I am convinced that some of the poems in ‘Kalitogai’ (Sangam Classic) are Bhana style narratives.

 

 

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