The first Indian epic-drama of its kind,none to follow!

March 11, 2017 § 3 Comments


I am not sure, whether there is any other work in any other regional language in India except in Tamil to have so much in common with Sanskrit, in regard to the theory and practice of musical and theatrical forms , dating from the early centuries of the common era.
And that singular, unique work is ‘Cilappadikaram’ written by Ilango Adigal, a Jaina monk. Story-wise, it is strikingly original, not outsourced from Sanskrit, but the classical dance and theatrical forms it portrays have close affinity with the codified regulations ,as stipulated in the theatre manual written in Sanskrit ,presumably, by Bharata Muni.
We know very little about our ancient authors, though myths about them are aplenty and as such, for all we know, it may not be a far-reaching speculation to think of Ilango and Bharata as one and the same person, who could have besides writing a manual (‘Natya Sastra’) by way of illustrating it through fictionalization ,also composed the story of ‘Cilappadikaram’.
According to Dr.Zimmer, ‘Sanskrit being the common language of communication among the intellectuals of India in those days,, it would not be surprising to attribute South Indian authorship to many of the metaphysical and theoretical works in Sanskrit’ Giving a date to our authors and works, from the western concept of history is a futile exercise, as our concept of history is cyclic and not linear as in the west.
Is ‘Cilappadikaram’ a play or an epic? It is both. It is this distinction that what makes it different from all other literary works in other Indian languages including Sanskrit. Ilango, a consummate dramatist and innovative literary master that he is, he initiates a new genre that is called as ‘ Muththamizh viraviya pattudai ceyyul’, which means,’ a cultural form that integrates poetry, music and drama’ Like Shakespeare, he knows that each word has two values, one dramatic and the other literary. Only in the hands of a genius, these words acquire their appropriate literary or dramatic identity, depending upon the context , whether you read it as a poem or see it as a play in your mind’s eye. . In other words, a ‘literary word’ , when it is read as literature acquires a new incarnation as ‘dramatic word’, when it is performed as aplay on the stage and one can visually experience it, as if it is one of the actors in the play.
Shakespeare is lucky as he had large number of good directors and actors to project him on the stage as an unparalleled playwright and also a larger number of literary critics to establish his credentials as a poet extraordinaire. But, Ilango is unfortunate in this regard that there has been no analytical in-depth study of his innovative work as an epic-drama of its own kind. Even the dance-dramas that have been attempted so far ,supposedly, based on the theme of this work have not done enough justice to capture its vigor and multi-faceted brilliance.
ILango is an unusual playwright ,who has given an unusual title for his monumental work, which is, ‘Cilappadikaram’, meaning ‘The story of the anklet’. ‘Cilambu’ is an anklet that was worn by young Tamil girls in ancient days, before they were married., which was removed on the wedding night before the nuptials. So ‘cilambu’ is a metaphor for their ‘virginity’ and ‘innocence’ that later becomes the insignia for the ‘pathni cult’ ( the cult of worshipping the deity for chastity) .
This particular anklet that provides the title belongs to the protagonist of the story. It proves to be the agent of destiny for the heroine, the hero and the Pandya king ,who unjustly kills the hero for a crime he has not committed, and also dies on hearing that he has committed a judicial blunder. The wrath of the heroine sets the capital city of the Pandyas on fire. Later, the Chera king invades the North and brings rocks on the heads of the defeated North Indian kings , for installing an icon and building a temple to deify the heroine. The anklet proves to be the pivotal instrument for all such events. Any production of ‘Cilappadikaram’ as a play, should have a surrealistically huge image of the anklet as its backdrop. It represents ‘Destiny’.
‘Fate’ is the bottom line of any Greek tragedy, as we see it ‘Oedipus Rex’ So also we find ‘destiny’ plays a significant role in the events that happen in ‘Cilappadikaram’. As Ilango says, it announces itself in the ‘yaazh’(harp) that Kovalan ,the hero, plays on, that leads to his separation from Madhavi, the
courtesan and to his subsequent death in Madurai, the Pandya capital. Again, it is Destiny that visits the tongue of the Pandya king, who, instead of saying, ‘bring the culprit, enquire and if he is the one who stole the queen’s anklet,kill him,’ blabbers without being aware of it, ‘kill him, if he has the anklet and bring it to me’.
Matalan, a brahmin and a friend of Kovalan, functions like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. He appears in two cantos, the Madurai Kantam and Vanchi Kantam. He provides the connecting link for all the events that happen off stage, like the Greek chorus. Only in ‘adaikalakathai’, we come to know all the noble qualities of the hero (Kovalan) courtesy Matalan and the dramatic value for this scene is the admiration the audience would develop for the hero for the first time in the narration of the story and the traumatic shock they would experience when he is killed for wrong reasons in the very next scene.
A great artist that he is, Ilango to enhance the tragic intensity, brings Kovalan and Kannagi together in the last scene before Kovalan’s death, when Kannagi serves him the delicious food she has prepared for him. They seem to be enjoy the blessings of a happy ,married life after a long gap, when Destiny has the last laugh! This lunch proves to be ‘The last Supper’ for Kovalan!
As in Shakespeare’s plays, after an emotionally-charged scene, there is ‘dramatic relief’ in the form of comedy, Ilango provides relief by a pastoral dance ( “Achiyar Kuravai’) that succeeds the death scene of Kovalan.,
With the death of Kovalan and followed by the deaths of one too many, including the citizens of Madurai, ‘Cilappadikaram’ is not a tragedy.
Why?
One cannot write a tragedy in the Indian context, as all our villains, along with the heroes and heroines reach heavens!. They are not classical, blue-blooded villains by their choice, like Satan in the Christian mythology, but, they are villains, cursed to be so by an angry saint or by divine wrath with a rider that they would be redeemed. Hinduism is a religion of optimism and hope.

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§ 3 Responses to The first Indian epic-drama of its kind,none to follow!

  • John Looker says:

    To this reader in distant Britain, your posts (such as this) open a window on to a different world and I find them completely absorbing. At the same time, there are parallels aren’t there? I’m thinking nking of the dichotomy between literary and dramatic interpretation that you have also written about elsewhere, the construction of tension in development of the plot, the playwright ‘s d vices for relieving that tension and so on. Most interesting.

    • Thank you for your kind words. It is a pity in contemporary Tamilnadu( my Home State in India) the majority of the youngsters are distant from the old Tamil classics as distant as a non-Tamil knowing person could be! And the irony is the most significant books on the History of Tamil Literature have been written by a Czech, an Israeli and others.The brilliant classics dated in the pre-common eras have been translated by academics of your country and the U>S.
      Indira Parthasarathy

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