MK Raina’s fascinating play asks questions of history and context, and of its audience as well.
MK Raina may not have directed a play at the National School of Drama for the last 12 years, but his association with the NSD goes back a long way – he graduated from the School in 1970 and taught there briefly in 1976-77. Among Raina’s students at the time was Amitabh Srivastava. That’s the other long-standing connection that’s made the current production possible – Srivastava, now an established theatre actor and translator, has adapted the novel Banabhatta ki Atmakatha, timed to coincide with the birth centenary year of its author Hazari Prasad Dwivedi (1907-79).
“The first time MK and I worked together was in 1985-86, when I adapted Jagdish Chandar’s novel Kabhi Na Chhode Khet,” remembered Srivastava. Since then, there have been several collaborations, including a play about the Hindi poet Subhadra Kumari Chauhan in 2004. “It was staged in Allahabad, and in other towns where she lived. We had one show in Delhi too – but how many people in Delhi are interested in the lives of Hindi poets?” asked Srivastava.
The question is not merely rhetorical, but it doesn’t seem to have prevented Srivastava and Raina from taking on the challenge of staging Dwivedi’s highly poetic masterwork, which also purports to be the autobiography of the classical Sanskrit poet Banabhatta. Interpreting Banabhatta ki Atmakatha for a contemporary audience is no easy task, for the text demands not one but two leaps in time. First, it has to be approached as a text pre-occupied with the task of nation-building – Dwivedi wrote it in 1946, very much in the context of approaching independence. And second, it has to be read as a historico-philosophical take on the socio-religious tussles that characterised North Indian society in the seventh century AD, when the historical Banabhatta lived.
Banabhatta was the court poet of King Harshavardhana, who rose to power in North India after the decline of the Gupta Empire, ruling from Kannauj and Thanesar (now a small town in Haryana). In fact, Banabhatta’s lyrical-but-florid Sanskrit biography of the emperor, Harshacharita, is one of the primary historical sources for the period. And Banabhatta’s Kadambari, credited with being one of the first novels ever written, is so iconic of novel-ness that, Srivastava says, “Maharashtra mein novel ko upanyas nahi, kadambari ke naam se jaana jaata hai.”
Banabhatta, however, wrote no autobiography. Dwivedi’s novel is an entirely fictional account of a few months in his life. We do know that the poet’s parents died early, and that he left home when he was fairly young. It took Dwivedi’s leap of imagination, however, to make the young Bana a vagabond. “Dwivedi’s Banabhatta is a tramp. He runs a theatre troupe in Ujjayani, he becomes a fake sadhu and then an astrologer,” said Srivastava.
The play opens with Bana’s arrival in Thanesar, where he runs into Nipunika, a low-born woman who once acted in his troupe and used to be in love with him. Nipunika persuades Bana to help her rescue a princess named Bhattini, who is being held captive by one of the smaller chieftains of the area. Then begins a long journey through the Gangetic plain, punctuated by encounters with religious and political figures: Buddhist monks from a nearby vihara, Brahmins, Vaishnavs, tantriks, aghoris. For Raina, the text has many “anti-Brahminical beliefs” embedded in it. “In one scene, Bana hides something in an aghori Bhairav shrine, and the aghoris catch him. And they tell him, ‘tumhare shastra tumhe paakhand sikhaate hain’. No wonder, when this novel was released, the Brahmins of Banaras were up in arms,” laughed Raina.
And yet the novel is deeply imbued with allegories, many of which emerge from Hindu mythology. “Bhattini is an allegory of Sita, and of the mother goddess. She is kidnapped and unlawfully imprisoned, and when she emerges into the open, it is really as if she has emerged from the belly of the earth,” mused Raina. “And she worships Varaha, Vishnu’s boar avatar, who saved the earth by going down himself.” Varaha is also symbolic of the need to save the nation through sacrifice – as Srivastava put it, “to bring it out of the daldal (quicksand).”
The play promises to be interesting in terms of stage design. “I’m using the classical Sanskrit stage, which is minimal. The stage is divided into two parts, the front portion or Rangshish, and the slightly raised back portion, or Rangpith. And two doors, through which the actors enter and leave. That’s it,” said Raina.
The other striking thing about the play is its strong female characters and their engagement with each other. “The bond between the low-caste Nipunika and the noble-born Bhattini is based on Bhattini’s experience of having been kidnapped,” said Raina. Srivastava elaborated, “At one point, Bhattini says the whole country is searching for the missing daughter of Tuvar Milind because she is a princess. But no one thinks of the fact that all the dasis working in these rajmahals are also someone’s missing daughters.”
Published in Time Out Delhi Issue 9 Friday, July 25, 2008