6 August 2008

Theatre Review: Uttararamacharita

Hindi/ Urdu, National School of Drama, June 3 & 4

In the Uttarakhanda (believed to be a later addition to the Valmiki Ramayana), Rama learns from his guptachar (spy) – the aptly-named Durmukha – that his subjects are scathingly critical of his acceptance of Sita after nearly a year in captivity. Rama decides to abandon his pregnant wife in the forest, and a heroic romance is transformed into tragedy.

Over the centuries, many attempts have been made to rework the text, to somehow bring Rama and Sita together. Bhavabhuti’s eighth century Uttararamacharita is foremost among these literary interpretations of the Uttarakhanda. This classic Sanskrit play in seven acts has been translated into Hindi by Satyanarayan Kaviratna, and condensed into a three-act production by veteran playwright-director Prasanna and the members of the National School of Drama’s Repertory Company. 

The play can be said to have two parallel tracks – the first, the main romantic-tragic events that unfold in the lives of Rama and Sita, and the other a comedy track involving side characters or “common people” who comment on, deliver news of, and in one instance, even re-enact the events of the primary track. The actors in comic roles all have brilliant timing. The tragic sequences involving a rather camp Rama and a (deliberately?) melodramatic Sita are less impressive, perhaps because the contemporary tone and tempo of dialogue delivery doesn’t seem of a piece with the rather formal, poetic, alliterative language being used. Both end up seeming a trifle contrived. It’s in the musical and comic interludes and the recitation-like speeches of the guptachars that the language seems to come into its own. Perfectly choreographed by Vimla Shimladka and backed by Govind Pandey’s superlative music score (drawing on Mohan Upreti’s original compositions), these sequences provide a marvelously energetic dramatic experience.

Like all NSD Repertory productions, a great deal of attention has been paid to stage design and costumes, and it shows – though the more traditional-looking white sari-clad Sita and partly bare-chested Rama of the later sequences were infinitely preferable to the Harlequin-like clothes they wore in the first act. Another highlight of the production is the lighting design (by Parag Sarmah) and the innovative use of moving silhouettes on a large screen to create mood and additional dramatic effects with minimal ingredients.

Published in Time Out Delhi, 2008.

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