While Western playwrights do not attempt to dramatize the ancient Greek epics in their entirety, Indians have not felt so intimidated by the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana as to avoid staging condensations of them. One reason may lie in the unbroken, vibrant rural traditions of performing our epics, whereas similar live links to the Iliad and Odyssey in Europe snapped two millennia ago. Of course, I exclude the time-honoured practice of dramatists taking up discrete episodes, which both civilizations have always nurtured — from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Bhasa’s Karnabhāram to Sartre’s Trojan Women and Thiyam’s Chakravyuha. But under what circumstances can we justify compressed adult versions of the full Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana today?

One valid motive is subversion. Various Sita-iads emerged in Indian literatures at different times, including poetic Sitāyanas in Maithili (by Vaidyanath Mallik, 1974) and English (Srinivasa Iyengar’s 600-page magnum opus, 1987), and Mallika Sengupta’s Bengali novel (1996). Automatically, the focus narrows, crucial for the two hours’ traffic on stage. Manoj Mitra accomplished this in his play Bhelāy Bhāse Sitā, and Malay Ray follows suit in Purbaranga’s Sitāyana, inspired by Sengupta, treading the ideological path of its forebears: a feminist reading of Sita wronged by her patriarchal husband. From the start, where she complains to Lakshman why Ram did not tell her he was banishing her to Valmiki’s ashram, to Ram’s shocking earlier announcement to her that he rescued her from Ravan for his family name, not for her own sake, Ray covers charted terrain.

But the form and his direction make it unique. Borrowing the Kathakata folk style, he employs two kathaks to not just narrate, but also enact many characters. This places huge responsibility on them — to measure up to virtuosi like Teejan Bai, for example. Both the seasoned Rokeya Ray and the young Plaban Basu perform exceptionally. After a slightly loud beginning that sends out wrong signals, Rokeya settles into portraying the heroine as well as Kaushalya with a transcendent grace and dignity that quell any Rama-ite argument. She achieves such a cathartic conclusion that Malay spoils it by appending some didactic sloganeering in a near socialist-realist message of positivity. Plaban as Lakshman, Ravan, Vibhishan and Valmiki reveals a chameleonic potential that can only get better in future projects. Rokeya has also designed an aesthetic set, props and costumes, and the supernumeraries complement with precision.

Centre Stage brought down Katkatha Puppet Art Trust’s trilingual Mahābhārata, highly recommended with awards for best production, director and choreography from META. However, its puerilely punning subtitle, “The Game of Gamble”, struck a wrong chord from beforehand: Vyasa’s epic totally outguns any Game of Thrones, and gambling occupies only a small part in its storyline. Anamika Mishra’s script itself emphasizes the futility of war, true to its source. As such, Katkatha should have more accurately titled it Kurukshetra, but then the international marketplace would have scratched its heads. Most problematically, how can they reduce eighteen books into 70 minutes? Even Peter Brook gave it nine hours!

As a result, gaping holes appear. A Mahābhārata without the Gitā? Sorry, unacceptable, even if you dislike Krishna. At one moment, director Anurupa Roy steps out and confides in us, she cannot understand why Drona laid down his arms on hearing of Ashwatthama’s death. Has she not read that Yudhishthira told him, and everyone knew that Yudhishthira never lies? Poor Karna, who always got a bad deal, may well protest that his cameo here comes as an afterthought. And typically of the hegemonic Hindi influence, the English dialogue pronounces his name as “Karn”. Excuse us please, we are Indians; could we use the original pronunciations when we do not speak in regional languages?

Roy does a service to south India’s vanishing shadow-puppetry heritage by foregrounding one of them, Togalu Gombeyata from Karnataka, as her core form. But by placing its curtain upstage, she effectively backgrounds its beauty, dwarfed by larger-than-life contemporary puppets moving downstage. She maximizes the shadow-theatre effect by projecting animation-enhanced images but, bathetically, the arrows shot by the armies fly at each other in B. R. Chopra TV kitsch, kissing their opposites and going poof, which no shadow puppeteer can conceive of, mercifully. The giant masks and puppets constructed by Mohammad Shameem do impress, such as Shakuni’s skeletal face and hands, though these features contradict Roy’s sympathy for him. But we must congratulate the five multitasking puppeteers themselves, indefatigable manipulators, actors and dancers.

(From The Telegraph, 26 August 2017)