Kaumudi : Layer upon layer

There are some theatrical experiences that, one realises instantly, cannot be discussed adequately in the space of a column. They demand a second viewing and more space. Such an experience was Kaumudi (Moonlight), written and directed by Bangalore’s Abhishek Majumdar. The play challenged viewers with multiple layers of meaning, speaking to them eloquently through each meticulously crafted element of theatre -- script, performance, sound (Abhijeet Tambe) and light (Anmol Vellani).

Presented at Prithvi theatre by Indian Ensemble and the Riad Mahmood Education and Arts Foundation over the weekend, Kaumudi is about an ageing actor, Satyasheel (Kumud Mishra), whose eyesight is failing. He is the star actor of Neelima theatre in Allahabad. He has lived his entire life circumscribed by his home, the Ganga and the theatre. He is now preparing for the last three shows of his wildly popular play Abhimanyu and Eklavya, in which he plays Eklavya’s ghost, pouring into the role all the intuition he has garnered over the years of living with and in the character, making it hard to tell where Satyasheel ends and Eklavya begins.

At this vulnerable point in the actor’s life, when he is old and almost blind, Neelima’s manager (Gopal Dutt Tiwari) invites a younger actor, Paritosh (Sandeep Shikhar), to replace him. The manager is concerned with the business of theatre and Satyasheel with its art. In Satyasheel’s opinion, Paritosh is not capable of playing Eklavya because he lacks depth. He must therefore content himself with playing the less challenging role of Abhimanyu.

This surface layer of professional conflict overlays a deeper layer of personal conflict. Paritosh is Satyasheel’s son but has never had the benefit of being taught by his father. Their story connects with the story of Dronacharya and his refusal to teach Eklavya. This in turn connects with the story of Arjun who allowed his son Abhimanyu to enter the chakravyuha at Kurukshtra, without providing him with the knowledge of how to get out.

This web of relationships that stretches across time, space, life, theatre and myth, raises questions about art, the artist’s ego, and truth/untruth in theatre and life. At another level, it explores the idea of blindness. How does blindness affect a man’s relationship with himself and his art? Early in the play, Satyasheel asks Paritosh if he can hear the sounds from across the Ganga. Paritosh can’t. Satyasheel can. In that sense, the blind can “see” more than the sighted.

The idea that the blind are endowed with a special kind of artistic potential, springs from Jorge Luis Borges’ essay, Blindness, which is one of the two texts from which Majumdar has drawn his inspiration for Kaumudi. "A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end,” writes Borges. “This is even stronger in the case of the artist. Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one's art.” When Satyasheel steps out of Eklavya’s scripted lines to express what he believes Eklavya would actually have thought in the given situation, he is possibly asserting the artist’s right over his material.

While the questions that Kaumudi raises absorb your mind, your ears delight to Abhishek Majumdar’s muscular Hindi, spoken with love and understanding by the four actors. Between them, Mishra, Shikhar, Gopal Dutt and Shubrajyoti Barat, play all the characters in this play within a play, approximating their body language to the idiom of folk theatre, which also informs the set, staging and costume design. Mishra goes further. In a towering performance, he marries the folk idiom to realism, making startling use of eye movements to express the constant search for light of the blind.

Kaumudi is a play of many rasas -- raudra, bibhatsa, bhayanaka, hasya. In a hilarious scene, two ridiculously costumed drunk actors challenge each other about what drama and dramatic performance signify. In another, the comic and the pathetic play out side by side. Satyasheel has forgotten his lines. The other actors, thrown into confusion, adlib desperately. We laugh, but even as we do so, we are profoundly moved by the sight of a great actor trying, with ever increasing hysteria, to retain his command over his art. One imagines Dylan Thomas’s lines echoing through the scene: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the fading of the light.”

And then, rage spent, Kaumudi comes to rest, movingly, in a soft rectangle of light, with karunya, compassion.

Published On : 27-08-2014