There are occasions on which you profoundly regret the system of bookings for theatrical performances that prevails in our country; because what it means is that a great play like Muktidham, which we saw on Sunday at Prithvi, is not around for others to see after its four shows are over.
Abhishek Majumdar, the writer-director-actor who runs Bangalore’s Indian Ensemble, began research on Muktidham two years ago. The questions that drove him were, “What leads a society to turn against its systems of knowledge and celebrate the simplistic? And why and when did the right wing movement become anti-intellectual?”
There is no single point in any history that marks such a turn; but there are periods of time when political and cultural forces are so ranged against one another that the ensuing conflict not only radically alters contemporary society but casts its shadow over future centuries too. Looking for such a conflict in the long history of Hinduism and knowing that its roots lay in intellectual debates about the nature of the universe, the elements, man and god, Majumdar identified his turning point in the eighth century. The Pala kings of Bihar and Bengal, followers of Buddhism, were then growing in power. Sanatan Dharma, dominated by Brahmins, was under siege. The Kshatriyas who led the new religion and included in its fold castes that the older religion had treated as outcasts, were natural warriors. How were the Brahmins to fight and overcome them-- by arming themselves or by developing a political strategy?
Majumdar creates a dramatic situation out of this conflict by locating it in a fictional temple town called Birpur and selecting a day of great import in its life when multiple events are scheduled to take place. The sun will go into eclipse; Lord Rama will appear to the head of the mattha, Nath Nand, who is preparing to take samadhi and liberate him from life. Before that, a philosophical debate will be staged between the Nath’s two contesting disciples, Yuyutsu and Agnivesh to decide who his successor is to be. Meanwhile, a Buddhist sculptor who is working in a cave, has been cold-bloodedly incarcerated on Agnivesh’s orders, aided by the low-caste Ghasidas and a reluctant Yuyutsu. Agnivesh stands for taking arms against the Buddhists; Yuyutsu stands for strategy. The incarceration of the sculptor brings the mattha into direct conflict with the local Buddhist establishment.
Agnivesh is a Dom by birth, but Nath Nand, prompted by a dream, has raised him to Brahminhood. To add to this fraught situation, Agnivesh has been in a passionate relationship with the Acharya’s young wife Ahalya. Meanwhile, his student Srihari waits in the wings raring to lead his people to slaughter as soon as Agnivesh is made Acharya. His clarion call is, “Acharya Agnivesh is our inspiration, Manusmruti is our guide.” Out in the public space, three actors dressed as Hanuman, Sugreev and Angada, are stringing up ritualistic animal masks for the coming celebrations and debating the merits and demerits of the two battling religions.
Majumdar holds you captive with his muscular dialogue and quick-changing scenes aided by the actors who move props around as they come and go. The set design (Mohit Takalkar) is an evocative ovoid hollow and long suspended strips that could be stalactites or aerial roots. The lighting (Anmol Vellani) subtly nudges you to feel as you see. The performances are riveting. Shubhrajyoti Barat (Nath Nand) is a character of expressionistic power. Ipsita Chakraborty Singh (Ahalya) gives us a thinking, sensuous, passionate upholder of love. M. D. Pallavi (Bhikuni) with her arresting presence doesn’t require weapons to win an argument. The intensely contained Sandeep Shikhar (Agnivesh), the versatile Pratyush Singh and Kumud Mishra who double up as Yuyutsu-Hanuman and Sugreev-Guruma respectively, the quietly determined Ajeet Singh Palawat (Srihari), the frisky Irawati Karnik (Angad) and Ashwini Kumar Chakre (Ghasidas), slyly subversive in his obsequiousness, bring this expansive cross-section of stratified society to full and vivid life.
Muktidham doesn’t merely create an immediate impact with its sweep, stage-craft and performances. It leaves you in a quandary with its argument. You want to believe that religion occupies a space independent of politics. But Majumdar drives you to the conclusion that religion has been, is and will always be a political power game. If this is so, whose side do we take? Do we take sides at all or keep our distance and attempt merely to understand?
Muktidham is a play of classical stature, deserving of the standing ovation we gave it.
Published On : 08-02-2017