The doors have opened. People refuse to be confined to their homes despite the much feared return of the pandemic and its horrors. Amidst the social distancing and face masks, audience at Ravindra Manch were more than ready to watch the new play ‘Rashmirathi’ and get spellbound by theatre once again!
When I received the invite to Ram Dhari Singh Dinkar’s classic Hindi epic poem Rashmirathi which was being directed by Abhishek Mudgal, I was apprehensive yet excited. Like everyone else, I have been reading about the return of COVID and increasing in the number of cases. However, the chance was too good to miss. After a year of overdose of stay-at-home shows and movies on Netflix and other OTT platforms, I was craving for something different.
When I reached Ravindra Manch, where the play was being held, I saw no crowds outside. This made me think that perhaps, the people weren’t ready to come out yet. The play had already started when I went in. I looked around expecting to see a nearly empty hall. However, almost all the seats were occupied! Everyone was staring raptly at the stage where the actors were performing. I sat down and looked at the gentleman sitting in the adjacent seat. He was so busy watching the performance that he did not even look up to acknowledge that a new person had sat next to him.
I turned my attention to the stage where the actors where performing.
In the current scene, Vasudev Krishna had come to Hastinapur as the ambassador of peace. After a while, the scene shifted to Karna’s conversation with Krishna who tells him that he is actually Kunti’s son and Pandavas’ eldest brother. Karna breaks down and tells Krishna that he cannot deceive his friend Duryodhana. Interestingly, there were no props on the stage. The male actors were bare chested and wore a simple dhoti while the female actors wore short white kurtas and dhotis.
As Karna broke down and lamented his misfortune, the crowd was so moved that the hall resounded with the applause. Some even wiped the lone tear too! As I watched the play, I couldn’t help but sympathize with Karna, the man who was blessed by Gods but cursed by destiny. Whether it was sitting patiently despite the large insect gorging on his flesh so that his guru Parshuram could get the much-deserved rest or assuring Kunti, the mother who had abandoned him that he will not harm any of her sons except Arjun, Karna was a man who tried to do the right thing. However, the universe always conspired against him.
The background music and acting ensured that the two hundred and fifty plus audience did not get up from their seats.
Intrigued by the simple yet appealing presentation of the play, I quizzed Abhishek Mudgal. He said ‘This is a very long play which is divided into seven chapters. When I read it, I realized that if we clubbed it with costumes and sets, it would take the attention away from the very essence of the play which are dialogues and verse. So, we decided to keep the props symbolic and suggestive and I told the actors to concentrate on their dialogue delivery.
Abhishek was quite upbeat about the reception in Jaipur. ‘This was the fifth performance and we’ve had 100 plus people in all our other performances. The play will now be performed in places like Bikaner, Jodhpur and Allahabad.’
Tryst with Rashmirathi
Rashmirathi was not as popular and hence became the obvious choice. ‘I have done different kinds of plays, including absurd plays, folk plays etc. During the pandemic we experimented on various genres like folk theatre, absurd theatre and realism. I had not attempted classical theatre. Between Dharmavir Bharti’s Andhayug and Rashmirathi, the latter was a better choice because Andhayug has been performed a number of times.’
‘The world today is no less different than what it was in the age of Mahabharat. Even today, if a person is talented and good at what he does but does not have the right level or contacts or caste or values, he does not find acceptance and struggles to make a place for himself. It takes time for any new actor despite his talent to actually find acceptance amongst the colleagues or audience. So, these things have been here since the era of Mahabharat. Karna was talented and according to some even better than Arjun. However, had it not been for Duryodhana, nobody would have recognized Karna for his talent. It was Duryodhana who elevated his status, made him a king and gave him a platform to showcase his talent to the world. Arjun could not kill Karna in an equal duel, so he killed him when he was trying to fix his chariot’s wheel. Karna was the reason why Duryodhana was prepared to fight the war because he depended on Karna’s prowess as a great warrior. We have always been told that the great war in Mahabharat was fought on Arjun’s merit. However, Dinkar’s book suggests that Karna was the reason why Duryodhana chose to fight in the first place.’
‘The first rehearsals began on 5 September 2020 and the first show was performed on 8 November. So, it took us two months to prepare for the first show. During the initial twenty days, we spent in learning the Hindi words and their meanings because the play is written in pure Hindi. We spent a lot of time learning the meaning of every word. After that we learnt the dialogues and started rehearsing. The first show lasted three hours. We edited it further and in the fifth show we could limit it to two hours. We still have to edit it further to make it crisper.’
For Abhishek, reading Rashmirathi was like discovering a new universe of Hindi language. ‘This book made me realize the true depth of our literature and the kind of words that exist in our language. I wished I had read Rashmirathi earlier. While reading this play, I discovered so many new things about Hindi. I believe the younger generations should be exposed to these kinds of books and plays to truly understand the language. These days, we don’t even read many such masterpieces of Hindi literature that have been written by authors of the yore.’
Language no bar
Abhishek believes that the language does not matter when it comes to plays. ‘In my years as a play director, I have realized that language does not hinder anyone from watching theatre. When we were performing some of our Rajasthani, Hindi or Urdu plays in the southern states of India, I was surprised to see a large number of audiences turn up for even ticketed plays that were in Hindi or Urdu. It was that which made me realize that that as long as the audience understands the body language, moves, theme of the play, they enjoy the play even if they don’t understand the language. They don’t need any translation. I remember there was a Manipuri play which was performed in Jaipur. I along with more than 800 people had attended the show. We had not understood the language but could understand everything else that was going on in the play.’
The reception of Rashmirathi has buoyed his spirits. ‘Before the pandemic, most of my plays were being sold out. Now we have a lesser audience but I am glad that despite the pandemic scare people are still turning up to watch these plays. The truth is that we love live art because interacting with others, sharing thoughts and ideas is our very life blood. We as people cannot stay without it! So, yes we are slowly getting back and theater is coming back in a big way.’
The play was potent and moving. Yet, more moving was the realization that people will now no longer let COVID govern their lives. Yes, there were masks, there was social distancing and amidst all this, the play happened! After a year of drought and remaining indoors, the hungry spectators feasted on it with their eyes with no holds barred.
This article was published in Rashtradoot’s Arbit on 28 March 2021.