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Flash Review 2, 9-25: Surprise
Ratan Thiyam's Sub-continental Synthesis

By Tehreema Mitha
Copyright 2000 Tehreema Mitha

WASHINGTON -- I don't think that many in the audience on Saturday, walking into the hall of the Eisenhower Theater at The Kennedy Center, knew what to expect from Ratan Thiyam's production of "Uttar-Priyadarshi" (The Final Beatitude), presented by his Chorus Repertory Theatre. Of the Indians who partially filled the hall, most were obviously not from Manipur; and other Americans could be heard wondering aloud exactly where Manipur is. "Does it have a long border with China?" I was asked by one. "Do they have some connection to Burma?" I was asked by another. So let's get that sorted out first: Manipur is a northeast state in India, bordered by Bhutan, Bangladesh and Burma.

A lot of it is to do with the fact that the people of Manipur do not conform to the idea that most people have here of Indians of the sub-continent. They look more southeast Asian and when theatre like "Uttar Priyadarsh" presents a very Buddhist attitude towards violence, there is further confusion, since India is perceived as basically Hindu.

I was confused too, but for a different reason: the evening's event had been presented to me from the aspect of dance, and there was precious little dance! However, once I got over that and looked at the presentation as theater I was able to enjoy it more. Like many others, my favorite parts of the evening's 80-minute work (non-stop) were when the four monks were on stage. These four took us through a range of emotions, sometimes lost in their chanting, sometimes strong and at other times quivering in fear. Serious and scathing, and then alternately witty and hilarious so that they had the audience in stitches -- and all of this without most of us understanding a word of the spoken, chanted or sung language!

But let me start at the beginning. The play starts with chanting on stage and the main four monks (the narrators) are introduced as well as eight others. The chanting is spectacular, the monks moving slowly and with grace in their yellow and brown robes, bearing aloft the symbols of the eight fold path of Buddha.

I will not describe in too great a detail the story (which is done amply in the program notes) but just give you the bare outline. The tale, taken from a verse poem by Ajneya, is about the famous Maurya King called Ashoka, under whom flourished what is known as The Golden Age of Buddhism (324-187 B.C.). Ashoka, coming from a long line of brutal military leaders, was victorious in war and came to rule most of the Indian sub-continent. But after his conquest of the people of Kalinga he is said to have had a change of heart and given up most of his ambition to fight and conquer. Whether he himself actually became a Buddhist or not is a much debated point but the presentation also gives the impression that he came to believe in non-violence.

The first real bit of Manipuri dance is in the depiction of Ashoka as a child when the Lord Buddha comes to him. Most people familiar with other classical forms of dance from India and unfamiliar with this part of Indian culture, are surprised at the soft movements in this dance form and the absence of strong stamping of the feet. The feet are turned out, the knees bent but only slightly. The soft twisting hand movements, mostly from the wrist, are those seen in a slower form in Balinese dancing. There is slow and gentle circling, the head tilted slightly.

The war scene with the king atop an elephant, his army marching on both sides and behind, is a glimpse of the fantastic presentation that marks the whole play. The lighting throughout is superb, designed and handled by the director himself. Red color bathes many of the violent scenes, for anti-violence is the predominant theme in Ratan Thiyam's works now-a-days. The lighting is just perfect so that an amazing atmosphere is created where you see only enough to understand but not enough to reveal exactly what and who is on stage. The elephant's ears seem to move, the armor on the soldiers clanks and shine, their expressions are intense. There are few sets, the mood changes relaying mostly on lights, costumes and movable props.

The victorious king is shown trying to celebrate his victory. Instead the people mock him; and then come the war widows. Slowly these white-shrouded figures appear on stage from the sides, crossing onto the red banners signifying blood. The most wonderful aspect of this group is the training in voice and song. It is obvious that they have learnt to employ special breathing techniques that allow them to sing as clearly and perfectly as opera singers while moving on stage. The sobbing and wailing of these widows of war is piteous, wrenching and very good drama. The moaning never stops, even as they fall down in the rivers of blood and then drag themselves off stage.

Next there is the entry of Ghor, the lord of hell, who lives within each of us, and is the evil that Ashoka turns to so as to silence the torment of guilt and regret. Talk about wooden-clog dancing! Ghor and his attendants in hell all wear wooden slippers, with just a wide strap across the foot -- and do they dance! Right in the middle of hell we find -- humor! The light parts in the evening are well-blended with the serious and passionate, including the outstanding four monks when they enter hell with chattering teeth, shaking knees and muttering prayers.

Bordering on the childish was the anti-death penalty segment; with caricatures of figures in electric chairs, under guillotine and in nooses, and a chef cooking all the various body parts. The people carrying out all these tortures were covered in black robes with long white hair, and they giggled and applauded so that all the audience unexpectedly had fits of laughter too. The figurines, though, were not unreal enough, symbolic enough, or otherwise not real enough. They looked like badly made school production material and spoiled an otherwise clean bill for stage props.

When Ghor's female attendants dance to lead the monks astray, we finally get an irritatingly short view of Manipuri dance as done by women. The dresses here are typical: stiff tubular skirts dropping to just above the ankles, with stiff frills over them that stop just over the hip. Long blouses, and transparent veils partially covering the faces. Hardly anything is made of the movements here and there is little use of the many variations in facial expressions that are a part of all dancing in the sub-continent.

There is a lot of spoken text and verse which most of us are were unable to understand but in a way that was almost a relief. One could instead concentrate on the sound and voice production: the deep guttural sounds, the high pitch of the women (who, by the way, are given no major role and who do not speak any of the poetry) who are so versatile in their depictions of different groups.

For audiences in the West, I think this production would be a completely new experience in it's way of telling and merging the singing, dancing, and spoken verse. I am constantly reminded of the complete difference in the mind-set of those of us who come from the Indian sub-continent and those who are brought up here when I watch, for example, an Indian movie. An American friend wondered aloud why all the movies made there are musicals. To us it is incomprehensible that the "musical" format needs to be thought of as different to any other; and that when there is a musical it does not normally include words and drama all rolled into one. I wish that more people from Washington had gone to see this work because it brings to them a different way of looking at a production. Unfortunately, whether due to late or weak publicity, or general public dis-interest in anything that is not mainstream, so few tickets were sold that at one point apparently the production was almost cancelled. Later this strategy was dismissed and instead free tickets were given to dance studios and like institutions so that the company would not be opening to an embarrassingly half empty hall. The word I got from people who saw the opening night was that it was an amazing eye-opener, and by the next day I heard that those who caught the whispers, when unable to find any free seats, actually went off to the box office to spend some money. Good news!

My take on it is that the tale told, almost a myth, almost too simple for my liking, just lends itself to this drama format. However, I am left to lament: "NOT ENOUGH DANCE!!!"

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