National School of Drama's Bharat Rang Mahotsav offers a small glimpse of the power of tradition

Time and again, art and cultural practices take a U-turn to return to their roots to find the comfort of the familiar. In classical music and classical dance, this is a constant process. You have to continue being within the framework of what is decided as a traditional approach and find new ways of expression. You find musicians singing the same ragas with a newness. You find dancers performing the same pieces on stage but transformed with new choreography. However in theatre, it has been a different ballgame. Over the years, theatre has evolved as the most democratic of performing arts. You find new plays, new playwrights, new ideas and themes have constantly found a home in theatre. That has also blurred several lines, including that of quality and content. A return to classics was bound to happen soon enough. And this is what unfolded at the ongoing Bharat Rang Mahotsav.

The international annual theatre festival held by the National School of Drama, India’s premier institution for theatre studies, is a yearly pilgrimage for scores of theatre and stage lovers across. Now in its nineteenth year, it has become a benchmark for any actors, theatre directors, lighting and costume designers and other enthusiasts to be a part of. This year was a return to traditional drama from across the spectrum. The festival paid rich tributes to the theatre legends Kavalam Narayana Panikker from Kerala and Heisnam Kanhailal from Manipur, both of who made their exit from this world last year.

Panikkar’s play Uttar Rama Charitam opened the festival. The classic written by Bhava Bhuti in the 8th century has been a subject of various academics and scholars. While this play was performed in Hindi, the same troupe performed Bhasa’s famous farce Madhyama Vyayogam the next day in Sanskrit. If the beauty of the language was one thing to look out for, the structure of the play and how Panikkar directed it was another delight. From simple costumes to a stark stage design, how Panikkar presented this ancient play spoke volumes of what one could do with a traditional form of art. The encounter Bhima has with his son Ghatotkacha in this play continues to evoke a sense of Hasya Rasa among audiences till now, centuries after it was written. How did Bhasa manage to remain so timeless?

 National School of Dramas Bharat Rang Mahotsav offers a small glimpse of the power of tradition

Kavalam Narayana Panikkar's group Sopanam from Kerala presenting Madhyama Vyayogam. Image courtesy Veejay Sai

The thirteen plays ascribed to Bhasa were discovered less than a century ago by the brilliant scholar Pandit Ganapati Sastri. Out of these thirteen, several have been the regular repertoire of Koodiyattam, the world’s oldest Sanskrit drama tradition that survived in remote villages of Kerala till it was recently revived. Most of these plays are based on the larger stories like the Mahabharata. Almost nothing is known about Bhasa but scholars and researchers from 1920s have placed him in the era before Kalidasa. We know that several other poets like Bana held him in high esteem. Among the plays that survived are Madhayama Vyayoga, Pancharatram, Swapna Vasavadattam, Dootavakhyam, Karnabhaaram, Urubhangam and so forth. These have been edited in the earlier available classical series published from Trivandrum.

Many of these have been performed in dance and drama in the last few decades. At the current NSD, we got to witness several adaptations of Bhasa. From Manipur the legendary Ratan Thiyam presented Urubhangam, nothing short of a spectacle. It didn’t take a packed hall to understand and enjoy the performance even if a large part of them were cut off from the native language. In Mohe Piya, directed by Waman Kendre with the Rangpeeth group from Mumbai, we saw a different adaptation of Bhasa’s Madhyama Vyayoga. With a different and more contemporary treatment from what Panikkar’s group presented, the play stood out for some exceptional acting.

A scene from Abhishek Bharti's Blood and Beauty from Jammu. Image courtesy Veejay Sai

A scene from Abhishek Bharti's Blood and Beauty from Jammu. Image courtesy Veejay Sai

Among performances that continue to be practiced the way they were always was the Draupadi Vastrabharanam in the Theru-k-Koothu style from Tamil Nadu.

In an adaptation of seventh century dramatis Bodhayana’s famous Buddhist farce Bhagavadajjukeeyam by director Surya Mohan Kulshreshtha from Lucknow, there was a lot of colour, adherence to some of the dictates of Sanskrit drama and lots of over acting by amateur actors. However the play was thoroughly enjoyable and a packed Kamani auditorium was in splits. Can a play from the seventh century induce such laughter even now? Without it being outdated? What is it that can hold it together when a whole host of modern dramas are fall flat on their faces? It set one thinking on the ideas of Rasa and how it can be delivered in an effective way if the dramaturgy is proper.

In Prothom Protho, performed by  Abdullah Al Manum theatre school that came all the way from Bangladesh, we saw the dilemma of Karna, a day before the big Mahabharata war. Struck between his loyalties to the Kauravas and his own blood brothers, the Pandavas, Karna is forced to choose in front of his mother. Some excellent acting by Md Nur Jaman Raja as Karna. Last but not the least was the innocence and freshness of Abhishek Bharti’s approach in directing a well-known Dogri folk love story Kunju Chanchlo as the play Blood and Beauty. Once again, a folk narrative that had the charm and flavor of it’s native culture, now presented with a new fervor. It stood out for its melodious music from the hills and actors who seemed to genuinely enjoy presenting it.

Prothom Partho from Bangaldesh. Image courtesy Veejay Sai

Prothom Partho from Bangaldesh. Image courtesy Veejay Sai

In all this varied selection of plays, what stood out was the rich and comfortable fragrance of tradition. One can’t go wrong with content that is time tested and has been handed down generation after generation as song, poetry or stories. In such a wide range of adaptations from across the Indian landscape, we saw the beauty of theatre come alive in these traditional stories. The stories presented in these plays have an immortal quality to them. The plays themselves hail from fifth to tenth centuries. And yet, they invoked a sense of pride and cultural ethos that most modern theatre seems to have wandered away from. In the stories and plays of Bhava Bhuti, Bhasa, Bodhayana, Kalidasa and other ancient playwrights, the stage still gets to breathe its best. Indian theatre tradition roots itself in several time-tested practices of dramaturgy. Be it the Natya Shastra, the oldest treatise we have on performing arts, or the countless commentaries on it, theatre has grown layer upon layer of understanding. At the current festival, we were fortunate to get a small glimpse of the power of tradition.

Veejay Sai is an award winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes on Indian classical music, dance, theatre, food, travel and lifestyle. He lives in New Delhi. He may be contacted at

Updated Date: Feb 12, 2017 10:18:30 IST