The pranks of the drunkard.

“Pushpeshu Jaathi
Purusheshu Vishnu
Naareeshu Ramba
Nagareshu Kanchi …”

17th December at the Alliance Française saw the enactment of a play by Theatre Nisha, rather different from the usual – chiefly, perhaps because it had been written in the 7th century AD.

Written in Sanskrit by the Pallava Emperor Mahendra Pallavar of Kanchi, the play is a spoof of the religious and political tendencies of a Tamil Nadu that existed more than 1500 years ago. Jainism and Buddhism ruled the roost then; Saivism and Vaishnavism were generally relegated to the backseat, as Kapalikas with skull necklaces around their necks and fearful sacrifices had created a distorted picture of what Hinduism really was about.

“Mathavilas” is exactly what it means – the pranks of a drunkard. The story follows the drunken shenanigans of an inebriated Kapalika with his equally drunk lover Devasoma, in search of his “lost” begging bowl which he’s sure the Buddhist monk Nagasena has stolen. Then there’s the entrance of a pasupata saivaite who tries to resolve the matter – but ends up adding to the confusion. In the end, a madman appears who has the begging bowl in question; it is returned to the drunk Kapalika who wanders off in a state of inebriated bliss with his beloved.

Emperor Mahendra Varma Pallava was a Jain at the time he completed this play – which accounts a good deal for his dialogues, descriptions and statements about the reigning political and religious scenario. The Buddha Bikshu hides and cowers without reason during the play – a sign, according to the playwright, of how degenerate the Buddhist Order has become. Nagasena the Bikshu even mourns the fact that Buddhism claimed celibacy and forbade wine.

“I’m quite sure women and wine were a part of the original sutras,” he says to himself. “Now they’ve been lost. I must find them – and then, won’t I spread Buddha’s teachings all over the world?” Much merriment among the audience.

Kapalika and Buddha Bikshu end up clutching up each other in a brawl – the Kapalika to get the begging-bowl, and the Bikshu, trying to use this encounter to fall on Devasoma. The Kapalika tries to grab the Bikshu’s hair and comes away hairless (not unnaturally, as the Bikshu is bald). There’s much ribaldry at the expense of these two sects. Jains, of course, do not come anywhere in the story.

Kanchi is described in loving detail – only to be expected of the playwright, who happened to be the ruler of the city himself. It’s said that there was nothing you couldn’t get in Kanchi, from the wares of Kasi to Kanyakumari. Those very same words are echoed in Kalki’s magnificent work, Sivagamiyin Sabadham as well – in fact, it’s quite possible that Kalki read Mathavilas and was inspired by Kanchi’s description in it.

Mathavilas is a rather short piece; the whole play comes to little more than 50 minutes. The non-use of props and the body language of the actors suggest the influence of the therukkoothu form of theatre.

Varun Iyer as the Kapalika is quite magnificent. He prances and dances his way through the stage, with his skull necklace around his neck, and his beloved gives him able company. You actually wish he could do something substantial – unfortunately, the story itself is too brief to allow him to do much. The madman is well essayed as well.

Director Balakrishnan V has been well entrenched in theatre; he is an alumnus of Sri Ram Centre For Performing Arts and the prestigious National School Of Drama. He was later awarded the Charles Wallace Scholarship to attend the international residency for young directors, hosted by the royal court theatre, London. He’s acted in over 50 plays in Hindi, English And Tamil, and has directed plays of Girish Karnad (The Fire and the Rain), Albert Camus (The Misunderstanding) and recently performed Thicker than blood, a Sri Lankan Script for the Metro Theatre festival.

“All the vehement social criticism sarcastic commends are intended to expose their hypocrisy. The lunatic is the only character who is free from these wiles. The theme is pertinent to all ages,” he says, about the play. Having learnt Sanskrit, he translated the play himself, from Sanskrit to English.

One can’t help wondering, though, what the thoughts of Emperor Mahendra Pallavar himself might have been. His genius was unparalleled, they say, when it came to music, dance and writing – where other kings are always sung by poets as the best, Mahendra Pallava really was so. His was the idea to convert the bare rocks and boulders of Mamallapuram into lasting sculptures that draw visitors all over the world even today.

He may have converted to Saivism later in his life and denounced Jainism completely – but the man, the connoisseur of art, must still have remained within. A fan of writing, he ought to have been a fan of translation as well. He who appreciated the enduring beauty of sculptures would have appreciated the endurance of his own play, Mathavilas, being translated into English and performed in front of the audience of 2006.

And when the Kapalika and Devasoma describe in chaste English the delights of the ever-beautiful Kanchi, Mahendra Pallavar, perhaps a part of the misty air high above the performers, was present, listening.

Kanchi and Mamallapuram and the very Pallava Empire may not still be the same – after 1500 years, they are ever-changing and have followed the dictates of time and their rulers. But they still retain the essence of beauty and culture. So does Mathavilas, even through its translation and transformation.

Emperor Mahendra Pallavar would have approved.

5 Comments so far

  1. annoynomas (unregistered) on December 27th, 2006 @ 12:46 am

    “he translated the play himself, from Sanskrit to English.”

    So, was the play in French ?
    Its kind of weird for a sanskrit play about Pallavas
    translated into English and played in a
    French Cultural centre..

    I guess only in Madras…

  2. boo (unregistered) on December 27th, 2006 @ 9:58 am

    Alliance François

    Who’s François and what is his alliance about? Perhaps you meant the Alliance Française?

  3. Pavithra (unregistered) on December 27th, 2006 @ 9:59 am

    Er, I thought I made it clear that he translated it into English. :)As for it being played at a French Cultural Centre – only Madras, as you say. And I kind of like that.

  4. Pavithra (unregistered) on December 27th, 2006 @ 10:28 am

    My bad. This is what comes of posting at 11 PM. I’ve corrected it.

  5. Ottayan (unregistered) on December 28th, 2006 @ 10:32 am

    Excluding the typos I commend you for the excellent writing.

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