Flame of the Forest – A Review

Aloha, everyone.

A bit late, I know – but though I enjoyed the show and intended to post a review … getting down to keyboard and computer to write about it was like getting Posh Beckham to walk in a nightdress in LA. So. There you have it. Slightly lyrical tribute, mostly because of my own love for the novel. Pliss Echuse, hokey?

A dancer par perfection, whose expressive eyes beckon to her audience, transporting them from a mundane world to one filled with the divine beauty. A crown Prince smitten with her beauty and attainments, wavering on a course that is dangerously close to love rather than duty. An Emperor famed for his prowess in the arts as well as battle, with his heart irrevocably bound to the former – and a commander who connects this tangled historic web of characters and events.

Flame of the Forest is an attempt at capturing the quintessential flavour that is the essence of renowned writer Kalki R Krishnamurthy’s magnum opus, Sivagamiyin Sabadham (“Sivagami’s Vow.”)

It is 6.45 PM on 30th June, and as you ascend the steps of The Museum Theatre, Egmore, you are assailed by that unquestionable tang of history, as remnants of the British Raj surround you. Huge cannons guard the entrance, while regal steps lead into the circular Theatre. The gentle murmur of people streaming in adds to the historic ambience, as you wait before satiny red curtains, in the final moments before the play. 7.15 PM strikes – and the show begins.

Written and directed by Gowri Ramnarayan, the play was performed by Just Us Repertory in association with Madras Players – and the presentation echoed the ancient Tamil dramatic form, the koothu, as a minimum of props were used, with the actors occupying the space in a convincing manner. The Tamil songs used, provided an exotic feel to the English conversations.

Sivagamiyin Sabadham itself is a novel of epic proportions, with the Pallava Empire at its magnificent best as a backdrop, in the 6 th century AD. The novel traces the lives, trials and tribulations of Sivakami, a dancer in the Pallava Empire, much admired and respected, her beloved, the Crown Prince Mamalla Narasimha Pallavar, his best friend and comrade-in-arms Paranjyothi, who later turns to religion and spirituality to ease his sore heart – and last but not the least, the multi-faceted, supremely talented warrior King, Mahendra Pallavar. The lives of all these characters are thrown into a tumultuous upheaval as their hitherto tranquil life, filled with art and sculpture in the beautiful city of Kanchi, is disrupted by the marching hordes of the Chalukya Emperor, Pulikesi.

It is this part that has been taken up and presented as a play, “Flame of the Forest.” The original novel is used mainly as backdrop, while situations and circumstances have been changed to suit the medium. with Sivagami’s unique perspective forming a continuous thread through the play. Needless to say, it emerges as a different story in itself.

Set in 700 AD, in Kanchi and Mamallapuram, the capital and port-city of the Pallava Kings respectively, the time is rife with discord, and the political machinations it engenders; the land is filled with conflicting perceptions, beliefs and rivalry in the name of religion. Saint Appar sets in train the Bhakthi Movement in Saivism, while Jains and Buddha monks are seething at Emperor Mahendra’s conversion of faith by said saint.

The play begins with a soliloquy by former commander of the Pallava forces Paranjyothi – now a saivaite saint better known as Siruthondar for his unwavering devotion to the lord Shiva. He begins his tale with a series of flashbacks on the dancer Sivagami who once held the Pallava Empire in her thrall, the love that flourished between her and the Crown Prince – an unlikely love that was doomed from the beginning; Emperor Mahendra Pallavar, who was charged with the duty of protecting the divine city Kanchi at all costs from the ravaging armies of Pulikesi – and as impossible as it may seem, sought peaceful methods to accomplish it … and himself, a young man bound to serve his King in the battlefield, as well as the Crown Prince, his best friend. As Sivagami goes from being the cherished dancer to a humiliated prisoner-of-war who suffers a solitary confinement in Vathapi, the Chalukya Empire’s capital for nine long years, the tale casts a spotlight on the effect of the terrible invasion on all the characters. The war takes its toll on everyone: Paranjyothi is sickened of it and his mind turns more and more towards God; Mahendra Pallavar suffers grievous injuries and despairs of saving Kanchi … and what of Sivagami? Her hopes and dreams are ruined; she returns from her imprisonment, full of heartbreak – to a country and King alien to the one she left behind.

Flame of the Forest, as much as Sivagamiyin Sabadham itself, is a tale of love and war, of bitter despair and hope, of terrible decisions, heart-wrenching agony, and everlasting bliss.

The play presents three characters prominently, entering into their emotions and experiences sometimes through lengthy dialogues, at others through short, snappy scenes that indicate the passage of time and events. Emperor Mahendra Pallavar, Paranjyothi and Sivagami have been portrayed in great detail, with the story moving almost exclusively through their perceptions, at times. Pulikesi makes a brief appearance at one point – and surprisingly, Narasimha Pallavar and Aayanar never do. It would have been nice to have seen the Crown prince in more detail, rather than in the very abbreviated appearance he makes towards the end, as a part of Sivakami’s memories.

Veteran readers of Sivagamiyin Sabdham might have had no trouble understanding and enjoying the play – but one does wonder if others, first introduced to the story, might have found it equally easy – esepcially as the play meanders from Tamil to English and back. I managed to ignore the few comments of “What’s with all the songs, anyway?’ myself.

Mythili Prakash has obviously taken her role seriously – and it is the role of a lifetime – and performs the dance pieces very well. Her face is expressive, her movements adept, and her postures precise. Priyadarshini Govind, who appears as an older Sivagami too, brings the character to the fore. But it is V Balakrishnan and Deesh Mariwala who, quite literally, carry the play on their very capable shoulders. V Balakrishnan in particular, as Paranjyothi, Siruthondar, Pulikesi and Chinnappa, does a marvelous job, his expressive face and gestures enlivening long, complicated dialogues. As Pulikesi, the Chalukya Emperor contemptuous of the Pallava King, yet seething with frustration at his inability to capture Kanchi, he dazzles. The scenes where he derides Mahendra Pallava for having put up with Appar’s derisive poems and Sivakami’s portrayal of it, are tres magnifique. Deesh Mariwala brings dignity and power to the character of Mahendra Pallava, projecting calm good sense at one point, valourous confidence in another.

The final scenes of an older Sivagami remembering her past, where a younger version of herself is juxtaposed with her aged form, is a refreshing way of presenting both versions. The movements of both dancers are fairly synchronized, adding to the viewer’s enjoyment. The various sundry characters who sail through, discussing the political situation at that time add flavour, as well.

Packing in four volumes worth of a novel into two hours is no easy task – but the writer has managed to pull it off without having a fidgeting audience (for long) on her hands. Too long have Kalki fans awaited their favourite author’s work in a vusal medium. “Flame of the Forest” assuages that want, well.

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