I truly think our gods are one of the most rich and pleasurable concepts intuited by the human mind. It was like sinking into a luxurious spa for the soul watching G Venu's Natanakairali troupe present the first three acts of Mahakavi Kalidas's Sanskrit play Vikramorvasiyam in Kutiyattam on Thursday night in Delhi at the National School of Drama theatre-fest that closes on Friday with Tagore's moving Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders).
Filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan once told me he enjoys watching mytho theatre forms like Kutiyattam and Kathakali because, "I find it very relaxing to be in that world." Indeed, watching Indra, king of the celestials, worrying about how to counteract the growing power of the sages, gives you great perspective on your own idiotic troubles — especially if Indra is enacted by Sooraj Nambiar, with his nice, sharp nose and elegant features.
By definition, this world of the gods is 'artificial'. But is it, really? Isn't there much beyond our ken that we may acknowledge without losing our grip and sliding into fear and superstition? Our ancestors seem to have dreamed up the deities as an active interface between the unknown and the tangible, observable world. To wander in their midst is to cleanse what I think of as the dungeons of the soul and come back armed with good energy for the daily business of 'getting and spending and laying waste our powers'.
Indian mythology is particularly energising for anyone of any creed who chooses to inhabit it, because it has consistently called forth the best expressions of our creative skills. So it's a stockpile of riches that we don't know how to even begin handling, there's so much. What intrigued me so about the Kutiyattam performance was that its actors were bright young people in their 20s, immersed in this 2,500-year-old living theatre form, the oldest in the whole wide world.
Says G Venu, disciple of the leonine Ammanur Madhava Chakyar, "I think it has survived because it allows so much creative space for an individual."
This makes us wonder at the now-despised rote system. Three years ago, I was thrilled to accidentally discover that a Sanskrit verse I had mugged up as a child was actually the Naandi or invocation from the play Mrcchakatikam (The Little Clay Cart) by Shudraka, said to be 8th century CE. Ironically, Mrchhakatikam is rated the most modern and realistic of Indian plays. Parisians saw it in French translation back in 1850 and 1895, while in Germany it drew big crowds in 1892-3 and again in the 1920s! We saw it as the Hindi film Utsav only in 1985, though Shambhu Mitra did a Bengali play earlier.
The main invocation goes: Paryank granthibanda dvigunita bhujagaslesha samveeta jaano/ rantapranavarodh vyuparata sakalajnana ruddhendriyasya/ atmanyatmana me va vyapagatakaranam pashya tas tatva drushtya/shamborvah paatu shoonye kshanaghatitalaya brahmalagnah samadhih.
Loosely translated, this jawbreaker means: 'May the abstract meditation of Shiva protect you. (That Shiva who sits in the yogic knee-bound Paryank posture, whose inner life-force is so controlled within, that all movement has ceased and who, with his eye of truth, perceives himself as the Universal Soul with no duality between the two)'. Pure Advaita, from the Paramatma's side for a not-so-presumptuous change.
I thought then, that perhaps the point of the rote system was to equip us with mental libraries that we slowly understood at a deeper level as we grew up and kept pulling 'books' out of our own heads. Because I wouldn't have missed knowing the end of Shudraka's invocation, it is so lovely. But judge for yourself:
Api ch: Paatu vo neelakantasya kantah shyamambudopamah/ gauribhujalata yatra viddhul lekheva rajate.
Moreover: May the dark-cloud-like neck of Shiva protect you, that neck on which the pale creeper of Gauri's arm flashes like lightning.
Sort of fills us with affection for Shudraka, doesn't it, for the feeling that we have 'fed on honey-dew and drunk the milk of Paradise'?
Email Renuka Narayanan: renukanarayanan @hindustantimes.com