Refined recreation: Stage adaptation of Ponniyin Selvan

The stage adaptation of “Ponniyin Selvan”, presented in Chennai in June by Magic Lantern, does not disappoint as an honest attempt to retain the soul of ‘Kalki’ R. Krishnamurthy’s classic set in the Chola era.

Published : Jun 25, 2014 12:30 IST

Nandini (Meera Krishnamurti) and Vallavarayan Vandiyadevan (Srikrishna Dayal).

Nandini (Meera Krishnamurti) and Vallavarayan Vandiyadevan (Srikrishna Dayal).

FOR Magic Lantern, which calls itself a drama troupe with a difference, this was an overwhelming project because of the sheer complexities involved in adapting 500 chapters of the celebrated Tamil novel Ponniyin Selvan for the stage. The troupe, founded by Pravin and E. Kumaravel, was not a stranger to such mega ventures. Nor was the task of dramatising ‘Kalki’ R. Krishnamurthy’sfive-volume, 2,400-page historical romance altogether new to it. Way back in 1999, Magic Lantern had staged a four-hour-long play based on it in the open air in Chennai, and subsequently in a few places abroad. That experience made the troupe realise the shortcomings, especially in terms of the length of the script and the need for better acoustics. That also gave Magic Lantern the confidence to transform a novel of epic proportions into an engrossing play.

So, when the Chennai-based production company SS International Live approached the troupe to recreate the novel once again on stage, Magic Lantern found an opportunity to fine-tune the plot and present it in a modern idiom. It was no doubt a daunting task.

“Our maiden attempt in 1999 reached a select audience. It did not fail. But we found out that it needed to be enhanced since nothing [we did] could match the grandeur of the novel,” Pravin, who directed the play, told Frontline . Pravin, trained at the Strasbourg School of Theatre, France, had directed the earlier adaptation as well.

The stage creation of the magnum opus, presented in Chennai in June, did not disappoint as an honest attempt to retain the “soul of the writer’s work”. Magic Lantern tinkered, altered and pruned its earlier script, dropped digressive subplots and maintained a linear approach to the novel’s primary plot. The result was a three-and-a-half-hour performance that kept the audience spellbound. It also holds out hope for the future of Tamil theatre.

Ponniyin Selvan (The son of Ponni) is a racy novel full of palace intrigues, wars, romance, valour, humour and betrayal. It is set in the 10th and 11th centuries, preceding the ascendancy of Raja Raja Chola aka Arulmozhi Varman, the most successful king of the Chola dynasty, to the throne. The novel was serialised in the Tamil weekly magazine Kalki in the 1950s.

Kalki, as the author and founder of the magazine was eponymously called, based his fictional characters and incidents on the historical characters and happenings of that “golden period”. The story, told in simple Tamil, is a gripping piece of outstanding literature. Kalki took more than three years to complete the novel.

Ponniyin Selvan inspired endless debates on its realism and reality. T. Sriraman of the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (now the English and Foreign Languages University), Hyderabad, in his introductory note to the English translation of the novel by C.V. Karthik Narayanan, said the novel “enjoyed the support of newer readers through decades not only because of its celebration of a heroic age in a refreshingly new and lucid style that appealed to the Tamil audience at a time of national renaissance but to its elements of romance, mystery, unfailing humour, etc.”

Eye-catching sets

With its elegant portrayal of the social life and valour of that period, Magic Lantern’s adaptation turned classically handsome through its rich characters and eye-catching settings of medieval forts and palaces. The noted art director Thotta Tharani was roped in to give a magical touch to the sets. Banu, a leading make-up artist in Tamil cinema with movies such as Enthiran in her portfolio, brought the characters to life. The music scored by Paul Jacob was in tune with the era that Kalki glorifies in his novel. The lighting effects by T. Balasaravanan, who has a doctorate in “Semiotics of Lighting”, provided the right effect for the palace intrigues.

The costumes designed by Preethi Athreya, who donned the role of the majestic Kundavai Devi, Raja Raja Chola’s sister, and Pravin’s near-flawless direction and a tight script by Kumaravel, who also played the role of the treacherous magician, Ravidasan, blended seamlessly with the stage and transported the viewers to the Chola era.

The pruned script helped achieve this effect. In fact Kumaravel, a postgraduate in theatre from Pondicherry University and a seasoned actor, used the simple dialogues from the novel effectively. Kalki had a clear political understanding moored in nationalism. He expressed his views on politics through his characters, not only in Ponniyin Selvan but in his other novels and short stories as well. The play retains to a great extent the pristine qualities of contemporariness that elevated Ponniyin Selvan to the level of a classic.

For instance, the statement of Arulmozhi Varman that religion should be kept away from politics for the welfare of the state and its people holds good for the present day. Although Saivism got royal patronage along with Vaishnavism, other faiths such as Buddhism also flourished during the period, an indication that the kings practised religious tolerance. According to the novel, Arulmozhi Varman, when he fell sick, was treated at a Buddhist monastery in Nagapattinam and he was cured of the disease. This episode was brought out well on stage.

Rigorous rehearsal was the key to the success of the latest adaptation. “We started practising in January and continued through February and March. We rehearsed in various locations and in April we moved to a bigger place where Thotta Tharani created a mock stage to enable the artists to get the feel of the real stage,” said Pravin, a product of koothu-p-pattarai, a prominent Tamil theatre group.

The directors of SSI Live, R. Ananda Krishnan and D. Muralidharan, pointed out that the initiative of adapting the epic for the stage was a laborious task. The play needed a large stage. The Music Academy’s air-conditioned hall in Chennai, where the drama was staged for a week from June 8, was not large enough. “We had to alter the stage area and expand it to 70 feet x 45 feet from the original 60 feet x 40 feet. We met K. Rajendran, Kalki’s son, many times for discussion,” said Kumanan, another director of SSI Live.

The organisers were cautious in casting the characters since the novel and its characters have assumed cult status. Although Arulmozhi Varman, played by Sriram, was the protagonist, the swashbuckling Vallavarayan Vandiyadevan (Srikrishna Dayal) was the hero and he, in Sriraman’s words, “literally and metaphorically” rode through the drama. Crown prince Aditya Karikalan, portrayed powerfully by M. Pasupathy, also a koothu-p-pattarai product, prime minister Anirudha Brahmmarayar, who “has eyes and ears all over”, the mischievous spy Alwarkadiyan Nambi, played by actor Hans Kaushik, and the enticing young queen Nandini (Meera Krishnamurti), around whom the play revolves, and a host of other characters such as Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar (veteran artist Mu. Ramasamy), Poonkulazhi, Vanathi and Sambuvaraiyar, also came back to life for 210 minutes.

To achieve this compression, the novel was split into a few vital components—the midnight plot in the Sambuvaraiyar palace, the meetings of Nandini and Vandiyadevan, the conspiracy of Pandya spies, and the final scene of Aditya Karikalan’s assassination, which, however, fell short of expectations. Pasupathy’s acting made up for this shortcoming. Two imaginary characters, Nallan and Nallal, were created to ensure continuity in the play. “They would narrate incidents that could not be staged,” Pravin explained.

When Kalki serialised the novel six decades ago, he would never have imagined that it would one day be made into a play. For many years, the sheer volume of the novel, with more than 65 characters, had discouraged those nursing any ambition of reproducing it on the silver screen or on stage.

Actor and former Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran’s wish to make a film adapted from the novel remained a non-starter. The director Maniratnam and the actor Kamal Hassan also toyed with the idea of dramatising Ponniyin Selvan but backed out when they could not find sponsors.

“Magic Lantern’s earlier adaptation did make an impact. But we wanted something really big. We took the plunge,” said Muralidharan, and SSI Live has not regretted it. “The overwhelming success of the present creation is amazing. To our huge surprise, nearly 60 per cent of the bookings were done online, pointing to the fact that the majority of our audience was youth,” said Ananda Krishnan.

The success of the exercise can be attributed to the staggering six-month rehearsal, besides the workshops conducted for the artists on voice modulation, pronunciation, and so on. The artists adopted Kalki’s simple style of language though a few of them fumbled for words. In fact, Kalki’s historical novels were a hit with lay readers because even his kings and queens spoke commoners’ language.

The Tamil scholar S. Vaiyapuri Pillai pointed out: “He [Kalki] deploys only those words which are in living use; he does not burrow into the language for pure Tamil words; he does not fight shy of using certain words because they are Sanskrit; it is a clear style, an animated style, a style that takes the readers with it.” The Tamil novelist Mu.Va., or Mu Varadarajan, said Kalki understood the spirit and force of the spoken language and used it as a powerful medium in his writings.

“We did not want to tinker with the style and ethos Kalki captured in his novel through the straightforward use of the language, though many of his contemporaries employed chaste Tamil,” said Pravin.

“I have read the novel some 15 times. I am thrilled to see my kings and queens in life and blood on stage,” said Sumithra, a college student, after watching the play.

The play will be staged in Coimbatore and Madurai, with three shows in each city, and subsequently in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. The organisers said that they would stage the play in Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Those who have not read the novel can have a million reasons for skipping the play. But those who have savoured each and every chapter of Kalki’s stupendous novel will have no reason not to watch the play.

The stage adaptation may be far removed from the novel in some ways, but it does not disappoint the audience.

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