Thursday, June 20, 2024

Crossing to Talikota: A parade of historical events

A scene from Arjun Sajnani’s play, Crossing to Talikota.

A scene from Arjun Sajnani’s play, Crossing to Talikota.
| Photo Credit: Saravana Acharya

If Arjun Sajnani’s production of Girish Karnad’s last play, Crossing to Talikota [staged in Bengaluru recently], was more show than substance, it was due to the deficient script. Sajnani did his best, bringing to it his decades of experience and exceptional production values. He does not stint on sets or costumes, and his attention to detail extends to his supporting cast, so that there are no glaring weak links in his productions.

Karnad’s script concentrates on recording a historical watershed – the defeat and devastation of Vijayanagar – reducing the play to a series of episodes, absorbing enough, but resulting in a choppy action narrative. Focus was also dissipated with the many shifts of locations, though Sajnani handled these scene changes very well by using slide projections to conjure sumptuous interiors or bleak battlefield camps.

A scene from Arjun Sajnani’s play, Crossing to Talikota.

A scene from Arjun Sajnani’s play, Crossing to Talikota.
| Photo Credit:
Saravana Acharya

Karnad is fond of large historical canvases but, unlike Tughlaq for example, Talikota has no central character that engages us. A play’s dramatic tension usually stems from the crisis of the protagonist: the soul-searching of Thomas More, Beckett’s conflict with King Henry II, Oedipus helplessly ensnared in a fateful web … Talikota has no hubris, nor does it develop issues of moral import showing the tragic frailty of the human condition.

The several characters of almost equal importance gave no scope to the actors to flesh out their sketchy roles. Characters were faced with only seminal crises; actors had little to work on, without any meaningful introspection or dramatic conflict arising from difficult choices.

A scene from Arjun Sajnani’s play, Crossing to Talikota.

A scene from Arjun Sajnani’s play, Crossing to Talikota.
| Photo Credit:
Saravana Acharya

The personal and political dilemmas of ‘Aliya’ Ramaraya could have been the crux of the play, concentrating the audience’s sympathies. The lower-born son-in-law promoted by marriage, has the disparaging connotations of a second class citizen in traditional Hindu society. Ramaraya’s driving ambition to establish himself legitimately, to reassert his kalyana heritage, had the potential for gripping drama. Ashok Mandanna’s dry delivery and expression suited the bitterness of unfulfilled ambition. He was appropriately assertive as the de facto ruler of a glorious kingdom, retaining power by juggling various factions. The script suggests that Ramaraya’s sudden spells of giddiness had disturbing consequences, but the acting did not sufficiently manifest these attacks.

Convincing portrayal

Maahir Mohiuddin as Adil Shah shifted convincingly between a farzan’s fond submission to Ramaraya, and duplicity as a key player in the Sultanate faction. Again, he was given but a sentence to express his anguish when forced to betray his word of honour given to Ramaraya.

A scene from Arjun Sajnani’s play, Crossing to Talikota.

A scene from Arjun Sajnani’s play, Crossing to Talikota.
| Photo Credit:
Saravana Acharya

Veena Sajnani always commends herself onstage, with clear delivery and appropriate feeling. She was convincing as the long-suffering wife of a lower caste husband. Here again was germinal theatrical friction: Satyabhama caught between devotion to her husband and loyalty to her father, whom Ramaraya reviles in moments of frustration.

Viveck Shah has impressive stage presence and fits easily into his roles but, as Nizam Shah, there was a sameness of delivery and movement, the bombast and gesticulation overdone. If Susan George as his Begum was outstanding, it was also because her character had more scope. Her superb acting communicated her grasp of the Begum’s role with facial expression, body language and nuanced delivery, all found rather wanting in the rest of the cast.

A scene from the play Crossing to Talikota.

A scene from the play Crossing to Talikota.
| Photo Credit:
Saravana Acharya

Sajnani leavened proceedings by portraying the puppet king as a petulant poufy brat. Ironically, this silly Sadashiva claimed the play’s only touching scene: allowed a rare audience with the elderly Tirumalamba, his piteous pleas describe his 20 years of incarceration and impotence as a figurehead ruler: “ I’m in a parrot cage … without permission to peep out, let alone walk outside, to talk to anyone, not even to a beggar …”.

The production did its best with the pedestrian language and other inherent shortcomings in the script, but remained a parade of historical characters and events, a spectacle of action, lacking momentous peaks. The audience remained spectators, without their emotions or deeper sensibilities being engaged.

Karnad could have developed the Talikota of the play’s title into a significant metaphor, like the famous Rubicon: it could have implied characters at a crucial point, the ford synonymous with the proverbial crossroads. Instead, Talikota remains a historical footnote, a dot on the map.

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