By Priya Das
“What is freedom? That I am finally freed of my intense love for you, or that I cannot hold my child even when my bosom yearns for him?” asks Madhavi, of her young and idealistic beau. Naatak’s 29th production, ‘Madhavi’ is as much a story of duty and debt as it is of the ‘business’ of love. It is a saga of two souls finding themselves in deal-striking circumstances that don’t always go their way. It is a riveting glimpse on what power struggles can be all about. Like the shocking few moments after you realize the water’s colder than you thought it would be before you jumped in, ‘Madhavi’ will stun first, and get you thinking and reacting furiously later.
That’s the thing with all aces: a script painted on the canvas of the Mahabharata, dialog by Bhisham Sahni (simplified by Naatak), deft directing, and acting. Each backs the other’s intrigue. The 45 minutes that I spent watching the rehearsal left me hanging on to every word that couldn’t be emoted fast enough by the characters.
In this play, Bhisham Sahni uses a little known story from the Mahabharata to comment on the subjugation and manipulation of women that has gone on through the ages. Galaav, arrogant disciple of sage Vishwamitra, insists on giving him gurudakshina, even though the sage wants nothing. Vishwamitra’s demands cannot be met by the impoverished Galaav who goes to King Yayati, who has a prodigious reputation for generosity. Yayati gives him his daughter Madhavi who is blessed with two boons: she can renew her virginity and youth whenever she wants and each son she bears will be a chakravarti. So Galav gives her away to one horse-owning king after another for just one year in return for a reward. She in turn gives them each a son.
Gaalav, Madhavi’s beau is fittingly played by Ratnesh Rai, down to the long hair and idealistic fire in his eye. In Rai’s view, “Gaalav is mahatvakangshi( supremely ambitious). He is proud and selfish, and thinks nothing of scheming to get his needs met.” A professional theater person from Jabalpur, Rai would like to be famous one day. He admits that he identifies with Gaalav’s ambition to an extent. “Gaalav is like a flowchart, he knows what combination of boxes to push to get the right result. Who wouldn’t want to be an emperor, especially if it is offered on a platter at no cost to him?”
And that is what Madhavi offers him. She willingly agrees to the liaisons so Gaalav can pay his guru-dakshina. A case of duty gone awry, or selfless commitment to a cause?
I asked Sareeka Malhotra-Pancholi who plays Madhavi, whether she could identify with her character at all – “I definitely wouldn’t go the length as Madhavi did for love. Apart from that, there are shades in Madhavi that any woman would recognize.” Malhotra-Pancholi is a veteran Naatak’er. She’s played the lead, and smaller roles in Naatak’s productions, such as Phool Kanwar in the recent Sultana Daku. She has also produced plays and participates in American theatricals, in addition to being a researcher in her non-stage life.
As the audience, you will wonder whether Madhavi is an innocent, a martyr or simply a fool. At times, the play feels like the Hitchcockian Rebecca, the lead is felt rather than actually there. The other characters take over the story and her life. Gaalav, Yayati-her father, the various Rajas salivating for her beauty, even Marich, a non-royalty; have an opinion on what is right for her.
This kind of script makes it ideal for actors to show off their talent. Asheesh Divetia plays 2 roles, one of which is Raja Haryasch, a good man whose head is turned when he hears about Madhavi’s irresistible appeal- that she can bear him a Chakravarti son. Divetia opines, “Haryasch is a deal-maker. He is a chauvinist, and alleviates any sense of guilt by a perception of duty, that of being a provider to his praja.” Divetia is a force on stage, as he plays King, his piercing glance challenges your perception of what is real and what is staged.
Speaking of what feels real, ladies, you may want to hang on to your stoles a little tighter- brilliantly played by Harish Sundaram-Agastya, Raja Divodas’ lecherous eyes will penetrate the darkness that envelopes the audience. “So are you proficient in Kama? Do you know what makes a man happy?” the raja lasciviously asks of Madhavi. The stage is where Sundaram-Agastya was born to be, he is a character actor par excellence, and plays two other roles in Madhavi, roles that need to be watched rather than written about! He also wears many hats, he directed ‘Final Solutions’ most recently for Naatak.
So who handles all these various shades to every character, who keeps the passion on the straight and narrow? As director, Abhishek Das has his work cut out for him. What makes it easier in some sense, is that Madhavi is his pet project. “I lived with ‘Madhavi’ for a year before deciding to do it. I wanted to bring alive the beauty of language, create the golden-era, 70s feel.”
Das started as a creative personality even in his student days at IIT Kharagpur. Interestingly, when he auditioned with Naatak after he got to the Bay Area he got turned down a few times for looking too young. He did drama classes and participated in Stanford theater productions. Next, he directed a quasi musical for Project Pulse, followed it up by making a movie, ‘8000 miles away’, which was screened in August 2008. Madhavi is his directorial debut with Naatak. The complex weave between the characters is what caught his imagination. And also what Madhavi’s motivations could be- they seem out of place in our times.
So, “Madhavi ka kya hoga?” Will Gaalav and Madhavi find their way to each other amidst the ambition and deal ridden path? Will Madhavi reclaim herself through her catharsis? Find out for yourself! The play promises masala and suspense, an evening well spent.
Pictures of rehearsal shot by Nikhil.
A play by Bhishma Sahni
Adapted by Naatak.
SHOW TIMES: 13th February, Friday 8 pm, 14th February, Saturday 6 pm, 15th February, Sunday 3 pm.
Where: Cubberley Theater, 4000 Middlefield Rd, Palo Alto, CA 94303. More info at www.naatak.com
Tickets: Online tickets can be purchased here.