There are several layers to Gowri Ramnarayan's theatre production, “Sarpa Sutra” staged recently in the Indian capital. At one level it is simple narration of a lesser-known episode from the epic Mahabharata. On the other it is an interesting experiment that brings together storytelling, music and drama effortlessly. At yet another level, it delivers a universal message, believes Gowri who says the episode is a parable for the plagues of our contemporary world -- ethnic cleansing, the plunder of the environment, senseless of the politics of revenge and counter revenge and marginalisation of indigenous people.
Gowri's “Sarpa Sutra” draws on the magisterial Sanskrit verse of sage Ved Vyas and earthen, colloquial English version by renowned late Marathi poet Arun Kolatkar on the other. It is a complex tale that shows some of the heroes of the sacrosanct Mahabaharata in an unflattering light -- be it Agni the Fire God, Arjun the admired Pandava hero of the epic, or his revered confidante Krishna.
The plot: At the instigation of Agni, Arjuna and Krishna destroy the Khandava forest by setting it on fire. Serpent king Takshaka loses his wife and his entire forest kingdom in the furious blaze. An angered Takshaka assassinates Parikshit, Arjuna's grandson. Parikshit's son Janamejaya performs a sacrifice (yagna) that will destroy the entire snake race. So powerful is the ritual that serpents from all corners of the earth are dragged inside the blazing pit. Serpent woman Jaratkaru whose husband is human, urges her son Astika to stop the genocide. Can Astika do so?
Gowri plays the narrator or Sutradhar who recounts the tale of vindictiveness that could plunge a kingdom into oblivion. The narration, which takes withering digs at all the characters, is balanced by some superb music and choreography. Gowri also enacts the part of Jaratkaru.
The production by Gowri's brainchild JustUs Repertory, was seamless though the critiques of priests and kings, of heroes and conquerors and all characters in fact became a bit heavy-handed.
Gowri is versatile theatre person. In her hands the script, direction and music came together effortlessly. It was also powerful social commentary. “The destruction of all snakes is an allegory for ethnic cleansing and genocide. The blazing forest fire represents the havoc wreaked by man on forests and the entire ecosystem. I also see the politics of revenge being played out on the world stage today -- be it in America, Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan. It is the same revenge cycle which Ved Vyas wrote about in the Mahabharata centuries ago,” says Gowri.
However, Gowri does not believe in sermonising in her plays. “The function of the artiste is to create an understanding of the world, including the self. If I can do that even to a small degree and resist negative forces, it will be a small step forward for myself and my performers.”