Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Krishnaa - the musical by Sobhana

Can you collapse the infinite into two hours?  Well actor-danseuse Sobhana tries hard to do just that in her musical Krishnaa.


The result is this hi-octane, mostly chaotic ensemble performance that seems to move at the speed of light; and even before you absorb a scene, a dialogue or enjoy the thrill of a dance, its already over and the stage has shifted to the next story on Lord Krishna.

Err… why is this then making to my favourites?   Well, let me first complete the reality bites part about the show.

I saw Krishnaa last winter when Shobana and her dance troupe performed at the Sophiya college in Mumbai.  This was a Sunday, and the sparse crowd who sacrificed a Sunday evening to trudge all the way to South Mumbai, included the obvious South Indians as well as a few Gujaratis (to see their beloved Thakurji on stage) but none of the parsis or punjabis who are regulars at English and Hindi plays in Mumbai.

And in a way that was helpful, because if you are not familiar with the mythology, legends and folklore, it is impossible to know what is going on – the narrative moves across various chapters of Lord Krishna – childhood, lover, adjudicator, warrior etc. sometimes non-sequentially. The story also veers off-course from the popular conventional story when it suggests Draupadi wanted to in fact first marry Lord Krishna (Sobhana quotes a reliable source for justifying this).

As the show began, it was clear Sobhana is in charge… only this means she does EVERYTHING as in EVERYTHING – including back stage monitoring, changing the scenes, getting staff to help organize transitions – she even stands on the sidelines away from view, and stands on a small step ladder to handover the endless saree in the Draupadi disrobing scene!!.  So you get to hear her instructions from time to time asking them to switch on the sounds, lights etc. And, for a south Indian, it is but expected that she ran the entire show – music, narrative, scene changes etc. played out of a video file from her laptop connected to the projector – however, what was  ironic and  disappointing was that the laptop was not connected to power, and 30 minutes into the show, the screen is flashing that the PC is out of battery power and needs an alternate source of power, or to be plugged in.  The actors are dancing around unaware of this flashing on the screen behind  them. Soon, the music stops and the screen is blank. The dancers move to the corner, and one can here sobhana berating the guys, and then makes an announcement that there will be a short break. She’d earlier asked folks on the balcony (who cant anyway read most of the screen as the visibility from Sophiya’s balcony only covers the front stage) to come down as there are plenty of seats below that are empty.  So I moved down.
By the time the power is plugged in, the laptop booted, the file located, and opened, and  bring it back to approximately where it had stopped – mercifully this is done off=screen,  a lot of folks decide to salvage the rest of their Sunday evening and head out for their cars and dinner or whatever.

No, so really why is this making it to my faves?

I come down to like the second row and get a close ringside view of not just the scintillating performance but also what’s happening on the sidelines during the show – its pure entertainment, in a very very very very… different way that Indians normally are used to in the current age.

Sobhana is a face extremely familiar and popular to folks of my generation, but mostly unknown to the current, and practically unknown to those outside the south, any age. 

But in my opinion, and I think a lot of folks would concur – she’s possibly one of the most beautiful actresses ever (which really is a compliment given that every Indian actress is stunning – I keep getting asked by different folks, from Africa, to Dubai and to Thailand, how come each Indian actress is so glamorous and beautiful. Clearly when it came to beauty a majority of the world preferred the healthy, buxom, and exquisiteness of the Indian actresses).

Sobhana would be one of those classical faces that would be what the sculptures at all ancient Indian monuments would have celebrated in their statuettes. Further she’s from the famed family of classical dancers from the Royal kingdom of Thiruvanthapuram – her aunts being Padmini, Ragini etc. who were famous heroines from the South in the days of yore.  Sobhana keeps the tradition alive, having a dance school in Chennai.

So as she dances in Krishnaa, it’s a treat to watch – she’s in a body suit and her costumes keep changing as per the different roles of Krishna, while only the turban remains intact, as well as the make up on her face.  And watching this up close its really hard to take your eyes of her, and watch one of the foremost experts in Abhinaya and Nritya sometime step into classical Bharata natyam, and sometimes do folk, and then acting of course.

But the sheer effort in this stage musical is unmatchable, and makes the evening worthwhile.

The troupe is a carefully selected bunch of students, each of them assigned distinct costumes to help identify who’s who. So all the girls play different roles including ones of Bheema, the pandavas etc.  The costumes are exquisitely designed, on par with modern interpretations of what ancient Indian temple as well historical costumes, jewellery and hairstyles must have been like.  And with each performer an expert dancer from the school, it is like being part of and a witness to  Indra’s gana sabha (the king of the Gods was famous for having the most beautiful apsaras dance in his court).

The effort doesn’t stop there. As evident from the advertisements, the performing contributors include famous names like Konkona Sen Sharma, Shabana Azmi, Prabhu Deva, Suriya, Prabhu, Milind Soman etc who contribute their voices and choreographic talents to the show. 

And this makes it somewhat amusing.  Now if you are not from the south – and not familiar with the classical mythological theatre you cannot get the OTT nature of the performances.  A lot of film artistes from the Tamil and Telugu industry were stage artistes, and adapted the style of the theatre stage where a lot of exaggerated expressions and loud mannerisms had to be employed to convey the drama from the scenes to the audience.

Sobhana remains true to this style and idiom in this musical.  Thus everything is dramatic, melodramatic, loud and OTT – and all the contributing artistes faithfully and enthusiastically adhere to this. So Shabana Azmi and Konkona Sen Sharma who are otherwise farthest from this style, give pitch perfect renditions of dialogues in this dramatic style for their roles (Gandhari and Draupadi respectively).

It doesn’t look like any of them charged any  money for this – or, rather even if they did, it’s quite remarkable that Sobhana managed to get such a fantastic ensemble to take part in this venture.

The contributions don’t stop there.  Sobhana uses excerpts from popular songs from famed music houses who are otherwise renowned for being picky and lawfully protective of their franchises, but they seem to have agreed to allow her usage for this venture as she acknowledges their copyrights. So there are songs from Yashraj’s dhoom, Aamir Khan’s Lagaan, and a lot of songs from A R Rahman in tamil.

There is a lot of research that has gone into the production, and there is a slide show in between where the evidence proving the existence of Mahabharata’s events and landmarks is produced (the eclipse, Kurukshetra etc.) but like the rest of the show it runs at jet speed.

The show I watched was haphazard, chaotic and took as much effort from the audience to understand, as it must have for the dancers.  The show began around 30 minutes late, The break which was supposed to be around 10-15 minutes, instead was wrapped in 5 minutes (thus the CDs which were on sale personally autographed by her were missed). Both the audience as well as the troupe seemed to be in a hurry to complete the show and get out of the auditorium. The songs might have been curtailed (we wouldn’t know anyway, and it looked like few cared, and would be grateful for the shortening). However, the ending was spectacular with the troupes bringing in those cardboard elephants and bring alive on stage, the scene of the warfield. And lastly is the arangetram (or whatever the term is for paying respect to the dance floor as you begin and end your dance performance).

As I was moving out from the side entrance, one of the young girls is running outside still in her costume asking the trucks to come in and collect the props and other material from the stage – she speaking in impeccable English to the bhaiyyas in Mumbai and that’s quite something. It looked like most of them would be trucking all the way back to their hotel in their costumes, and having their dinner while sitting, standing on the truck. (and that would have been one hell of a sight for those on the road accompanying them on the road)

And then as I stepped out, it was raining in Mumbai - almost miraculously. It has been a fairly dry winter  and when I walked into the show earlier that evening, there was no sign of clouds, so it was really one of those magical moments.

So once again – why, really is this making it to my faves?

I seriously don’t think there was any money to be made into this show, if at all – this runs only thanks to the sponsors.  Nobody’s getting paid any great money for all the amount of physical effort that goes into this (like all theatre actors and stagehands know).

The only thing going here is the enthusiasm and energy from Sobhana which infuses the air in the theatre and every molecule of every body who is in the theatre – some come alive, while others suffer fatigue and simply give up.

But I could only applaud, this took me a long time to absorb, and then relate to what I knew about the Mahabharata and Lord Krishna, and I had to simply admit that even for trying… it deserves a standing applause!

It truly was about collapsing and condensing the infinite into a power-packed 2 hour show – and Bravo to that!

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