Thought Box

MAHABALI: M. K. Raina’s Theatre!

MAHABALI: M. K. Raina’s Theatre!

by Aparajita Krishna December 29 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 19 secs

Aparajita Krishna reviews the latest MK Raina play Mahabali and discusses its significance to these times when a distorted interpretation of Lord Ram, which is contrary to the virtues He actually stood for, is being mainstreamed.

I was in the audience for the premier show of play Mahabali on the 18th December 2022 at Delhi’s Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts. The play written by Asghar Wajahat (retired Professor, Aligarh Muslim University and JNU alumni, writer, documentary filmmaker) has been designed and directed by veteran theatre and film personality, M. K. Raina.

Whose Ram is it anyway?! One could title the article as the name too. This is in essence the core inquiry of the well-mounted theatrical production and a pertinent examination in today’s context. Who is the real Mahabali? Emperor Akbar or poet Tulsidas? The play counter-addresses, and in its own artistic way challenges the misappropriation, over the decades, of Ram and Sita by the Hindu Right, leading to the politics of our time too. For me it is a very, very important piece of art because the Indian liberals, the Left and the secular political allies have not, despite their rightful opposition to the Hindu and Islamic Right Wing, sufficiently countered the ultra-religious, mythical distortions of Ram and Sita in a language that appeals to the religious masses and gives an inclusive point-of-view as it were.   

The text and the production break many a set-assumption. The direction, stage setting, lighting-design, sound design with live musicians, costume, ensemble acts, all blended together to knit a play that as an original work in India 2022 should resonate with the citizenry, as it did so wonderfully with the audience in a near houseful show that evening. The audience clapped its way through.

The questions about class, caste, religion, language apartheid that Tulsidas’s Awadhi language driven Ramcharitmanas (epic poem based on the Ramayana and composed by the 16th-century Indian Bhakti poet) raises, as opposed to Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana, invites the ire of the priest-class of Kashi. The very humane, vulnerable young Ram in a katha that Tulsidas wants the very ordinary, commoner to also read and recite, affronts the Sanskrit driven Pundit-class. The Shiv v/s Ram angle also comes into play. Ramcharitmanas gets dissected. Is it deriding Shiv and Parvati by upstaging Ram? Shiv lobby v/s Ram of Tulsidas.   

Tulsidas in Akbar’s time and their exchanges made for a riveting, fascinating exploration. Mahabali Samrat Akbar wants to play patron and promoter to Tulsidas. Herein too Tulsidas in his own gentle way resists the co-option. Akbar’s patronage to Tulsidas and Tulsidas’ devotion and steadfastness to his version of Ram brings on the wrath of the Hindu Brahminical class to such an extent that Tulsidas’ kutiya/hut gets burnt down. His pothi of Ramcharitmanas is at the receiving end of being snatched away and burnt. But Tulsidas saves it. ‘Kutiya ki aag bujhayi ja sakti hai. Par jo aag Tulsidas laga raha hai wo kaise bujhayi jaye?’ is the reactionary refrain.

Akbar is also shown to be in-search of a tasveer of Ram and Sita that he wants to emboss on gold coins. But now the Muslim clergy shout it down for it is akin to butt-parasti/idol worship.

Tulsidas is shown rehearsing his Ram-Katha with enactment of Ram, Sita, Hanuman. The growing popularity of Tulsidas among the masses, and the poor, rile the clergy, both Hindu and Muslim. Politics plays out. Tulsidas even gets accused of molesting a woman. He comes to Akbar’s court, not to save himself, but his pothi (text). The pandulipi of Ramcharitmanas has to be safe-guarded. The exchanges in person between Tulsidas and Akbar add a whole new dimension to the play. Akbar tells Tulsidas, “Hum tumhari shaiyari ke jaadu mein bandh gaye. Azeem shayer ho!” (I am captivated by the magic of your poetry. You are a powerful poet.)

Tulsidas appreciates that Akbar did not forcibly capture him and instead offered him sanctuary. But Tulsidas is in body and soul, a Kashi-resident and cannot leave his native homeland. Akbar gives him a gold sikka with the Ram and Sita picture engraved. Tulsidas also questions Akbar’s Mahabali sambodhan/address. He tells Akbar during the talk, “Aap itihaas mein rahenge, main vartaman mein.” (You will remain with history and I will be with the present.)

With the dohas (couplets) being sung live and ‘Jai Siya-Ram… Jai Jai Siya-Ram…’ evoked, the play sways to its own beat. The minimalistic set-design, the good use of light-sound-costume give it its own character.

In India 2022 the citizenry at the receiving end of today’s most conservative and reactionary dictates would empathize with the then victimization of Tulsidas. And India would do good to re-visit this version of inspiration.  

Herein M. K. Raina in his directorial-note, specially to me for The Daily Eye, takes us through the ideation, the making of the play, its significance. A sense of the production playing out before you emerge through the words herein.  

M.K. RAINA: After almost three years of COVID-standstill-situation, when one could not do anything except some writing, I was longing to direct or act in any new play or film. Then came the publication of this new play Mahabali by Asghar Wajahat. Rajendra Gupta, a well-known theatre-television-film actor, mentioned to me about the play. I bought the copy of the play and went through the script. I could see the possibilities in the script. I also needed a well-organized theatre company where it could be realized to its fullest potential.

In India for almost three decades, or more, the political Rama has occupied the main discourse of Indian life. While claiming the political Ram, violence, riots followed across the country. Today the people have got divided on the idea behind the political Ram, and in this upheaval, nobody talks or mentions the sufferings and the sacrifices of Sita. JAI SIYA RAM has got replaced by shrill sounds of JAI SHRI RAM. This situation has given to a strange and violent assertion of the Hindu Right, who use might as their weapon for any discourse.

The Ram I knew through the reading of Ramayana or when I used to listen to the recitation of Ramcharitmanas being sung and explained by my music Guru in Kashmir, was kind, caring, benevolent and always giving. Sita, born from the womb of Mother Earth, had after huge sufferings returned back to Mother Earth. This Ram and Sita, which had stayed with me from my childhood, I had been missing from the discourse of contemporary times.

Asghar Wajahat’s Mahabali examines Ram through Tulsidas, during the times of Akbar, the emperor of India, and through his meticulous etching of many other characters. Here in the play Tulsidas emerges as an intellectual of change during the times of Akbar. A revolutionary game-changer who brings in the story of Ram, to be understood by the poor, the weak and the illiterate masses, through their own subaltern language. There comes in the conflict created within the orthodoxy who are not ready or open to this change. This deviation changes the statuesque and bring down the shutters of the narrow-minded monopoly of the upper caste. For them this change would threaten to empower the poor and the ordinary masses.  

In this conflict of Tulsi and the orthodox clergy, Akbar sees a political opportunity of enhancing his doctrine of Din-i-Ilahi, a syncretic religion propounded by him. He invites Tulsidas to his capital Fatehpur Sikri to join his royal class of intellectuals.  While appropriating him and his intellect, by co-opting Tulsidas into the royal fold, Akbar could get hold of him. Tulsidas seems aware of this royal trap and hence declines Akbar’s offer. He prefers to live among the ordinary people, upholding the principle of Ram, his lord, his hero, his ideal!

This message of Ram through Tulsidas has sharp pointers to our present condition. The story of Ram and Sita needs to be reclaimed back into our age- old belief and understanding of Ramayana. My new production is a new Hindi play based on the life of Tulsidas, his times and the relevance to our present. Tulsidas wrote Ramcharitmanas in the language of the masses so as to make the message of lord Ram reach beyond the orthodoxy. Here we see Ram beyond the politics of hate, violence and anger. One finds in Mahabali all the echo of contemporary values of brotherhood.

The play is located in Kashi and my own association with Kashi is almost fifty years old. Whenever I am in Kashi, which I love, I always spend most of my early mornings at the banks of river Ganga, trying to absorb the amazing city as much as I can. It is here that I see the present and the past living together simultaneously for centuries. It is here I understood the hidden meaning of that refrain - Raand Saand Sadhu Sanyasi En Se Bache Tu Save Kashi.  Despite all the violence and humiliation Tulsi suffers here, he does not leave Kashi. There is something about Kashi that grows within you and for years Kashi keeps igniting within you, till you return back to Kashi.

Through my scenic design, I have tried to create a montage of the ghats, their noise, hustle and bustle, and the poetry, which starts from the early hours of the sunrise and winds its way through the day till the serene sounds of the sacred descends with the darkness of the night.

No significant theatrical experience can be created if it does not reveal our present times. I believe that theatre is for the community and the community responds when it see that it is visible in the act of the performance. Mahabali does speak of those truths, which one may ignore. There is a lot for the young minds to take with them and then raise questions later.

Herein the character of Ram and his relationship with his bhakts is like a relationship of the lover with his beloved. There is the redefining of the relationship between lord Ram and Tulsi, which is very much relevant in today’s context. The ideal of Ram emerges as the new definition of a modern hero. Here, Ram is non-violent, gentle, caring, benevolent and a giver as opposed to the idea of Ram as a muscular, violent, revenge-taker’s macho image. In Mahabali the definition is reversed though the words of Tulsidas. And if you are a Ram Bhakt then be like Tulsidas, who defines Ram for the contemporary times. It is like reclaiming Ram of Tulsi’s version for the present times - a hero who is caring, kind and a giver.

Historically Akbar never met Tulsidas. Here in the play when Tulsi has lost everything, is on the streets, he dreams of meeting and conversing with Akbar. Their conversation is like a discourse about politics, state of affairs and about the unity of the people. They discuss the most pressing questions about the self, power and loyalty. It is Tulsidas who emerges, during the confrontation with Akbar, as the real Mahabali. Beyond the physicality of this world, he transcends into something much higher, pure and sacred than Akbar.

I think the role of an artist and intellectual in today’s India is becoming more difficult and complicated. Hence if art does not give voice to the aspirations of the people and to their difficult tragedies, then the people sink, the state sinks and the culture sinks too. Artists today have to guard themselves and their works from being used and appropriated by the powers that be and defend their right to create, speak and perform. Else history shall not absolve us.

The set-design by me is very much minimalistic. Through the use of some images of the ghats an ambience of Kashi is established. The entire life is played out on the banks of river Ganga. The costumes are by Kriti V Sharma, a veteran costume designer, who has worked with me for the last three decades. She understands my pulse for colour-schemes. She gives life to the characters through the rare choice of fabrics and textures. As we have worked for so many years together, I do not have to pester her for designs. She has worked on my pan-Indian projects and I feel safe and lucky to have her support and full cooperation to all my dream projects. Even when there are limited funds, she knows how to give a most impressive and original look to my production.

As for future shows of the play, yes there are going to be more shows of it in the month of January 2023 onwards. There are already inquiries from the sponsors asking for shows and dates. I hope this production goes into the Hindi heartland states where the Ramcharitmanas is very popular and known to the masses.

As for my future plans, I have written a book, ‘Before I Forget’, and have found a publisher. Hopefully it should be published in 2023. Apart from this I have signed a feature film as an actor. I am also working on poems of Ashok Bajpai. There will be a collaboration between us: me as theatre director, Anant Raina (son) as image-maker and musician Anirban Ghosh as a sound-creator for the project based on the poems of Ashok Bajpai.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.