By Seetha Ravi
(Translated from a review in Tamil in Kalki magazine)
“Lets’ save the forest because the tiger depends on it. Let’s protect the tiger because the forest depends on it.” This is no slogan that you will find at Kalakkad Mundanthurai or the Ranthambore wildlife sanctuary. This is the gist of a beautiful verse in the Mahabharata.
Night’s End, a play written, designed and directed by Gowri Ramnarayan, starts and ends with that sloka from the Mahabharata. The director’s worldview as finds creative expression in the play is based on a strong foundation of English dialogues, Kathakali dance supported by Malayalam songs and chenda drumming, Rajasthani tribal music, the sweet voices of birds, and the fearsome roars of tigers, simple set design to suggest life in the jungle, and unobtrusive, effective lighting. The result is an Indian English play of international class, presented by Chennai based JustUs Repertory.
This story, woven around the protection of tigers, is also that of Krishnan Nair, born in a a family of Katahakali artists in Kerala, now working as a forest guard in a tiger sanctuary in Rajasthan. Apart from Krishnan Nair, played by dancer Sheejith Krishna, there is only one other character on stage—tribal girl Chandni played by Akhila Ramnarayan. The two have a single face-to-face encounter in the entire play, the rest of which is told in the form of the two characters thinking aloud. Soliloquies unfurl as Nair speaks his mind to the injured bird he is tending, and Chandni to the idol of her family goddess, and later to an ant. The playwright weaves the challenges faced by the forest department and life’s sorrows seamlessly into this unique storyline.
The cruelty of the carefully orchestrated murder of the tiger hunted for its skin is matched or exceeded by the dark secrets of the Kathakali family and the sufferings of its youngest member, the boy Krishnan Nair. We watch with horror and anxiety the human tragedy that is no less than the skinning of the tiger. The realistic depiction of the combination of progress and artificial regulations in the name of environment conservation that leads tribals astray makes our hearts heavy with sorrow. With the Save the Tiger campaign perhaps a symbolic representation of the entrapment of humanity in the constant battle between the forces of good and evil, the play plunges us into speculation: What will emerge at the end of the long night remote-controlled by political, economic and social power groups? A new dawn? Or the beginning of yet another night?
Sheejith Krishna, who gave understated aesthetic expression to Gowi Ramnarayan’s imagination and thought process, was also responsible for the exquisite stage design. With his considerable prowess as a dancer, it was hardly surprising that he brilliantly presented in Kathakali the Mahabharata sequences handpicked by the playwright. Gowri Ramnarayan’s successful integration of music and dance in her plays is equally unsurprising given her strong background in the two arts. She is now an expert in such devices. The script and structure of the play make us wonder if she wrote it keeping Sheejith in mind.
The less experienced Akhila Ramnarayan’s performance was a remarkable achievement. She was perfectly equal to the task of translating the director’s mindscape and matching Sheejith’s power. Her movements on the stage had the grace of tribal dance, her expressions mirrored pure innocence, and her cathartic moments of pain and sorrow had mature wisdom, leaving a lasting emotional impact.
Night’s End premiered at the Rukmini Arangam, Kalakshetra. Don’t miss it next time.