By S.D. Desai
With no direct hint to it, The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Picador, 2008) becomes a metaphor. As a gesture of gratitude for his survival, the demon king Maya is going to build an amazing palace on the ashes of the Khandava forest Arjuna has destroyed. Bheema would like to see ‘a hundred cook fires lit all at once’. Yudhishthira anticipates kings discussing statesmanship and listening to music in it. Arjuna wishes to see ‘a dome that reaches up toward the sun!’
What would Panchali like to have in it? ‘Water. I want water. Everywhere,’ the daughter of the earth says cryptically. She cannot bear to see and feel the agony of the once luxuriating soil of the Khandava forest turned to total ruin. It is in this palace that Duryodhana invites humiliation by mistaking crystal clear pond water to be a clean tiled floor and falling into it. The motif of illusion keeps recurring in the work at many levels. And, at the end, her triumphant laughter turning into disillusionment, Panchali longs for yet another palace.
In The Palace of Illusions, Panchali revisits the episodes of the epic from birth till her dissolution into the elements of the earth. She narrates them with her emotive and intellectual responses – developed by a modern woman gifted with imagination and exceptional verbal felicity. The female take on major happenings and characters in the Mahabharata catches the creative impulse of a dance choreographer Uma Anantani and her disciple and daughter, Shivangee. The result is an hour-long eminently watchable dance piece From Fire to Fire.
Will a mere 12-page gist of an unputdownable 360-page novel brilliantly written in a racy style succeed in conjuring up on stage – largely in a solo Bharatanatyam performance – a flamboyant, sensitive and articulate individual intelligible to the modern mind? The skepticism was dispelled by both the choreographer and the dancer. The choreographer, who has a doctorate in Indian aesthetics under the guidance of Dr. Kanak Rele, picks up from the rich classical repertoire just the right karanas and mudras to match Panchali’s moods, emotions and contextual responses while working in the format of a brilliant combination of text, dance and a bit of theatre.
A good Bharatanatyam dancer, Shivangee as Panchali in her best performance to date runs the whole gamut of emotions from imperiousness and vengefulness to despair and anguish in a style the viewer familiar with the story of the epic follows. With the precision of expression she has acquired at Kanak Rele’s Nalanda, she emerges as a strong Panchali in episode after episode standing tall in her interactions with major characters, including Krishna, and brooding.
The story remains largely linear as in the novel. The flashbacks giving a glimpse of Panchali’s thinking in a context are momentary – so momentary a viewer not alert enough is likely to miss them. There are welcome relevant insertions like the sloka Nainam chhindanti shastrani…’ from the Geeta. Unlike the performance, the novel affords space and time to the viewer to reflect. An identical costume in beige for a bevy of girls led by Koral Adenwala, a senior student of the dance centre Rasadhwani, making a striking functional entry, now forming the palace, now becoming a tree, now as warriors, against Draupadi’s radiant colours is a considered choice to keep the group in the background, avoiding intrusion.
K. Jayan’s music has a creative touch. It supports dance movement and at the same time enhances the dramatic effect. Parth Raval at the lights matches the moods on the stage. The three voiceovers (Makrand Shukla, Chirag Trivedi, Diana Raval) are dramatically effective – one in deep baritone, another conversational, a third intensely emotive. Shivangee beautifully translates or responds to them with her visual vocabulary. The beauty of spoken English, however, is in its rhythm and cadence, which need to be approximated.
This Panchali – of Divakaruni’s, of Anantani and of Shivangee – is critical of the Pandavas and yet not revolting, on an even keel with the divine, empathetic to the lowly in society, human to be vengeful, imperially triumphant when her moment comes, anguished at realising the vanity of her driving desire and at the annihilation she invites, psychologically credible to have had a special place in her heart for the man among men, Karna, silenced to suffering. And this is why she gets so endearing to the modern mind.
At the end, when her body is dissolving, she asks Krishna, “Are you truly divine?” “Will you never be done with questioning?” the ever-dependent friend responds, “Yes, I am.” And, singing a paean to her he adds, “You are, too, you know!” The culmination of Divakaruni’s verbal performance is seen in those words, along with what Krishna’s words that precede, “Like the small brass bells tied around the necks of calves, that sound will remain with me even when hearing has gone.” Intriguingly, the short script and the performance based on it omits a refreshing original interpretation of Panchali’s psyche, of something that remained buried in her subconscious and pops out now at the end.
At Krishna’s touch, “… something breaks, a chain that was tied to the woman-shape crumpled on the snow below. I am buoyant and expansive and uncontainable … I am beyond name and gender and imprisoning patterns of ego. And yet, for the first time, I’m truly Panchali. I reach with my other hand for Karna – how surprisingly solid his clasp! Above us our palace waits, the only one I’ve ever needed. Its walls are space, its floor is sky, its centre everywhere.”