Nizhalaayanam: A play by Kavalam Narayana Panikkar
- CP Unnikrishnan, Kochi

November 3, 2011

‘Oruma Foundation, Cochin’ is a trust formed in 2010 by a cluster of art enthusiasts from different walks of life. The trust has a clear objective, ‘Preservation of Indian culture through Indian Arts.’ As part of its bi-yearly programs, Oruma hosted ‘Tiruvarangu,’ a three-day drama festival, from 22nd to 24th October, at the Ernakulam Town Hall, involving 3 plays written and directed by Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, by the artistes of his institute, Sopanam. There were discussion classes for theatre lovers and students on 23rd & 24th. ‘Theyyatheyyam,’ ‘Bhagavthjjukam’ and ‘Nizhalaayanam’ were the three plays. ‘Nizhalaayanam’ was staged for the first time, inaugurated by the well known veteran painter MV Devan on the third day. The former two plays have been staged several times and earned innumerable accolades. Nizhalayanam, was the output of a totally different treatment that once again underlined the remarkable theatrical wisdom of Kavalam Narayana Panikkar.

The play as I perceive:

In any version of Ramayana, Urmila is referred to as King Janaka’s daughter (ourasa putri) and Lakshmana’s wife. She is unable to recall the ‘form’ of Lakshmana, as he left Ayodhya along with Rama and Seeta and remained away for fourteen years. But Urmila, all the while, remained a distant shadow of Lakshmana, never revealing herself even as a shadow. Kavalam Narayana Panicker, the playwright and director, picked on this shadow to conceive the real object or being and the source of light that caused the shadow. He doesn’t say that in plain words anywhere. Any shadow is a resultant of 2 components viz. object and the source of light. If the object merges with the source of light or the source is taken away, there is no existence of a shadow.

The characters in the play
The scene opens with the declaration of Rama’s coronation after the annihilation of Ravana and his people, having completed the mission of staying in the depth of the jungles, observing the routine and attire of a hermit. His wife Seeta and brother Lakshmana who were along with Rama also have come back.

Urmila meets Lakshmana, who fails to recognize her. He is unable to realize that he is in Ayodhya. Alas! For a moment he doubts if she isn’t Seeta, the daughter of King Janaka! Urmila agrees that she is Janaka’s actual daughter, but not Seeta. Lakshmana is so badly and heavily affected by ‘Ramo-philia’ that his intellect got entangled in the trabeculae of the indispensible eternal frames of references that make up the ‘Time – Space Continuum.’ It is a psychological state in which one feels the protrusion of past into the present. There would be sense of ‘moving stillness.’

Urmila says with affirmation that Rama’s coronation cannot take place. Is she also in a state of being entrapped by illusion? Do not know. But by the grace of Sri Rama, the chaste young woman sees the events unfolding, right from Panchavati to the annihilation of Lanka as a whole. Here is where the play enters into the process of unwinding the past with a different version. The playwright judiciously and cautiously brings back the disfigured Soorpanakha and the mighty Ravana who fell to Rama’s deadly arrow. Known for the ‘speed of thoughts and actions’ (manojava), Hanuman too gets into a ‘time-space trap’ and says that the coronation ceremony cannot take place. Rama stands neutral as a pointer that Urmila follows to witness the pictures in unwinding past; all with a difference. The crux of the play lies in the constructed consortium of the returned souls and confused stalwarts.

Rama-Lakshmana-Seetyanam’ is the animation seen by Urmila. But when the story is being retold as witnessed by a ‘shadow’ which Urmila has been, the version has to be different. The playwright - director intelligently handles the matter with ease. The structuring would not have been an easy task as the contours of the thought pattern to arrive at such a production wouldn’t skip points of pain and pleasure.

The ugly demonic Soorpanakha, a bundle of just the mundane lust comes in as a caricature. Despite the pitiless action of Lakshmana she still feels he is all handsome and mighty. She takes by force the very sword that cut through her live flesh. At the point of the sword she asks him to go with her, obviously for sexual union. This is a state, quite closer to sadomasochism. By her magical power, Soorpanakha puts Lakshmana to sleep. Is he again hit by the benumbing arrows of Indrajit? For a while, the intelligent Urmila too shouts in agony. But there arrives Swapna Sundari like a dazzling bouncing beauty. She may be ‘the beauty that a dream is’ or ‘a beauty that puts one to sleep.’ In either case the character is an agent that reminds ‘the tensed’ to relax.

The power of the desire to relax is tremendous. The psychic thrust is so powerful that if one tries to resist it, one has to collapse. It’s a natural device; a mechanism for the preservation of every being and a neat process of satiation. She woos Soorpanakha and draws her away from Lakshmana. She wakes him up as he fell into sleep with the evil desire by his side. It wouldn’t be a good sleep. The awakened Lakshmana enjoys the scintillating beauty. Urmila is alarmed. She asks Rama to interfere which he turns down with the statement that it is not part of his assignment. The neutrality shown by this character is justified by the fact that Rama has been asked by the playwright to function like a hypnotist assisting the one in agony to pull oneself out.

All thought it involves hetero- suggestion; a perfect hypnotist would, at certain point suggest the patient to tell himself / herself (autosuggestion) that he /she is solving the problem or resolving a situation as it is clear to him / her. If viewed from another angle, Rama feels that Lakshmana must sleep enough and come out refreshed, so that he would recognize Urmila. He has a sleep deficit of almost fourteen years. Physiologically also, this would be right. Prolonged lack of sleep accumulates and would force the individual to go in for a forceful sleep; proved by the studies on those who drive in a sleepy state and meet with accidents. There are studies on other mammalian animals also. And, the dramatist wants the audience to keep themselves awake as Lakshmana sleeps, as what happens on the stage is ‘a process of reality.’ At this point the ‘Urmila-concept’ becomes dense enough to cast a shadow. Only when they remain wakeful, the ‘Urmila-shadow’ can be felt…it cannot be seen, but felt. This should have occurred in everyone who kept their panchakoshas and indriyas alert.

Hanuman & Lakshmana
Lakshmana, Rama & Seeta
As mentioned earlier, Hanuman too is subconsciously experiencing the surge of the past into the present. He expresses his fear that the coronation is unlikely to take place. Did his speedy mind, owing to heavy assignments during the last few months, run out of fuel? Or, has the Brahmasthra, which he revered and submitted to earlier, cast a shadow within him? He sees the return of the roaring Ravana, who seems to have regained the might with which he thrashed the foreheads of the 8 elephants in the eight global directions and lifted the Kailasa mountain. He has forgotten that he himself did witness the Narayana-asthra falling into Rama’s quiver proving that Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu. Maybe he wished a comeback even when he fell to Rama’s arrow, not a fair means. The playwright is giving this chance to sublimate such feeling, if there were any. He too is put to sleep, probably after sublimation, as a little embryo within Kaikasi’s womb; quite logical. Any form of matter sets forth and returns to the source after action. The kinetic energy is dissipated and the apparent stillness records the potential energy needed for the next action. Yes, Ravana has to take one more birth during the Dwapara Yuga before he returns to his permanent abode in Vaikunda as Jaya and guard the entry to Vishnu’s abode.

Thus all those who rose up returned either to a time bound sleep or eternal sleep. Urmila who remained awake to realize Sri Rama (the Taaraka incarnate) was also allowed to sleep. But Rama’s declaration that she has won his Agni-pareekshanam is his attestation of her chastity, modesty, dignity and tenacity. Recall, Rama gave such a test to Seeta which she went through in moments. But, Urmila had to be in fire without a physical fire for fourteen years.  Who else can do it except Sri Rama who is referred to as ‘Dharma vigraha’ – righteousness incarnate? He wished that Urmila must rupture the layers of Mano-budhyahankara with her ‘Sookshma-budhi.’ This is due for her as she is the real Janakaja carrying the genetic codes that bear the ‘Satwa-Rajo’ guna from the Raja-Rishi, Janaka. To reveal that is right on the part of the one to be enthroned soon. Rama is one who proved that the ‘Sooryakula raja dharma’ is more sacred and powerful than the ‘bhrathru dharma.’ It is precisely this Rama’s abandoning of Seeta that gave sage Valmiki the strongest impetus that became the seed to write Ramayana. Valmiki’s accent is on Rama’s ayana. Was he trying to justify Sri Rama? Doubtlessly the compositions lead scholars of the lore to state “Ramo vigrahvan dharma.” Ultimately, Lakshmana who wakes up from his great serpentine sleep (recalling his original eternal self as Anantha) recognizes Urmila. At this point the play resolves the conflict. All the characters pull themselves out from the past. The hypnotic state is withdrawn. Rama’s crowning ceremony is realized. The playwright, by way of constructing the theme of the play, admits that Rama too had to wait to be crowned. He had to prove his ‘dharma-nishta’ again by being instrumental to guide Urmila through the revaluation process, which he did; the playwright did.

Finally, the Swapna Sundari gradually leads everyone to ‘world of sleep.’ The people of Ayodhya, depicted by the chorus, have been sleeplessly waiting for the moment. Once that’s realized they too have a right to relax; they must sleep. The play ends with the stage absolutely empty, softly illumined by a red light. All the characters have shed their tensions. The spectators too should feel so.  Valmiki has intentionally left out the detail of Urmila. He cannot be blamed as his mission was different. But it remains open for a mind that believes in aesthetic enquiry. The playwright, by way of exploring this open area and utilizing his freedom to interpret or reconstruct, does not question the originals. He does not lower the status of any character. Along with Urmila, the other characters are elevated to a higher plane. This process would remind a keen observer, the technique employed by late Kuttykrishna Marar in his ‘Bharathaparyadanam.’ The playwright opened a path in the Rama-Seeta oriented Ramayana so that one may opt to study Valmiki’s psyche again. In this path, far ahead there is a clear shadow. A head of that is an object. A head of that is the source of light. As the object comes closer to the source of light, the shadow becomes larger, thinner and diffused. If the object still advances itself, it enters the light or becomes one with the source. Thus, there is no shadow. At this juncture, the one who follows the ‘shadow’s journey’ sees the source of light. Now, there is a shadow behind him, which he doesn’t see, but the ones behind him would. Behind every seeker, a shadow does exist. This is the law of karma. Is this shadow the eternal sleep of the physical body? Or, is it maaya, the darkness of ignorance (Tamas) which begins to become less dense as the seeker approaches the light, knowledge (Jyoti).

Dukharthanaam shramarthanaam Shokarthanaam Tapaswinaam
Vishraanthijananam kale Natyamethath bhavishyathi

(N.S. Ch 1. Verse 86)

The finest dharma of Naatya is to impart peace and stability to all who experience any sort of agony, be it physical or mental. The play points also towards this truth. Many would have carried the ‘peace’ along with him or her. This is reinterpretation of the Daiveesdhi as mentioned by Bharata in the 27th chapter of the Natya Sasthra. It’s divine, sublime and more difficult to be achieved as compared to Maanusheesidhi which is an earthly achievement and a more frequented one.

From the point of view of Natya Shastra - justified or not?
The playwright does not confuse anyone, but demands due attention. Skipping a movement or a sound is likely to cause heavy damage in the process of comprehension. It is a top quality of any stage production.

Rasprakarana: The aalambna and the udheepana vibhvas must be legible and complementing one another unless there is an intentional ras-abhasa or vichithi. The vyabhicharis must not remain as isolated units. However they do not form formulated amalgam. That has to be done by each one among the observant audience. The whole presentation has been like keeping the contents of a dish separately so that the consumer can decide on the proportions. But, they must be kept within reach of anyone. The contexts and the bits of characters’ stage business did not cause any congestion. There was enough space and time for the expected blending. If santham is accepted as the state of equilibrium in which all the rasas remain without any upheaval or depression, any observant audience would have experienced it; once again justifying the core of Naatyadharma.

The selection and the rendering of the tunes and rhythm patterns were quite apt to complement the kinesics provided on the stage. There was no overstress on using the tenets of classical music. The sound of Kerala was felt, as it should be, for a play in Malayalam. Despite the employment of stentorian percussion units, their judicious usage was pleasing. Each note and beat complemented the action by each character.

Lighting was quite logical and soft, except in few contexts when the characters occupied the rear and front halves. There was no over illumination. A suggestion is to try using a soft violet or blue towards the end as the characters leave the open stage. It might bring in a new and more accurate dimension. In terms of the ‘light meditation’ proven by psychosomatic schools, violet is for divinity and blue is for harmony. The reds and blues (both obtained by combinations) used elsewhere were perfect.

Costumes were apt to each character. The flow of Sarayu, the observance of penance and life in the depth of jungles were felt in the costumes and headwear of Rama and Lakshmana. Ravana and Soorpanakha as caricatures were quite notable. The presence of the intended character typology was felt. In case of Urmila, trial may be done by avoiding the headwear extending to the chin or making it much lesser in breadth.  No over decoration was felt. The use of black and white, blue, red and yellow as basic conspicuous colours was right so that adding on was possible to  produce secondary ones whenever needed, by the throw of light. 

Dialogues & Monologues were apt to the time of the theme and characters. Except in very few cases, the use of regional slangs were heard. You may kindly consider if they need to be converted into a neutral language.
Kakshya: Adhering to the tenets, though in such themes are not very important mostly they were observed. It was pleasing, despite all norms.
Character interaction: Logical and apt. Lakshmana assuming the role of the deer and Urmila that of Seeta are justified.
Space utilization including dual planes: Appeared perfect. Personally I feel Soorpanakha and Ravana could have used the higher planes to mark their respective appearances and then move to the ground plane. This is only to mark that they brought in the contexts in a virtual sphere.
Bhoomika: chosen artists were apt to the roles they were assigned.
Angas and Sandhis: Perfectly dovetailed. I did not feel any moment of compression or stretching.
Rating: High and worth being experimented further.    

All the above discussions and evaluations are absolutely based on personal observation, quite within the ambit of my awareness. Any zone of the play could be fine tuned; as there are no limits to perfection.

After working for six years as a faculty member in Life Sciences in the Bombay University, Prof. CP Unnikrishnan returned to Kerala to learn Kathakali under the tutelage of Kalamandalam Gopinath. He became a dedicated performer of Kathakali and dance dramas and a resource person in different folk as well as classical art forms of Kerala. He has co-guided PhD degree students of the Madras, Mahatma Gandhi & Sree Sankara (Kaladi) Universities. Since 1979, he is the Head of the Department of Life Sciences at the Chinmaya Vidyalaya, Eranakulam & Vaduthala.