It seems Theatre Nisha read my review of their last staged play, Gallantly Fought the Queen, based on the life of Rani Lakshmibai. For they seem to have incorporated the suggestions I made there into one of their latest staged plays, Amrapali. Well, technically, Amrapali has been on for some time. But it was finally satisfying to watch a rather rich production (content-wise) from Theatre Nisha, after two somewhat let-down productions (Gallantly and, before that, Flowers).
Amrapali, also in contrast to the previous two plays I had watched, was staged free. (And no, that isn’t the reason I liked it. In fact, because it was good, I felt they should have charged a nominal fee out of respect for the effort put in.) Also, watching the third straight monologue play from Theatre Nisha, I was able to possibly get the group’s strategy. I think they come out with these monologues as experiments, and the ones that click (Flowers and this one seem to have done well so far), they keep adding to, embellishing and enriching. The first shows seem less slick (I think Gallantly was in the initial stages of, well, being staged, but Flowers and Amrapali have had good runs by the time I caught them), and therefore a bit disappointing, but if the group feels they’re onto something, they don’t let go and keep chipping away until they get at least half a gem.
Anyway, enough theorizing and back to Amrapali. So, Amrapali seems to have woven in the suggestion I made of the one actor playing all the different characters. Janani Narasimhan, who played the courtesan, did so, and with aplomb, modulating her voice very effectively and perceptibly for the multiple characters, right down to the body language. Janani also moved around the four-sided venue, calibrating her movements, so that no one part of the audience felt tuned out. (Though I did catch one guy on the opposite side nodding off for the first part of the play, but that could be because he was done with his weekend. The venue, Spaces, is right next to the immensely popular and populated Besant Nagar Beach, or more fondly, Bessie, which has tons of eateries, hang-outs, activities, or in short, distractions.)
Janani was also a very stoic performer, acting her solo part through the heat and sweat. I saw first sweat-beads form and then turn into rivulets and stream down her face, but she battled through them. (I’m guessing also the make-up was smudge-proof.) Compare this with most folk in the audience making fans out of anything they could get their hands on: the play flyer, newspapers, face towels, their hands; plus, the prescient had got actual hand-fans.
On the flip side, Janani did get some of her pronunciations wrong, and I also thought she was a bit of a miscast, as Amrapali – according to the writer of the play itself, V Balakrishnan, the director and force behind Nisha – was supposed to be a woman of extraordinary beauty. Which is why she was designated the courtesan in the republic of Vaishali. Nevertheless, matching the looks to the role is more of a movie necessity; in theatre, talent reigns supreme. So, nothing really to take away from Janani.
But even better than Janani’s performance, and which is why I loved the play so much, was the writing. Bala has invested a lot into the script; it’s easy to see that he wrote it with love and care and kept perfecting with each staging. I especially loved the piece on how an apsara’s breasts are useless, “mere ornaments, for decoration”, as they are not able to produce milk, and therefore any kid they beget, they can’t nurture. Amrapali, in fact, is one such child.
The skillful writing also shows in the symmetry of the play, though this could very well be the same in most accounts of the courtesan’s life: Amrapali, toward the end of her life, on relinquishing her erstwhile duties and taking to the teaching and principles of the Buddha, takes up habitat just where her earthly father had found her – under the mango tree. (That’s why she’s given her name, the sprouts of a mango tree.) The symmetry is sealed with Janani / Amrapali reciting the same Sanskrit lines at the end of the play as at the beginning; only, at the end, it’s with their meaning.
Kudos to Janani, Bala and everyone at Theatre Nisha for this fine endeavour. Would have loved it even more if the heat wasn’t such a sapper and as someone for the previous play had suggested, “there had been an AC at the (open) venue”. But then, as a member of Nisha had responded, “Spaces wouldn’t be the same that way”.
You can find out more about Theatre Nisha on their website: Theatre Nisha