Srinivas Denchanala has been a provocative presence in the staid world of contemporary Telugu theatre for at least two decades now, with his bold themes, ingenuous and novel theatrical approaches and more than anything, sheer stamina and staying power against great odds. Every couple of years Janapadam, his repertory company (the only modern repertory company in Andhra Pradesh) comes up with a production which provides enough fodder for hot discussion. Moogavaani Pillanagrovi, Donga Sataiah, Aadi Shakthi, Jaamba Puraanam, Vooregimpu and Nijam: His productions have been an eclectic combination of translations of contemporary classics (Habib Tanvir, Girish Karnad, Badal Sircar), adaptations of acclaimed works of fiction in Telugu (Raachakonda Viswanadha Sastry, Dr. Kesava Reddy) and improvisations or original treatments of centuries old subaltern mythologies.
With Balipeetham, a Telugu production of Girish Karnad's BALI (2002), Denchanala has achieved a newer benchmark for himself in stagecraft as well as powerfully managing a complex theme.
Balipeetham is an unnervingly elusive play even by Karnad's standards. It plunges head on into the centuries old tussle about violence — “the central topic of debate in the history of Indian civilization” as Karnad puts it — as it manifests in the religious practice of appeasing the godhead with sacrificial offerings and those traditions and religions which vehemently condemn it on ethical and moral grounds. He weaves and unravels his plot in a pseudo-historical setting and hot concoction of royal power, social approval, sexual impotence and irrepressible physical cravings, class and cast discriminations, and on the top of it the triangular defining prototype of Indian familial psyche : mother, son and daughter-in-law.
For the basic plot, Karnad drew upon medieval Sanskrit and Kannada Jain epics. The Mother is a strong, insinuating priestess figure who believes in settling all issues of misfortune through animal sacrifices to her beloved Goddess. Her son the King is however married to a Queen, who is a Jain, and would not have — for all righteous reasons — anything to do with the violent religion and practices of her mother-in-law. The Mother has a set of grouses: her son has converted to Jainism giving up the age old family tradition (and for the sake of his happiness, she had relented and moved out of the palace), and the Queen has — after perhaps a faked pregnancy and miscarriage — failed to delivere a male child for the kingdom and its populace.
The king is torn between the two women, and them and his kingly burdens. Despite his affectionate nature, the Queen doesn't feel fulfilled by him. She is mysteriously drawn into a physical relationship with a lowly Mahout (elephant keeper) charmed by his song.
A fierce moral tussle enters into this much-muddled scenario, when the Mother proposes the son should at least offer a sacrifice a cock made of dough. For the Queen this substitute for actual creature sacrifice is still a perpetuation of violent intent and in no way excusable. This sets off a chain of tiny turns of plot, turbulent and loaded with ambivalences. Karnad offers two equally violent endings for the play, leaving it to theatre directors to choose what they like. In one, unable to stand what she perceives as vicious hypocrisy and lack of nerve on the part of the King, the Queen lunges to stab him but stops. In another, she stabs the king, or ‘alternatively', as Karnad puts it, and “repelled by her own violence”, runs herself onto the sword. Denchanala follows the second more gory option.
It's puzzling, this terrifying drama of internal and external violence, with no clear resolutions. Denchanala's interpretation fully thrives on these irresolvables and the host of contradictory forces and standpoints which idealistic ethical ideologies have to contend with, often sullying themselves. Or not? To his credit, he succeeds in holding the audience spellbound till the end. There is now something of an all round sensual fullness to his theatre.
Among the four leading actors, Ramesh Balijepalli in the female role of the Queen mother fits the bill like a tee. The other actors and the chorus too fare quite well. The translation of the text is outstanding. Sets and lighting by Satyabarata Routh, choreography by Gunakar Goswamy, live music on Hawaiian guitar by Jaywant Naidu, and costumes by Kavita Reddy have lent a pleasant and authentic feel to the play.