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Memories of Exile and Return – A Total Theatre of Mamallapuram

The Mamallapuram Project by film maker Sashikanth Ananthachari is a curatorial coming together of three creative works of art which draw us into the world of the South and North Arcot districts of Tamil Nadu where the Mahabharata is enacted for 10 to 40 days annually as a festival. The notion of exile and return is central to this festival and for 20 days of the year, the entire village chooses to be in ‘exile’ in their own villages to listen to other stories of exile and return. The epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata at its core are narratives of exile and return and as one village storyteller said that “To be a good King or even a good human being, one first has to go on exile; here one has to kill the demons both within and outside oneself; only then a return is possible.”

Sashikanth chooses to begin this epic journey in one of the most visited South Indian towns of Mamallapuram, which was bustling seaport in 1st  century BC. It is described by Thirumangai Alwar in his 8 th century text as a Sea Mountain ‘where the ships rode at anchor bent to the point of breaking, laden as they were with wealth, big trunked elephants and gems of nine varieties in heaps’.

Part of the appeal arises from how the three pieces fit together – his three films on the famous festival, his book – Mahabharata of the Mind – and the life size paintings which recreate the magnificent rock shrines, now identified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. At the exhibitions, the audience will be free to move from one performance space to the other and to the film screenings which will be happening simultaneously.

Ten years in the making, the placing of these three offerings side by side sets the context for understanding the Mahabharata in several layers and as a living tradition through the eyes of the villagers who enact the scenes in the Therukoothu tradition. The festival itself has a 1300 year old history originating between the 6th to 7th centuries during the Pallava period.

In the background, witness to these modern scenes of history are the magnificent stone sculptures of Mamallapuram. The work with frames and meta-narratives is unique to the sculpture of Mamallapuram. “Mamallapuram is the rare exception of Indian sculpture displacing the ‘centrality’ of framing its subjects. Here for the first time there is a tremendous play on notions of compositions; of notions of the centre and the periphery, the inside and the outside can be seen,” notes Sashikant.

Sashikanth’s skills in projecting these layered patterns come to the fore in all the three forms. The film Kelai Draupadi celebrates the performance of a doubled Mahabharata. It is a record of the epic, as well as of the wars the people of this region had to survive. Sashikanth demonstrates how the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana while being discourses on ethics in their own right also become the means where the collective memory of the people is documented. Draupadi is the Queen as well as a symbol of the people victimized by war. She is the protagonist as well as the primary audience as the performances begin with her idol being placed in the center. In the second film of the trilogy, ‘Ninaivin Nagaram, he speaks about elephant herds which are a confluence of multiple narratives starting from ‘Gajendra Moksham’ a recurring motif in both Mamallapuram and other Pallava temples.

In the book ‘Mahabharata of the Mind – memories of exile and return’, one can relive the 400 hours of recording of the festival. While being an overtly religious festival, Therukoothu also seems to be operating at multiple layers simultaneously – political, social and personal, almost a ‘Total theatre’. At the second level, these travelling troupes were also ‘keepers of memory’ of the audience to which they performed, with colour and layers added depending on the region where it was enacted. At a third level, these travelling troupes were also the ‘journalists’ carrying news from all the regions they had performed to other regions. “This ‘news’ would also be incorporated in their performances for instance, in a Koothu performance where the subject is of Dhrithirashtra’s ‘blind’ love for his son Duryodhana, the performer could easily digress to include all narratives of nepotism in Indian politics, and then again slip back, seamlessly, into the main narrative,” writes Sashikanth.

The third component will be the installation of life size paintings with renewed colour of the now washed out but still stunning rock shrines of Mamallapuram. One of the panels known as Arjuna’s Penance in Mamallapuram is a multi-layered image. It is a palimpsest image, a poly-
narrative where multiple notions of ‘Moksha’ as seen in different darshanas of Indian thought are placed in the same frame.

Why Mamallapuram? Sashikanth says he did not chose Mamallapuram, rather it chose him as it is the epicenter of the project. “As far as I see it, Mamallapuram is just the beginning from where we would move to all the great architectural sites in India. All these sites were once resplendent in colour, but the colours have faded down the ages and with the use of the technology now at our disposal, we would be able to display the splendor of how these monuments must have looked in their heydays, without actually painting the monuments themselves.” Mamallapuram is unique in terms of Indian architectural traditions for its engagement with the contemporary idioms of the literature of its times.

Given below is an interview with film maker Sashikanth Ananthachari, whose connection with Mamallapuram began 10 years ago when he was asked to do a documentary of the great Therukoothu actor Purisai Kannappa Thambiran. When he was not shooting he spent time watching the Mahabharata festival taking place in that village. As a modern artiste who considered a screening a success with an audience of 300 people, he was hooked by a theatre performance which had over 10,000 people in the audience.

Does ancient Indian art make a distinction between the aesthetic and the useful like modern art does? Most of our art seems to reflect the needs and aspirations of the community rather than the eccentricity or genius of the individual artist. We can see this in the Koothu tradition you have filmed.

Ananda Coomaraswamy answers this query beautifully and is one of the arguments of my project. He says “Art in India and ‘Art’ in the modern world mean two very different things”. He carries on clarifying by saying that Art in India is an expression of the cultural experience of the people “and serves the purposes of life, like daily bread”. He says “All Indian art has been produced by professional craftsmen following traditions handed down in pupillary succession.”

He stresses the centrality of the ‘artisan’ as opposed the ‘Artist’ in Indian aesthetics and says “That kind of idealism which would glorify the artist who pursues a personal ideal of beauty and strives to express himself, and suffers or perishes for lack of patronage, would appear to Indian thought far more ridiculous or pitiable than heroic.

The modern world, with its glorification of personality, produces works of genius and works of mediocrity following the peculiarities of individual artists: in India, the virtue or defect of any work is the virtue or defect of the race in that age. The names and peculiarities of individual artists, even if we could recover them, would not enlighten us: nothing depends upon genius or requires the knowledge of an individual psychology for its interpretation. To understand at all, we must understand experiences common to all men of the time and place in which a given work was produced.”

In Mamallapuram the artists seem to be working within a stylized framework and yet using their imagination. Could you illustrate this with examples?

There seems to have been a dialogue happening in Indian aesthetics with other schools of architecture and even literature. The sculptors were also littérateurs and Dandi, the court poet of the Pallavas records this in his Avantisundarikatha where he recounts a meeting between Lalithalaya, the Sthapathy of Mamallapuram and himself. He describes Lalithalaya as a polyglot, an inventor and a writer who had written the story of King Shudraka in Tamil. Bana Bhatta’s Kadambari seems to have inspired a lot of craftsman/artists of that period and for Lalithalaya according to Dandi dueto his reference to King Shudraka, Banabhatta’s Kadambari becomes a reference.

In oral traditions of Mamallapuram, Pundarika begins the narrative of the city and Pundarika as Vaishampayana, a parrot, is the narrator of King Shudraka’s story to himself in Kadambari. On listening to his own story, Shudraka ‘remembers’ and recovers himself and his forgotten other, Kadambari. By foregrounding this narrative In Mamallapuram, what is being foregrounded here is the reason why we tell and listen to the epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The act of ‘Listening’, in Indian traditions is simultaneously an act of remembering and recovering oneself.

The first thing which strikes me about the sculptures of Mamallapuram is that what I am seeing/ fascinated by is a palimpsest of images. Image/narratives are layered upon another, alongside another, and the pleasure of the viewing experience, is also a journey through the various layers that comprise the whole. Each composite image, consists of multiple narratives with each narrative ‘framing’ the others; to truly experience the whole image, the aesthete has to break down the entire image into its individual narratives, and reconfigure the whole afresh in their own minds.

When that reconfiguring happens in one’s mind, it is like an explosion, a revelatory moment for oneself.  Coming back to the images of Mamallapuram, at the time they were sculpted, Banabhatta’s Kadambari seemed to have caught the imagination of poetic fraternity of the sub-continent. Kalidasa was hailed as the exponent of the Alankara ‘Upamana’, தமிழ் ‘உவமை’, in poetry, which Banabhatta works with in his prose composition. The translation of this Alankara in English as ‘Simile’, does not do justice to either Kalidasa or Banabhatta’s practice. Banabhatta, works with a series of layered images describing the mental state of his characters leading to a climax, which is like an explosion. An example would be this passage translated by CVK-

A brief extract from the description of the reaction of Mahasveta on her first meeting with Pundarika: ‘Reaching home I entered the inner apartments of princesses; grieving at his loss I was never aware of anything: as to whether I had returned or was still there: whether I was alone or with my maids; whether I was silent or speaking; whether I was asleep or awake; whether I was crying or not crying; whether it was all misery or all happiness; whether this yearning was the yearning of love or a disease; whether it was a calamity or a happiness or a state of inertia; whether it was night or day; attractive or disgusting ; Being unfamiliar with the ways of love I had no words to articulate the whole gamut of my emotions”.

On later seeing the letter, Bana in the words of Mahasveta represents her state, “Seeing the letter, I felt a far greater increase of the terrible consequences of my love afflicted, ailing mind, as one who has lost his way by also losing all sense of directions; as a blind man on dark moonless night; as the act of a dumb man, cutting off his tongue; as an ignorant man bemused by a conjurer’s waving peacock fan; as one confusedly talking in the delirium of fever; as one poisoned by a deathly sleep; as a wicked man deluded by atheistic doctrines; as a mind clouded by an intoxicating drink; as one whose very being was taken over by a possessing demon; in the turmoil created in me I was tossed, willy nilly, like a river in spate”.

Mamallapuram represents a confluence and a reworking of ideas inspired by a multiplicity of sources. For example the panel known as Arjuna’s Penance has a tangible link to the Varaha image of the Udayagiri caves near Bhopal. Like the Varaha of Udayagiri, Arjuna’s Penance is also a ‘water installation’ in the sense that during the rainy season water channels had been made to divert the water to the Varaha cave giving the impression that the majestic Varaha was rising out of the water with Bhudevi. In Arjuna’s Penance, the cleft in the rock representing Ganga is also a water channel and during rainy seasons the artificial pond below would be
flooded with water giving the illusion that the entire panel was rising out of water.

Whereas in Udayagiri, Varaha is the larger than life representation of Samudragupta as the protector of the world, Arjuna’s Penance in Mamallapuram is a multi-layered image. It is a palimpsest image, a poly-narrative where multiple notions of ‘Moksha’ as seen in different darshanas of Indian thought are placed in the same frame.

The panel itself is a diptych with each half depicting Ida and Pingala Nadi of Yoga. The river itself becomes Sushumna Nadi with 3 serpents representing Brahma Granthi, Vishnu Granthi and Shiva Granthi rising from below. These represent the 3 blockages to be overcome on the path of Yoga.

Mamallapuram is like an endless maze, where any route you take seems to lead you back to the same place you started from. The panel, ‘The descent of the Ganges’, is in itself a microcosm of the place. Compositionally, it is a balanced, self-contained image; but the more you delve on it, it assumes a maze like quality; and all the routes in this maze lead back to the majestic elephants. The elephant frames all the other narratives in the panel; it is also Arjuna, Bhagiratha, Mahendravarman and also Narasimhavarman, without ceasing to be what it is in itself; a powerful image of an elephant. To call this a simile would be impoverishing the image, I would rather like to call this as an example of a poly-narrative.

Some temples like those of Aihole and Mamallapuram were designed as monuments of experimentation and achievement by certain guilds of sculptors and architects than as places of worship. How does your project reconstruct the spirit of the times in terms of sculpture and paintings?

There have been speculations about Mamallapuram that it was also a school for experimentation for architecture students. But there are too many strong narratives linking it as a commemoration of the Pallava victory over the Chalukyas under Narasimhavarman and the reclamation of Kanchipuram.

The panel called Arjuna’s Penance cannot be a prefiguration of a panel conceived to be installed in a temple. The only equivalents that I have at least seen in photographs are the narrative friezes depicting the Mahabharata and the Ramayana at Angkor Wat. The Mahabharata festival
and Mamallapuram have too many common narratives that I am exploring in my project.

How does your project help to understand and recreate a bygone era for our study and appreciation?

What my project intends to document is a living tradition. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata while being treatises on ethics and philosophy of a culture have also been the way collective  memory has been transmitted down the ages. When you listen to the epics, simultaneously you are also remembering the memory of your community of belonging.

With the performance of the Mahabharata in Tamil Nadu another memory is also being invoked. This memory recounts the wars the region was exposed to. The memory recounted is not the memory of a victim but a celebration of the indomitable resilience of the people and of their will to live through absolutely inhospitable times.

Draupadi of these festivals is doubled; she is both the Queen of the Pandavas, she is also a representative of all people unjustly affected by war. The festival and its narratives also opens up another idea about Indian culture, of the way ideas were exchanged between places separated far across in space. The exchange of ideas between Ujjain and Kanchipuram which this project explores is one of the key arguments of the project.

What are you attempting to do through this three-act project?

I have been working for over ten years on this project and what to me which is important is the experience of participating in such a festival and the narratives of Senji, Mamallapuram, Kanchipuram and hence Ujjain which are also an integral part of the experience. The Mahabharata is not performed in its entirety in this festival and the onus of recreating the
whole rests on each individual listener/viewer. Every year a different set of storytellers and theatre groups would perform bringing their own renditions of the epic. So the epic remains as A K Ramanujam says ‘ever fresh’. What a viewer/listener gets by repeated listening to the epic over
the years is a renewed engagement with both the epic and also curiously, themselves. This is the space of dhyana and introspection that this celebration provides.

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