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From Dusk Until Dawn: Naatak’s Latest Play

Naatak’s latest play is based on a story set ten centuries ago, written three decades ago, yet it’s still acutely relevant in our 21st century Bay Area society, writes Vinita Sud Belani.

(Above): Dancers emphasize the turbulence that King Okkaak (played by Rajiv Nema) suffers in his long vigil of the night in Naatak’s play “Surya Ki Antim Kiran Se Surya Ki Pehli Kiran Tak (From Dusk until Dawn).” [SWAGATO BASUMALLICK photo]

You see it once, it haunts you forever. Three bodies weave in and out of each other’s arms in one night of love, passion and agony. They create a rich pattern of metaphors based on Surya Ki Antim Kiran Se Surya Ki Pehli Kiran Tak (From Dusk until Dawn), a story set ten centuries ago, written by Surendra Verma three decades ago, yet it’s still acutely relevant in our 21st century, post feminist, metrosexual, Siliconeering Bay Area society.

Tenth century, Malla kingdom.

King Okkaak is just, beloved and all-powerful. He is also impotent and heirless. A self-righteous Senate, made nervous by the rumblings of a possible invasion, exhorts the king to uphold the practice of niyog, wherein Okkaak must send his beloved Sheelvati out into the masses to choose a surrogate husband for one night.

The last rays of the setting sun fade into a long, moonlit light.

When the first rays of the rising sun stretch tentatively above the horizon and Sheelvati makes her way back to the Royal bedchamber three lives have been irrevocably altered.

A simple, clean yet powerful plot.

I saw this play when I was sixteen. The French have a word…mijoter. You put a pot on a back burner and it simmers…oh so slowly, letting all the flavors of the pot evolve into this grand mélange of taste. So has this play been simmering in my subconscious, layers of meaning piling on as I progressed through love, marriage, the fulfillment that Sheelvati still seeks, the motherhood that is still denied her, and finally maturity.

Of course I am only one small unknown theatre artist following a long line of greats who have interpreted this play before me. Amol Palekar made a movie out of it with Deepti Naval and Sonali Bendre. Every major Indian metropolis sees a revival of this play every few years. Sheelvati has transformed herself in the hands of Neena Gupta, Ratna Pathak Shah and Dolly Thakore. National School of Drama, several Kala Niketans, touring drama troupes playing across Canada, U.S. and U.K. have all done it, loved it and left a gut-punched audience behind – shaken, somber and thoughtful. This is a humbling thought.

I have to ask myself what I bring to the play that hasn’t been done already.

(Right): A detail of the flower garlands made with hand-dyed linen for Naatak’s play “Surya Ki Antim Kiran Se Surya Ki Pehli Kiran Tak (From Dusk until Dawn).” [ABHISHEK KRISHNAMURTHY photo]

I find Naatak. Or maybe Naatak finds me. The perfect vehicle for this play. A premier Bay Area theatre group committed to bringing quality Indian or Indian themed film and theatre to the greater Bay Area audience. A committed and experienced group of theatre enthusiasts guide me through the process.

When I first approach Pradeep Gupta to produce this play with me he says – “Wow! you want to re-create the full pomp and splendor of a pre-Islamic Hindu court?”

I say, “No, I want you to design me a set that follows the essence of the plot…clean, simple lines, bold statements.” He smiles and says – “I’ll do it!”

One-hundred and eight cubic feet of raw wood and 69 yards of coarse white muslin later we have a set that stands strong in three dimensions, capitalizing on not just the breadth and width but also the height of the theatre, allowing the audience to peek into several rooms at once.

Three colors — green, red and blue, representing the three lovers, stand out in stark contrast. Another 17 yards of muslin, dyed by hand in the colors of that period, are used to create 31 yards of garlands, flowers and mandap decorations. Yet another 48 yards of lush white cotton go into creating the costumes of the day, embellished only by a hint of copper and antique gold.

This rich texturing is only the beginning. Into this tactile tapestry my assistant director Nitya Kansal and I weave two more shining strands — the pure tones of live Indian classical music and dance elements from kathak, bharatnatyam and kuchipudi. Together they complete and fully complement the sublime poetic lyricism that is the language of this tightly crafted script.

And for those of us who are unable to follow the pure, rich Hindi of playwright Surendra Verma, each dialogue has been lovingly translated into an English sub-text, projected live in Naatak’s only second real-time, fully subtitled production.

I smile at the thought that I could color code my three teams too! Sheelvati Red for the musicians and dancers’ lush femininity, Okkaak green for the actors going through all the agony of passion and pain and surrogate blue for the team doing the potent sets, revealed for the first time only when the curtains open.

It is hard to tell which of them is having more fun, though by the blogposts http://suryaki.blogspot.com/ it seems the set design team is making the loudest noise about it.

NAATAK Presents

“Surya Ki Antim Kiran Se Surya Ki Pehli Kiran Tak” (From Dusk until Dawn)

A play by Surendra Verma

June 20, 21: Front Row Theatre, San Ramon, Calif.

June 26, 27 and 28: Cubberley Auditorium, Palo Alto, Calif.

July 11, 12: NOHSpace Auditorium, San Francisco.

The actors are excited. They marvel at a play in which everyone and no one is a “bad guy.” They exclaim at the simple power of one of the playwright’s common ruses. He repeatedly puts the same words in the mouths of several actors, either layering or varying single emotions. And as in every play, they take home part of their character, SMS each other in SurendraVermaspeak.

As the story unfolds the hapless King Okkaak becomes the metaphor for all the moments of impotence sexual or otherwise, that man faces today. It becomes easy to identify with a man who struggles to control events that are fast careening out of any man’s control.

Beside him in his long, lonely vigil of the night stays Mahattarika, her perfect life providing the perfect foil to the turmoil of the three tortured lives, becoming the metaphor of the ideal that we all aspire to achieve.

Rajmahishi (Queen) Sheelavati is a slow revelation. Tempered in the twin fires of poverty and denial, the steel in her character is slowly unveiled, just like her physical self in the play, as society forces her to re-think its mores and weigh them in juxtaposition with her own needs. A metaphor so powerful it needs no explanation.

Behind all of this drama stands the Senate, quietly pulling the strings of other people’s destiny in a happy collusion between Mahatmatya (the prime minister), RajPurohit (the royal priest), and Mahabaladhikrit, (the army commander). Are they every man’s destiny and does no one have control over them?

Wafting through the space these characters occupy are the pure plaintive poignant notes of raga Bageshri, Malkauns and Purya Dhanashri among others….following dancers and actors alike.
A veritable visual, sensual and emotional feast awaits audiences. (See box for performance schedules)

Vinita Sud Belani was born in Kolkata. She is a writer, theatre artist, and a technology professional who presently lives in Los Altos Hills, Calif. She is the director of Naatak’s latest production “Surya Ki Antim Kiran Se Surya Ki Pehli Kiran Tak.”


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