Kannada literature has a great heritage of genius authors, who were not just fantastic writers, but amazing interpreters of mythology from multiple perspectives. We have Kuvempu interpreting characters from the Ramayana in his own unique perspective. SL Bhairappa retold Mahabharata in a completely non-mythological way, like a historical novel. There are many more examples, but those are for some other time.
Kailasam, has a penchant for interpreting great mythological characters in his own unique way; Karna in “The Brahmin’s Curse,” Ekalavya in “Fulfilment” and “The Purpose,” Bharata and Shatrughna in “The Burden”. Keechaka was an idea in Kailasam’s mind which he had narrated to a few of his friends, before his untimely death. G.P Rajaratnam wrote the play based on Kailasam’s concept. The play has been adapted for stage and directed by Ramanath of Rangayana, as part of the Sanchari Theatre’s 10th anniversary celebrations.
Taking the story of the ‘incognito episode’ from Mahabharata’s ‘viraaTa parva’, Kailasam’s Keechaka is a glorious man, instead of the lustful, cruel monster from the original. A hero in every sense of the word. He is the elder brother of Sudheshna, Queen of Matsya kingdom, wife of King Virata. He is an ace with the mace and a wrestler par excellence, a student of Balarama. He fancied his chances at the swayamvara of Draupadi and truly believes that Draupadi liked him too and IF the swayamvara had been conducted true to the word’s meaning, Draupadi would have garlanded him, instead of a winner of the archery contest. Broken hearted, he remains unmarried. In his bid to forget Draupadi, he goes on conquests of kingdoms and brings victory, glory and wealth to King Virata. He is a just man, not lustful and considers a man’s lustful gaze at a woman not his own, such a crime as to be worthy of punishment with death. The exchange between Keechaka and Sudeshna about how Draupadi lacked a choice or an opportunity to exercise her option to choose from the suitors establishes how Keechaka and his sister are feminists, wanting every woman to choose what is best for them. Sudeshna wants Keechaka to marry and settle down, tries to get him to fall in love with her new hand maiden, Sairandhri, who is actually Draupadi incognito, during the one year ‘agnaatavaasa.’ Keechaka resists, but cannot help feeling that he is familiar with that face. He sees ‘brihannaLa’ and says “If only brihannaLe had a bow, he could have been just like paartha. With the same feminine grace when walking, but invincible in archery”
He enjoys the food prepared by ‘valala’ and wants to compliment him. Once he sees Valala’s build and stance, he cannot help but think of his classmate ‘Bheema.’ He hears about granthika’s amazing equestrian skills and cannot help, but think of Nakula. Keechaka is perturbed because of these memories being evoked by common servants of the royal household. He holds no malice towards the Pandavas for taking away the one true love of his life. He wishes only the best for them, because, in their well being is the well being of his one true love, Draupadi.
He decides he has to take care of Sairandhri and tells her that he will find a suitable groom for her. Here is a character who could have married Sairandhri, as desired by his sister. But, instead, he turns protective of her and tells her not to be afraid of him or anything in his kingdom. Sairandhri tells him that she is already married to five Gods. After an argument about it, Keechaka persuades Sairandhri that the issue of her marriage, to a sixth earthly human for her protection, must be decided according to dharma by the courtier, Kanka (who is yudhisTira in disguise). Kanka rules that Keechaka’s thought has merit and it would be right for Sairandhri to marry a human for protection, as her divine husbands have not been able to stop such a terrible fate befall her.
That night, Keechaka espies Sairandhri in the royal garden, a place for lovers to meet clandestinely. For one moment, his resolve to find her a suitable groom is replaced with a desire to marry her himself. After all, who can be more suitable than him (Me thinks, unwittingly, his one moment of hubris and desire, at a woman who is not his own, seals his fate. In accordance with his own belief a man’s lustful gaze at a woman not his own, such a crime as to be worthy of punishment with death.) Then, he sees Valala with her and all his protective instincts are aroused. He questions them as to why they are meeting, when Sairandhri claims her husbands are Gods and Valala is only a mere mortal and a cook. Their answers, bound as they are by the oaths of secrecy to maintain their disguise, does not satisfy him. He accuses them of trying to make him break his word to Sairandhri of finding a suitable groom. A fight ensues and eventually as Valala binds him in a deathgrip, Keechaka realises who Valala and Sairandhri are. Unfortunately, it is too late. Keechaka bids farewell to his sister and king, binding them to secrecy till the end of the term of agnaatavaasa and the promise to help Pandavas in the war looming ahead. As Bheema recognises Keechaka’s greatness, and regrets, Keechaka is only too happy to die in the hands of Bheema, his equal in wrestling. Also, whose arms held his one true love Draupadi.
Sanchari Theatre’s production was rich, with well designed sets and costumes, apt for a stylised play. The lighting, by Vinay Chandra had its impact. Music compositions by Gajanana Nayak was suitable. Live singing was excellent and percussions by Karthik was good.
This play is about a glorious character. Everything else pales to insignificance, including, other great characters like Bheema, Draupadi and Sudeshna.
Nisha, as Sairandhri / Draupadi, Girish as Valala / Bheema and Mangala as Sudeshna were excellent. The acting honours definitely beloged to Ganapati Gowda as Keechaka.
Definitely a must watch play. To enjoy a gorgeous production, and perhaps, shed a tear for Keechaka’s love for a woman who could never have been his.