In a kingdom that has been ravaged by drought for years, a fire sacrifice is being carried out at the palace. But Lord Indra, the custodian of rains, isn’t appeased. ‘Agni Varsha’, a tale from the epic Mahabharata, is based on the play ‘The fire and the rain’ by one of India’s foremost playwrights, Girish Karnad.

Love. Adultery. Betrayal. Death. Sacrifice. Can you stage a melodrama so fine that the heavens part at last and rain pours down? If we’re drawing metaphors, Ada Dramatics’ main production of the year ‘Agni Varsha’ was nothing of the sort. There was hardly a drizzle (and it’s Manipal).

As twilight fell all over Manipal that evening, a soft yellow light illuminates the TMA Pai Amphitheater. The characters are seated around a striking sacrificial fire, made of what looks like err..chart-paper. A rather ill-thought-out set is revealed to the audience.

The scene shifts. Two young lovers, Arvasu and Nittilai are having a jolly, flirtatious moment. Arvasu, a central character in the narrative, is a Brahmin in love with Nittilai, a tribal girl. Played by Shubham Kumar Sinha, the earnest performance was one of the only highlights of the entire play.

Meanwhile, Vishaka, the wife of Arvasu’s brother Paravasu, stumbles upon her old love interest Yavarki. The sexual tension is expressed elegantly by both the characters. The audience lets out a collective sigh as Vishaka gives in to Yavarki’s persuasion. He carries her in his arms and out into the shadows. The lights dim.

Enraged by her act of adultery, father-in-law Raibhyu, summons the Brahm Rakshas to kill Yavarki. The stage is bathed in blinding red as the demon makes a startling entry from within the audience. However, the kill was only lacklustre, and the crowd was left confused when the demon pierced his pitchfork into thin air, several obvious inches from Yavarki.

While Aravasu is busy cremating Yavarki, Nittilai, after vain attempts at refusal, is married off to someone in her tribe. Paravasu, who had been guarding the fire for years, returns home and an ashamed Vishaka begs for forgiveness. Paravasu kills his father for summoning the demon. Raibhyu’s death was depicted creatively, with Paravasu firing an arrow in the direction of a fit of coughs that belonged to the darkness alone. The coughing stopped abruptly (and I realised only then that it wasn’t a sick member of the audience after all!).

Arvasu is blamed by his brother for their father’s death. The severity of the betrayal was but lost in the fleeting manner in which the accusation was made. Nittilai finds a wounded Arvasu and takes care of him. The tribesmen who are on the hunt for Nittilai spot her with Arvasu. For a central character, Nittilai is killed almost dismissively.

As a heartbroken Arvasu holds his dead lover and wails, he hears a divine voice. Lord Indra who is finally pleased with the tragic turn of events, grants Arvasu one wish. Although all Arvasu wants is to bring Nittilai back to life, he asks Indra to set the demon’s soul free. The sacrifice brings salvation to the land. It rains.

It is often said that good theatre is not watched, but felt. The directors, Srijan Agarwal and Medha Katiyar failed in that sense, to portray ably what Girish Karnad’s masterpiece originally stood for: love and sacrifice. The audience wasn’t able to empathise with the characters’ pain and torment. The drought, the fire, and the rain were crucial to the ambience of the play, but were comfortably neglected.

On a positive note however, the lights and sounds were manipulated brilliantly. The actors’ genuine and sincere performances almost made up for all the oversights. Ada Dramatics, Manipal is looking forward to theatre that would make thunder roll and rain pour. It’s been a scorching dry summer, eh?

~ Written and reviewed by Rashmitha Muniandi for MTTN.

~ Photographs by Jyotinder Singh.

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