Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Mouna-k-Kuram: A treat for the senses


Cast: Akshaya S, Annie H Kuriakose, Annu Mary J, Devi A, Dharini B, Gouri Narayan, Indhubala K, Karen Savarirayan, Panchali S, Vidya V
Director: Mangai
Script: Professor S Ramanujam
Mounam is one of those Tamil words that can’t quite be translated into English. Literally, it means ‘Silence’. But when it’s used as an adjective, as in Mouna-k-kuram (translated as ‘Silenced Prophecies’), it has several connotations – it could be a silent prophecy, an unsaid prophecy, or an implied prophecy.
The story is beautiful. A couple from the hill tribes – who only address each other as “Singa” and “Singi” – have had a spat, and the woman goes off in a huff. As her lover searches for her, she makes do quite well by herself, earning her keep by “reading the future” of excited city- and village-dwellers. When they finally meet, he asks her about the anklets, necklace and chutti (or tikka, for Hindi speakers) that she’s wearing.

She tells him the story behind her acquisition of each ornament. They were all gifted to her by young women whose future she foretold. She tells three women, respectively, that they would live the lives of Chandramati (wife of Raja Harichandra), Draupadi (wife of the Pandavas), and Seetha (wife of Lord Rama). The women are thrilled at the prospect of a royal life, unaware of the implications of the comparisons.

This ironic play, which examines the liberty and respect tribal women enjoy, in comparison with their counterparts in “civilised society”, was last produced in 1994 through the efforts of Mouna-k-Kural (Kural means “voice”), a project of the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation. At the time, it was directed by its writer, Professor S Ramanujan.
Playwright, actor, director and professor Mangai resurrected the play this year, staging it at Stella Maris College, with a cast of students from the college. I was told this was the first time the college play has been in Tamil. I went in expecting a wonderful script, skilled direction and average performances. What I saw left me stunned and humbled.
I’ve seen plays directed by Mangai before, and her vision is supported by professional actors with proficiency in Tamil. Here, she had to try and bring her vision alive through a group of college girls, educated in the English medium.
For the most part, the acting was excellent. The focus was as much on expressions as on body language. As for the medium, the actors’ names made it evident that some of them were not Tamil speakers, but it’s testimony to the training they received that it was rarely apparent. A special mention should be made of Panchali, who plays something of a mediator between the audience and the play, for her absolute mastery of her persona. She was in character as the loudmouthed prankster, without a hint of self-consciousness in her body language. If it weren’t for her voice, I could easily have forgotten she was a woman.
Though the essence of the play is to do with gender roles and the status of women in various kinds of societies, the presentation was in the traditional Tamil folk style – with song and dance, wordplay, lively repartee, and a story within a story.

Mangai’s direction draws us into the mood of the play. It’s incredible how the girls brought a forest alive, with swaying limbs, hisses, and bird calls (aided by Srijith of Marapaachi theatre group). There was a lovely scene when an entire lovers’ fight, complete with attempts to mediate by, well, neutral parties, was brought out with various modulations of the long syllable “aa”. Props were used ingeniously. Nellai Manikandan’s expertise on percussion sustained the shifts in tones of interaction in the play.
As for the script itself, I find myself unable to express just how superlative it is. While a rudimentary understanding of Tamil or none at all may suffice to appreciate the crux of the play, so powerful are the similes and metaphors, and so evocative the prose that someone who is well-versed in the language is bound to find gooseflesh pulling at his or her follicles.

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