Epic tale of the ages in Avant Theatre’s double bill Bhishma and Sakuni

  • Arts
  • Tuesday, 15 Oct 2013

Complex characters: Balakumaran (centre) and Sashirekka (right) lead the cast in Sakuni.

Themes surrounding insecurities and good against evil take centrestage in Singapore’s Avant Theatre’s double bill, Bhishma and Sakuni.

SINGAPOREAN theatre company Avant Theatre & Language is making its debut production here, exploring two distinct characters – Bhishma and Sakuni of the Mahabharata epic – in its upcoming double bill of the same name at Kompleks Budaya Kuala Lumpur this weekend.

Instead of focusing on the dynastic struggle and civil wars between the Pandava and Kaurava communities as per the Mahabharata, director Selva Avant has gone beyond the periphery to focus on the internal turmoil of Bhishma and Sakuni, two prominent characters in the Mahabharata – the longest epic in world literature.

“Generally in popular culture, more focus is given to other characters from the Mahabharata including the valour of heroic Arjuna or generosity of great warrior Karna. But, Bhishma and Sakuni play an important role in the progression of the plot too,” said Selva, the founding member and artistic director of Avant Theatre & Language, in an email interview.

Puravalan plays the lead in Bhishma.

Bhishma is one of the most illustrious and noble characters, known for his knowledge in political science and as an unparalleled warrior. And as one who had vowed lifelong celibacy, Bhishma also saw a life full of loneliness, frustration and sadness. Sakuni is a prince and main villain in the epic. Though intelligent, he was devious and often credited as the warrior who had orchestrated the Mahabharata war.

Selva, 45, explained the double bill takes a peek into important events that caused insecurities and fears of the characters. In the retelling, Bhishma explores the mind of a worshipped soul while Sakuni delves deep into the conscience of a disturbed soul.

“The productions explore the unseen side of highly complex characters. Sakuni challenges the audience to rethink their opinions of a highly devious and cunning character. What are Sakuni’s defences and justifications? Will his guilt ever subside? And why does Bhishma ride on righteousness and self-sacrifices for the sake of others? Both plays will explore the vast yet similar types of people who make up society today,” explained the thespian, who has written, directed and acted in over 50 plays in English and Tamil, including overseas productions.

Adding more depth to the themes, Selva had to undergo an arduous task important events surrounding the characters. He also encountered challenges on how to introduce a unique representation of the Mahabharata to the audience.

“Almost everyone knows the story of Mahabharata. I had to think of ways to portray Bhishma and Sakuni differently from what audiences have seen in movies and other theatre productions depicting the Mahabharata. Furthermore, the script was written in chaste Tamil. A lot of emphasis had to be placed on actors mastering the language and pronunciation.”

Bhishma and Sakuni are presented as a duologue in English and Tamil. Renowned Singaporean stage and TV actor Puravalan plays Bhishma in both languages for about 45 minutes each.

“The English version caters to a multi-racial audience who can appreciate the universal appeal of an epic like Mahabharata. For those who can communicate in Tamil, they will be able to emotionally and linguistically connect with the Tamil version. I think hearing epics in chaste Tamil is always special and its lustre will never be lost.”

In terms of lead actor, Selva had settled with Puravalan who is renowned for his commanding stage presence and versatility.

“It is always a pleasure to work with Puravalan, who is an excellent actor and good friend. We have worked before in previous productions and he is one of the few actors who can take on different theatrical challenges. He is a highly passionate artiste who is a fast learner who adapts easily. Plus, we share brilliant chemistry,” said Selva, adding that Singaporean TV actors Balakumaran and Sashirekka lead the cast in Sakuni.

Besides its home country, the production was staged in India and Sri Lanka in 2011 and 2012 respectively. According to Selva, personalities like South Indian film director K. Balachander and actors Rajinikanth and Nasser praised the production for “keeping alive the culture of staging epics in chaste Tamil.”

“We hope this will be a novel experience for the Malaysian audience as there are many theatre lovers who appreciate Tamil language and art in its purest form,” said Selva, who plans to stage his next production Andham Aadhi in Singapore in December.

*Bhishma and Sakuni – presented by Avant Theatre And Language, in collaboration with Fenomena Seni Produksi – takes centrestage at Kompleks Budaya Kuala Lumpur, Jalan Tun H S Lee, Kuala Lumpur. Showtime is Oct 18-20 (8.30pm).

Entrance is by donation. For more details, call 019-6496 962 / 012-2681 322 or e-mail stbalafsp@gmail.com.

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