Public places in our lives tend to have a certain kind of crowd gravitating towards them. For example, while there is a fair amount of diversity in the people dining at an American fast food franchise, one can clearly distinguish the people one would find there from the crowd one expects to spot at an army recruitment drive. Likewise, there is a set kind of people that come to mind when one thinks of the drama-watching types. "Maya Bazaar" starts to establish its uniqueness right from this area. The crowds for the play remind one of guests at a large family event rather than average theatre-goers. For those of you unfamiliar with "Maya Bazaar", it is a legendary mythological Telugu movie released in 1950s. The plot is a small chapter from the Mahabharatha that deals with Abhimanyu’s wedding. The play is a direct adaptation of the movie and is also in Telugu.
Once you step into the auditorium, the ambience hits your senses hard. The upper half of the performing area is completely covered with a satin curtain. The lower half is covered with a huge banner with a sequined border. It features Alamelu and Venkateshwara and in the background, and, you hear music that by now convinces you of being in a South Indian wedding.
A small portion of the front row is occupied by the musical performers and the jutting part of the thrust stage actually has lighting equipment on tripods. Bonus marks question for regular theatre-goers: What is the need for this additional lighting equipment?
The act opens with a vivid projection of clouds on the background wall, and Narada descends from the skies. And when I says descends, I mean he is lowered onto the stage from tens of feet above the ground using nearly invisible cables! Narada commences reciting a tale in the form of a melody. It wouldn’t be apt to call the play a musical but those of familiar with ethnic Indian drama forms know how dialogues can sometimes be delivered with a bit of timbre and meter.
The next thing one notices is the usage of scenery curtains. From royal gardens to city streets, there is an abundance of locations that get depicted using these curtains. The costume design is extremely vivid and elaborate; just the kind you expect to see the characters of the Mahabharatha wearing. It includes everything from elaborate coronary accessories to reflective clothing material. The props used were all not symbolic. For example, when a fountain was needed, there was an actual full-fledged fountain on the stage. A fire-breathing dragon was a life-sized puppet of a dragon wagging its tail and breathing out a two feet flame. Combat scenes were ever more enchanting.
We have all seen a flying mace and arrow collide mid-air and annihilate each other in Ramanand Sagar’s TV serials from the ’80s. The same happens on stage: a life-size mace starts flying from one side and the arrow from the other. On contact, they burst into flames and decimate each other. When the hero is surrounded by flames, he shoots an arrow into the air and it starts raining and the water from the skies douses the flames. All of what I said happens exactly as described: nothing is done using symbolic props and left to the imagination of the viewer. This is a radical departure from modern theatre where the audience is expected to imagine a prop to be something else that what it actually is.
The cast has yet another distinguishing factor: a bit of cross-dressing. Krishna is played by a woman whereas Hidimbi is played by a man! Being a magical story, there is a liberal dose of transmogrification which again is carried out on stage with a quick dimming and restoration of lights. When Ghatotkach transmogrified into Sasirekha, the actress had to accidentally exhibit male demonic behaviour every now and then to remind the audience that she really was not who she appeared to be.
The audience as I said earlier is also pretty different from what one is normally used to. There was a liberal dose of whispering all over the auditorium to wailing babies. At one point, Hidimbi’s wig falls off and everybody was able to casually laugh it off rather than gasp in horror. It is what one would describe as a "homely" environment.
Overall, there is a stark difference from run of the mill plays and Maya Bazaar. As a stereotypical Western tourist would say, the experience is very Indian and is a sensory overload. Traditional plays are more about the plot, the characters and acting. This play places emphasis on grandeur and replacement of imaginary visuals with actual ones. I’d particularly recommend it to regular theatre goers to give them a very different perspective of what an Indian drama looks like.