Tales Of Tenali Rama opens with an address to the little girls and boys in the auditorium, asking them to mind the adults accompanying them – thus striking up with their target audience a bond that sustains throughout the show. A trio of narrators – “Guruji” and his two sparring students – steer us through the escapades of Tenali Rama, the court-poet of 16th century Vijayanagara. They add into the mix their own brand of commentary which includes, among other things, breaking into Carnatic-style renditions of nursery rhymes when the mood takes them.
Anecdotes of Tenali Rama’s wit and wisdom are familiar territory. What makes this retelling special is the cheeky spin given to them. So, when Tenali Rama has recited the multiplication tables (yes, no mantras) some zillions of times at the Kali Temple, he is surprised to find Kali Mata show up as a pretty girl rather than a tongue-lolling demonic being. He quizzes her about it, and the Goddess rattles off the dangers of stereotyping. A joke is thrown in for good measure about portion sizes in the times of inflation.
Talking of stereotypes, it is only befitting that Tales Of Tenali Rama plays a masterstroke of breaking them. Unlike what you would expect, the character of Tenali Rama does not have the pivotal role in this play – that charge belongs to Guruji. The wit and the laughs too comes not from the jester but from the other characters surrounding him. Take the episode of Tenali Rama’s lesson to thieves. When the miscreants announce their names, do a jig and make a hissing “mother promise”, the hall bellows with laughter. Tenali Rama’s quip about getting the plants watered – supposed to be the punchline in the traditional narration – is but incidental in Bangalore Little Theatre’s.
One of the best touches in this show is in inviting children from the audience to the stage. The sequence is blended well into the proceedings within the play, and takes us by surprise especially in the way of bidding the kids back to their places.
Though aimed at children, the play does not alienate the rest of the audience. Some laughs are tailor-made for parents hassled by school admissions and severance pays.
I only wished that the actors’ voices were consistently audible. Sometimes the lines were spoken too fast, or too softly. The cast of this play seemed new to the stage – the acting was a little shaky but they were all clearly enjoying themselves which sort of made up for it. A couple of actors who stood out were Guruji and his little aide, Tenali Rama’s wife and Rajguru whose skills at eye-rolling are outmatched only by Manorama.
Something else that bothered me: the frequent lapses of grammar in the dialogues – "more scarier", "called as", for example. This may have been intentional to make the dialogues appear colloquial but even if so, I’m not sure if flawed language is wise in a play which also aims to educate its young audience. If the lessons in Math have been kept accurate, why not the same treatment for English?