Trinity by Madras Players

Trinity by Madras Players

Remember Aamir Khan's film 'Lagaan' which was a big hit ? While we can attribute it to good film making, one of the reasons was that it had all the right ingredients like 'Cricket' and the 'Freedom Movement' !

Now these two as a combo with the right treatment is bound to be appealing. Likewise, the English play 'Trinity' by Madras Players had the right mixture in right proportion of Carnatic music & good storytelling. I had first seen it in 2018 at Museum Theatre and recently I saw their ‘extended’ version of the play, during the rehearsals before their US tour. I was particularly curious about the fact that the original 90 minute play had been extended by another 30 minutes at the behest of the US organisers.

In an era where everything is becoming smaller and having a shorter life span, this is surprising. Like 5 day Test Cricket became ODI and then came T20 and there is some talk about 100 ball cricket, or how Idlis became mini idlis, samosas became mini samosas and the worst being the mandatory filter coffee becoming mini coffee !

Nobody has patience for anything lengthy. And here was a play which instead of getting edited was getting elongated !! Apparently, it seems that the hosts in Canada and the US felt that audience there are used to 2 hours plus of any entertainment and also they need to travel long to reach wherever it is, so they must to receive more. Yeh Dil Maange MORE !!

And why not, after all it would be a smart idea to maximise wonderful singers such as Vijay Siva and Gayatri Venkataraghavan. Pay for a play and get a concert also.... ‘Buy one get one free’ offer !
While on the subject, I am quite sure many people find my posts too long and give it a miss ! And imagine if I further elongate them ...

This play is a sure winner... after all it's all stories related to the three stalwarts of Carnatic music, presented not in their native tongue but in English which makes it relatable to all. And the icing on the cake is that we have real Carnatic exponents playing the parts of Sri Thygaraja Swamy, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Sastry’s wife Lalita .. an absolute treat for both the music and the theatre lover.

Mr P.C. Ramakrishna a well known name in Chennai theatre circles both as an actor & director, has brought the best of all elements that is needed to make a powerful production. It is the famous Kalki Krishnamurthy’s granddaughter Seeta Ravi, who has done a wonderful job with the script. It’s not an easy task to bring three individual stories together without letting them overshadow each other, also not letting it sag at any point.

At the outset, it was not three biopics (for that would have been too long) but an inspiration from all three lives and the gems that were brought forth by this inspiration. It was the first time I was seeing a blend of so many factors. Be it the setting or the costumes, they were so authentic and relevant to the period.

It opens with S.Ram entering as a Sutradhar which I feel was a very important role since it proved to be a link between the three stories. He starts with an interesting explanation of the power of the magic number 3 in other words why ‘TRINITY.’ He puts it across in a very simple way.. how everything that is meaningful comes in threesome. For example it is birth, life and death, the beginning, middle and the end, and Brahma, Vishnu & Maheshwara.

My own observations are that surely there must be a reason that, we have been advised to do 3 Pradakshinas (Parikrama) and both the Shaivism and Vaishnavism symbols on the forehead are three lines. The number 3 is supposed to create a balance & harmony... Just like how a tripod gives stability during photography. I have a question ...Why else would a bar stool be on three legs, used by people who are possibly unsteady & often lack balance? These stools don’t have arms or a backrest and people are perched on them while having a drink(s). It’s pure geometry that these stools are designed on 3 legs, the reason being 3 points form a plane, these will not wobble even if it’s placed on an uneven surface. So, that’s my Magic 3 for you ! Actually, this very thought is echoed in the best selling book ‘Eat, Pray & Love’ by Elizabeth Gilbert which was later made into a successful film starring Julia Roberts.

Vijay Siva as Dikshitar was totally in his character and sang wonderful compositions like 'Mayuranathan' in Dhanyasi and ‘Parimala Ranganathan' in Amir Kalyani. The music was soulful with only a tampura as an instrument. What has been included was a ‘Nottuswaram’ which was a sample of Dikshitar’s brilliance. Nottuswaras are a set of 39 compositions, which gave simple Scottish & Irish tunes. They are all composed in Sanskrit lyrics in Western C Major scale. We have a scene in the old film ‘Thillana Mohanambal’, where Sivaji Ganesan is a famed Nadaswaram player Shanmuga Sundaram, who demonstrates the same on his instrument thereby retrieving the defecting crowds. It’s indeed a fine example of the versatility of Carnatic Music.

Also, Dikshitar's students who sing snippets from his compositions in a wide range of Ragams such as Amrithvarshini, Brindavana Saranga, Attana, Kedaram, Shanmugapriya, Kalyani, Mohanam, Yaman Kalyan & Kamalamanohari. All this only makes this play a ‘must watch'.

There is no debate about Vijay Siva’s musical strength and he was ideal for the part, which is evident in his depiction of the character. He shows us his brilliance in a scene while singing in the Hindustani style. It has to be mentioned that it wasn't just Vijay Siva as Dikshitar but all those who acted as his disciples, sang so very well. It was clear that they had formal training in Carnatic music. Victor Paulraj creates magic on the stage, and in 2018, it was a full fledged Sleeping Ranganathar in a temple setting. In such a short time it is impossible to enact three life stories. In Muthuswamy Dikshitar's portion, it focussed on how he got inspired to write so many songs and how he became an inspiration to others. It explains how he travels to different temples & places and his style was patented by mentioning both the Ragam in the lyrics of the song and also mentioning the deity of the particular temple during his travel or should we say it was a pilgrimage or maybe his personal spiritual journey ! After all, nothing but devotion could have brought about such rich music.

Next was Shyama Sastry’s life, where the Director P C Ramakrishna had beautifully devised it, so that the narrative was from the perspective of Shyama Sastry's wife Lalita enacted by another wonderful singer Gayatri Venkataraghavan. To have an artiste of Gayathri's calibre and not use her singing talent is stupidity, considering her name is quite a draw. To confess, I also was drawn to watch the play, (as if I need any strong reasons) partly because I was curious to see what Gayatri could do, since the TRINITY is an ALL MEN group. Hope Trupti Desai and other so called feminists and activists don't take this as a gender bias and rush to the Supreme Court seeking justice !!

Anyway, it was such a joy to hear Gayatri sing a Swarajathi in Yadhukula Khamboji composed by Shyama Sastry and ‘Himachala Thanye’ in Ananda Bhairavi. Her portrayal of Lalita was so sincere that she merges with the tampura as she explains her multidimensional role in Shyama Sastry’s life.

There is an interesting scene where it is elicited why & how Shyama Sastry used the term ‘Shyama Krishna Sodari’ when referring to Goddess Kamakshi. To go into the details will be playing spoil sport and giving away all of it. It has to be seen on the stage with all the attention it deserves.

The entire narrative about Shyama Sastry was shown through his wife Lalita’s eyes. This was interesting because first we have Dikshitar’s characterisation seen through the eyes of his students, where it was the Guru - Sishya relationship that was highlighted and it’s justified because his students Ponnaiah, Vadivelu, Chinnaiah and Ananda accompanied him all through, enduring the life he had chosen for himself. To gain the admiration & devotion of one’s students and also be their inspiration is the life of a great teacher. And such teachers leave behind a part of themselves in their students !
Here we have Shyama Sastry’s character brought to life as seen through the eyes of his spouse Lalita. In this era, where we are constantly fighting for gender equality and women vocally demand recognition & attention... this story line is going to make Shyama Sastry’s wife Lalita appear as if she was a doormat and an ignored wife who is relegated to live behind the curtains and only noticed by her husband when convenient. But on the other hand, you find Gayatri Venkataraghavan's portrayal showing Lalita as a cheerful and energetic lady with a mind of her own (as she doesn’t get influenced by a well meaning Dharma Akka, who tries her best to get Lalita to complain about her husband) and not wallowing in self pity. It’s so natural to see the equation between Lalita & the friendly yet inquisitive Dharma Akka trying hard to drive Lalita to tears (reminding me of Oprah Winfrey Show or our Indian alternative Rendezvous with Simi Garewal who wants everyone to bear their private secrets, fears and life in public). Shyama Sastry’s wife is shown as an involved and understanding wife who appreciates his creativity & respects his obsession for Goddess Bangaru Kamakshi. She revels and prides herself to be known as his wife while understanding that his creativity comes with certain eccentricities.

There is a scene where she shares the achievements of her husband and him winning over other musicians in the king’s court with great pride. The script is justified to have given the character Lalita the main role, for if she had been a nagging and demanding wife, who needed him 24*7, probably we would not be enjoying the great compositions of Shyama Sastry. This part of the play brings to us the relationship between a loving couple and how Lalita complements Shyama Sastry & respects his work.

The last was excerpts from Sri Thyagaraja Swamy’s life and his relationship with Lord Rama and also with his own daughter Seethamma ! Sri Thyagaraja Swamy is shown as an affectionate father and all this is from Seethamma's perspective.

So refreshing to see young girls in Pavadai Dhavani or half saree as it's called and with long plaits with kunjalam. The whole play was so colourful and visually pleasing, taking us back in time without losing the interest of today’s audience. The whole team needs to be appreciated.

I became nostalgic when Seethamma and her friend sang 'Ramininchuvaaravura Raghuthama Ninuvina,’ remembering my sons singing this when they were really tiny and for me this song nobody can sing better than them. I share this anecdote in order to elicit, that just as I found my children adorable, Thyagaraja Swamy finds his daughter very lovable and is concerned about her future. The world knows him as Lord Rama's devotee yet as a parent he is no different from me ! Seethamma is in awe of her father and shares his devotion towards Sri Rama. This part of the play shows the relationship between a father & his daughter. Thyagaraja explains with great humility, the reason behind him putting his signature in every one of his composition. You must watch the play to understand the significance.

Dr. Sunder acted as Sri Thyagaraja in a heartfelt manner and in any case Thyagaraja Swamy was famous for his devotion and lyrics, not for his voice or his singing !

During the first show in 2018 there was a personal moment for me, and that was to hear my mother sing along with Saint Thyagaraja’s 'Balakanaka Maya' set in Ragam Attana and I instantly knew without her telling that it was my father who came to both our minds, Attana being his favourite Ragam.

The whole 120 minutes journey of these great lives culminating in a grand finale, where the entire cast came: the flow was as if Dikshitar and Lalita were joining the singing with Thyagaraja. This was very deftly handled and how it was brought to life on the stage is for you to see. It was an interesting touch of the director to blend all three lives...... a scene worth waiting for towards the end of a delightful play!

About the Author:

Sandhya Shankar belongs to a well respected business family in Chennai. She is a Life Skills & Corporate Trainer by profession. She is an avid reader and a natural writer, who has written several poems and articles. She even presented her poems as a reading at the British council. She has keen interest in all art forms  and has explored many different forms of painting like stained glass and Tanjore being among them. 

Music being her first passion, she had her formal training under Terakotti Chandrasekharaiah at Bangalore and later briefly under Mrs. Champa Kumar. She is a regular visitor of concerts, theatre and other live performances. Her witty reviews have gained a loyal and interactive readership for their sound technical commentary and relevance for every kind of melophile, from the casual-goer to the ragam expert, frequenting Chennai’s rich music scene.

(*The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of Music of Madras.) 

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