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Madras Players’ Kamalakshi weaves together music, dance and theatre to narrate the travails of a devadasi

‘Kamalakshi’, the play that captures the life of a devadasi, was staged at Narada Gana Sabha. in Chennai.
| Photo Credit: Ravindran_R

The auditorium reverberated with the sound of audience applause as the curtains rose to reveal an artistically-crafted temple on stage for the play Kamalakshi. Lighting designs were by Victor Paulraj and stage decor and props, Shanmugham. Written by Sujatha Vijayaraghavan and directed by P.C. Ramakrishna, the play set in the  late 19th Century, dealt with the story of Kamalakshi (Sumitra Nitin), a devadasi dancer, and Sivaguru, a  singer at the famous temple of Tiruvarur.

The play opened with the festivities in a temple. The men and women of the village await the arrival of dancer Kamalakshi, who is to be inducted for her ‘Potukattu’  ceremony, which would dedicate her to the temple for a year of service or seva. She is decked up in finery and arrives dancing in front of a palanquin carrying the idol of lord Thyagesa of Tiruvarur. Her beauty and dance attract the people assembled there, and especially charm two men — singer Sivaguru (Sikkil Gurucharan), and Sugavanam, the local mirasdar.

Soon, Arvathamma, the dancer’s mother, and Neela, Kamalakshi’s friend, are introduced, and two full-length songs — ‘Tyagaraja yoga vaibhavam’ and ‘Theruvil varano’ — performed.

The bond that develops between Kamalakshi and Sivaguru;  an infatuated Sugavanam aspiring to be the dancer’s patron; the dancer resisting the pressure from her mother to yield; and her total surrender and devotion to lord Thyagesa, leading to her shedding her mortal remains, form the broad storyline.

Sumitra Nitin, who portrays dancer Kamalakshi.

Sumitra Nitin, who portrays dancer Kamalakshi.
| Photo Credit:

Kamalakshi brings together  live music, dance and drama — a ‘first’ in English theatre, according to the brochure. 

Sikkil Gurucharan was at ease while singing, but looked out of his comfort zone while delivering dialogues. Sumitra Nitin, a Bharatanatyam dancer, slipped into her role of Kamalakshi, dancing and emoting with the necessary  conviction. But, one felt the characterisation of the leads could have gone beyond.

Anuradha Ramesh as the mother,  Parur Ananthashree as the friend, Hyma Ramakrishna as the rich woman, S. Ram as the Mirasdar, and Krithivasan as Sivaguru’s friend impressed with their portrayals. 

A scene from Madras Players’ English play Kamalakshi that features Sikkil Gurucharan and Sumitra Nitin.

A scene from Madras Players’ English play Kamalakshi that features Sikkil Gurucharan and Sumitra Nitin.
| Photo Credit:

While recreating a specific historical time frame, visual detailing in terms of costume, jewellery and sets needs to be looked at in greater depth. The interiors of Kamalakshi’s home, with a white couch and flower pot, clashed with the aesthetic setting of the temple.

Given that temple festivities would normally include people from varied strata of society, seeing all the male characters uniformly attired in a dhoti kurta rankled. A coloured stole on musicians’ shoulders instead of an angavastram? And a Tiruvarur temple priest wearing a kurta?  

Despite the obvious effort, the play did not land well because of a few reasons. The very premise — narrating the story of a devadasi — has already been done successfully decades ago in Thillana Mohanambal, and so this also seemed outdated.

The depiction of the devadasi here was from the perception of an outsider. Though Kamalakshi’s character was written with empathy, the play would have, perhaps, made a deeper impact had the script offered a deeper insight into the persona of a dasi, and the travails and anguish she experiences in comparison to other women from varied backgrounds. 

Some scenes stood out, especially the one where the rich woman sought an extension of the dancer’s tenure to safeguard her from the Mirasdar. Also, Kamalakshi’s outburst, raising questions about the status of those like her, also touched upon the core issues relating to the life of devadasis.

Towards the conclusion, when Kamalakshi merged with the Lord, and the writing spoke of the spirituality behind it, the representation fell behind in conveying that depth.

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