In the year 2019, playwright and director Lakshmana KP found himself in Tumkur, a city located around 70 kilometres from Bengaluru. Around the same time, the funeral of prominent Kannada writer, and founder of the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti, KB Siddaiah was being held in the city. At the final rites, Lakshmana found hundreds of people singing the late poet and writer’s songs. “Until then, I had not read his work but I realised it was time I did that,” he says.
The playwright, who himself belongs to the scheduled caste of Madiga, came across a collection of Siddaiah’s prose titled Kattalodane Maatukate (A Conversation with Darkness) and found himself pulled in by the words. “At the time, I had many questions in my head as an artist and I could resonate with his writing. Siddhaiah wrote a lot about first generation Dalit artists-poets who had become educated,” explains Lakshmana. Until then, he had been fascinated by European absurdist theatre. In Siddaiah’s writings, Lakshmana found the same ideas of absurdity and meaninglessness but from a Dalit context.
Recently, Lakshmana’s play DaklaKatha DeviKavya, adapted from the epic poem of the same name by Siddaiah, has been nominated at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards 2023, which are taking place in Delhi till 29 March. The Kannada play has been nominated in nine categories including ‘Best Production’, ‘Best Original Script’ and ‘Best Director’ for Lakshmana, among other honours.
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In DaklaKatha DeviKavya, a Goddess appears before a man from the marginalised Dakkaliga community and asks him for a wish in exchange for his life. He wishes for alcohol and food, and after feeding himself and his children asks the Goddess to go away. After all, aren’t food and water basic fundamental rights of every human being—why does it need to be a boon?
A note from the director about the play states that the experimental piece “begins with a re-reading of a cosmogonic myth and evolves through weaving untouchable ritual, belief, hunger and desire through song and storytelling. The play provokes how the received insights through the experience of untouchability force us to confront what it means to be human in the depths of our being.”
The epic poem might be seen from the eyes of a Dakkaliga man but Lakshmana believes that the play is not just about them. “Anybody who belongs to a marginalised community will relate to it,” he says, adding that for him, the themes that stand out are femininity, hunger and dignity. “I am familiar with a lot of Dalit literature and sometimes it leans towards victimhood, which is their expression and should be respected. Here, what the play is conveying is that there is nothing to feel victimised about and your culture is so rich and has so much to offer. I really think this story can offer many things to the world of theatre, literature and art,” adds Lakshmana.
To reach a point where he could devise the play, Lakshmana had to understand the oral narratives, the stories, the songs and the instruments played by the marginalised communities. “The play has the ecology of Dalit songs, storytelling, colours, rituals—that is what we are trying to understand and experiment with,” he says. In his note, he mentions, “In the process of sculpting this poetry for stage, it was a wonder to witness how the use of the instruments, areye and tamte—as ancient as the oldest inhabitants of the land—lent a primordial resonance to the stage and embraced the actor’s bodies that played along to its beats.”
The director admits his struggle in finding the theatrical language that could express the ideas conveyed in the play and credits his actors—who he calls co-creators—in helping him reach there. Lakshmana now cannot imagine staging the play with any other actor. Most of the actors in the play also belong to marginalised communities, something that the makers consciously opted for, “We didn’t want to appropriate anybody’s narrative,” Lakshmana says, adding that along with other performances, they have also staged the play in front of the Dakkaliga community, who were quite happy with the production.
DaklaKatha DeviKavya will be staged on 27 March at Kamani Auditorium, Delhi at 8 pm