Three Sat Under the Banyan Tree

Shamser Sinha
Polka Theatre and Tara Arts
Polka Theatre

Rose-Marie Christian, Raj Swamy and Mehavi Patel Credit: Craig Fuller
Rose-Marie Christian Credit: Craig Fuller
Raj Swamy Credit: Craig Fuller
Mehavi Patel Credit: Craig Fuller

This co-production between Tara Arts and the Polka Theatre is the first time that ancient stories from The Panchatranta have been adapted for the stage.

The Sanskrit Panchranata means Five Lessons and it is a collection of tales collected some 2,000 years ago, a sort of Indian Aesop’s Fables, from which three are here brought to life in a simple and direct way.

Originally presented as stories for the education of three princes in how to live and rule wisely, this staging uses the framing of three young orphans whose adoptive father has been taken away by soldiers but left this book with them, telling them to read it beneath the banyan tree. There they are, the tree a banner of stylized leaves, the forest floor a cut-out of grasses, two girls and a boy in colourful costume who then act out the stories.

First is the tale of Tarabai the crow, told by Jayaben (Rose-Marie Christian), set among birds and about crows who are frightened of owls, night creatures who are stronger, more numerous and hunt them. The Owl King sends a spy among the crows who had been hoping the bats would be on their side. The bats don’t arrive but the crows listen to advice that ensures their survival.

Next comes the tale of the Mongoose, told by Mahendra (Raj Swamy). He’s alone, looking for a home and a family, but when he finds one and is left in charge of their baby a big snake appears. The brave mongoose kills it but its mother see the mongoose with blood on its mouth and gets things wrong.

The third story is that of the Tiger, told by Jasmin (Medhavi Patel). It involves a king who is a lion, now too lazy to hunt, a jackal and a strange creature who is offering tea from a tiny pink pot.

The actors use headdresses and masks to become their animal characters. The crows have huge beaks, the owls’ huge eyes are like enormous spectacles. Mongoose, tiger and jackal are boldly identified with big-eared head-coverings and King Lion has a mane-ringed mask to frame his face. It’s a stylization that is carried right through Claudia Mayer’s design and Jatinder Verma’s production which is also enlivened by some snatches of Indian dance some rhythmic stomping and James Hesford’s music.

Indian accents and high-pitched voices give verisimilitude to the three children, but in the back row the rapid dialogue was not always intelligible (especially in telling the first bird story). The youngsters of 7+ at whom the production is aimed have ears better attuned to high register, but accompanying grandparents may miss detail, though they’ll get the gist of things.

There isn’t a great deal of audience involvement, though they do get the chance to compete with the lion at roaring and individuals may identify with a particular animal; I suspect Raj Swamy’s lively Mongoose will be a favourite with many.

The stories are told without over-dramatisation and there is no heavy-handed stressing of moral messages. In fact what these fables seem to be saying is watch out in this world and trust your abilities. Have confidence to do things and be true to yourself.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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