My eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness of the theater as I entered. The darkened space also had an invigorating smell - "dhoop" - incense was being burned. I noticed ornate, circular stone vessel at the center of the room, with a narrow platform hanging above it. Spotlights were trained on the vessel which was filled to the brim with water and white flowers. The light reflected off the water and illuminated the platform slightly. A figure draped in a white cloth was sitting at the far end of the platform, leaning against a few steps that separated it from us. That was Rajit Kapoor, the lead - and only - actor performing Girish Karnad' new play, "Flowers".
There were murmurs all around. The small theater was packed to capacity. The stage was surrounded on three sides by the audience, their eagerness apparent as the hour neared 7 pm, the scheduled beginning of the performance. Precisely at that time, the music started. Sparse, serious tones interspersed with the sounds of crickets chirping. The figure in white got up, turned around, carefully climbed down the two steps that separated it from us in the audience, and the performance began.
It is near midnight, the Priest said. He was looking disshevelled, even in a smart dhoti and angavastram. His face seemed weighed down with some great worry, while his tone tried not to betray any of it. The stars were in the sky, and the Scorpio it seems, was about to enter the water.
The priest narrated his story, maintaining a level tone. The platform was an extension of the temple, surrounded by water. It was a Shiva temple, where God takes the form of a Lingum. The priest's story was one of a powerful romance that drew him in and wouldn't let him out. A love that seemingly destroyed his routine life, and brought him to this night, narrating his story as he contemplated his life.
He loved his wife he said, and respected his chieftain. As the temple priest, he worshiped God above all else. He spent hours alone with God - discussing things important and mundane. His many hours of the day were spent decorating the idol with flowers. He conducted every ritual with great attention to detail. His life had a steady rhythm, of devotion, of ritual, of complete devotion. His routine was disturbed in the strangest of ways, when a courtesan visited the temple to seek blessings during a week long celebration. What followed were events unlike anything one could imagine, and brought him to this night of rigorous self-examination.
Girish Karnad's latest play is a monologue. It is a timeless story, set in no particular place. It plays on the themes that have dominated his work - the nature of God and religion, virtue and morality and the dilemmas associated with these. It is the sparsest of his works, distilled to a bare minimum. Yet, it is powerful and unforgettable.
Rajit Kapoor's performance was masterful. The tone of his voice, the strength and fragility it conveyed, the manner of speech - accelerating in excitement and slowing down in love - and the way he crossed and uncrossed his legs all made one forget that it was a play and he was an actor. The audience was mesmerized and transported to this timeless world. The minimal lighting and sound were in keeping with the nature of the play.
An hour and a half later, when the performance finished, the audience was in a trance. It was a theater experience unlike another. I felt fortunate to witness it.