er face may not have launched a thousand ships, but this courtesan from the ancient Indian republic of Vaishali (500 BC) stopped a war and dethroned a king. A legendary beauty, Amrapali not only wielded great power and wealth, but she also lived during a time of political intrigue and religious change. One of the reasons why director V Balakrishnan decided she would be a befitting subject for city-based Theatre Nisha’s new one-woman play. “She lived at a time when Mahaveera and Buddha were reaching their respective doctrines, and when Magadha, one of the greatest kingdoms of the time, led by Bimbisara, was at war to conquer the northern regions and unite them under one rule,” begins the director, who was fascinated by how Amrapali, awarded the title of Janapada Kalyani (most beautiful in the land), went on to influence several events of her time.
Verity and verse
Hours of reading and research preceded the writing of the script. “She is not a well known historical character. Even in the Jataka Tales and other Buddhist scriptures, her references are minimal,” he explains, adding how time spent in obscure libraries, flipping through works of fiction helped him piece together her story. “Much of it was conjecture, but the books did give me an idea of the social structure back then,” he says. Written in the first and third person, the monologue unfolds in the form of verse. Set to the music of flautist Pandit Samir Rao (a disciple of Pandit Hariprasaad Chaurasia) and Buddhist chants, it unfolds like a travelogue that segues into a re-telling of Amrapali’s story—from when she was found as a baby under a mango tree to King Bimbisara giving up his warring ways for her love and, finally, her embracing Buddhism.
“My challenge is to engage the audience for an hour and 15 minutes. So I am making it a storytelling experience, in the old folk tradition, with characterisation and creation of imagery,” says actor Janani Narasimhan. What are her favourite sections? “The first is when Amrapali has to choose between the title of Janapada Kalyani or death. She chooses life, but not before ensuring all her conditions are met. And second, her embracing of Buddhism,” she says.
Ready to travel
Staying true to Theatre Nisha’s tradition of minimalism (the set comprises a single black bench), the costumes are markedly neutral, too. “It will be fluid drapes that allow the actor to move between roles,” says Balakrishnan. And even as he anxiously awaits Amrapali’s premiere tonight, he signs off with the hope that they will soon take it to Himachal Pradesh, to perform it at Buddhist monasteries.
March 13-15, at Alliance Francaise, from 7 pm. Rs 150. Details: eventjini.com
Surya Praphulla Kumar