June 16, 2007 - 1930 hours - Rangashankara. I am at the right place, at the right time, after performing everything in an apt manner. And then it goes...
The one-person dramatic monologue by Girish Karnad, is enacted by Rajit Kapur (Remember Vyomkesh Bakshi!). It’s about a priest whose life has become a balancing act between his passionate love for God and equally passionate love for his courtesan and is caught off his guard as one day they collide.
Like all one-line descriptions, this too is vastly inadequate. ‘Love’ hardly describes the priest’s four equally demanding relationships, which include his loyalty to the local chieftain.
With Shiva, the priest’s devotion is obsessively ritualistic, finding expression in new ways to adorn the lingam with flowers. For the courtesan Chandravathi, he suffers obsessive lust. Having heard of his great artistry with flowers, she asks for her naked body to be similarly adorned. He obeys, wordlessly attending to her every seductive curve. This too becomes a daily ritual, metaphorically playing out the concept of the union of male-female energies inherent in Shiva bhakti. The priest has earlier described the lingam as a phallus erect in the vulva, deliberately returning the icon to its material origins.
The life of the spirit and the life of the body thus come together, both distanced from the life of the community. God resides above the community by his own rules; the courtesan outside it, beyond its rules. Between the two ends lie lesser values like loyalty to the chieftain and duty to the wife. The wife is not so much woman, as mother. Her physicality contrasts sharply with Chandravathi’s. Unfortunately, he chooses to couch the contrast in a time-worn cliché of male desire, robbing it of its potential significance. Chandravathi is described as possessing a deep cleavage with an inviting mole on one breast while the wife is thin with no breasts to speak of. Chandravathi’s sexuality invites lust, which the priest describes with another cliché as “the fire raging in my loins”. The wife’s sexuality invites compassion followed by rejection.
The ultimate question that Flowers poses, however, is not about the priest’s social-sexual dilemma, but about how he sees god, and himself in relation to god. One fateful night, a series of unusual circumstances compels him to decorate the lingam with flowers hurriedly taken off the courtesan’s body. The sacrilege horrifies the wife, the chieftain and the community. But god shows by a miraculous sign that he is on his bhakta’s side. The priest achieves instant sainthood in the eyes of the credulous community. But god’s grace under such circumstances is unacceptable to the priest. Why have you blessed me despite my transgressions, he asks, forgetting that man cannot ask god to explain himself. Rational questions shatter faith, which is the very centre of the man-god relationship as envisaged by man. Without faith, there’s no hope.
'Flowers' underlines and intensifies the priest’s internal conflict by confining the priest to a narrow platform high above the stage. Only minimal movements are possible here. Down below stands a broad vessel of water representing the temple tank. Lighting isolates the platform, the man and the vessel. The rest of the stage is cloaked in hazy darkness. The rippling reflections in the blue-lit water are the only bright spots. But their brightness makes the dark even darker.
The stunningly dramatic set and lighting are offset by the neutral tone of Rajit Kapur’s narration. The decision to undercut drama in the monologue is faultless. It adds an extra edge to the riskiness of the actor’s positioning on the platform, since a neutral narration can easily slip into flatness. Yet, the priest compels total attention through the entire 70-minute length of the monologue. It is an impressive feat.