Looking at temples historically through theatre

The king peered at the staff which the priest wielded with flourish and listened to his words carefully: "Listen O king! If you seek to legitimize your rule and gain acceptance amongst the people as someone who is indeed a legitimate wielder of power and not a thug who has usurped political power, you can make use of religion to achieve this end. You exploit religious sentiments of the people and coupled with the blessings of the priestly class, er..., " the priest pauses sheepishly, "that is me, who can attribute a warrior status (kshatriyas) to you and all members from your community, people will start accepting you as the king."  

The king ponders on the priests' sermon which on the face of it seemed very self serving. The ministers naturally were not amused and looked suspiciously at the priest. Minister Arunachalesvarar comments sarcastically. "The wily Brahmin as usual is upto his ingenious scheme to forward his community's interest. Rascal!"
The priest contends- "listen Arunachalesvara. Rightly or wrongly the society fears god and those seen in service of God are the most respected. You see as things stand we priests are respected (under the breath, the priest adds - or fear is more like it!) due to our alleged proximity to the gods. Now I'm suggesting means by which even people like you who wield political power can claim proximity to the divine and almighty!"

The king and the ministers in chorus query: "how?"

The priest pauses and then walks across the durbar. He pauses again and shuffles the staff and turns around.

"Build a place of worship which will catch the fancy and imagination of the people. A place of worship - a temple so grand, stupendous and huge to leave people stupified. A temple which symbolizes your devotion to the almighty as much as it symbolizes your power and strength."

The king nods but interjects: " yes yes...but then temples are your domains o priest, the domain of religion and hence the domain of the priests but I'm not too sure if what you are suggesting would help me build on my name and fame..." The king looks at the crown and picks it up..."will this gilded crown be one of thorns...??" and sighs.

The priest counters - "Temples of course are nothing new. But now temples have to be something which is just not the concern of the priest but temples have to be everybody's concern."

Before anyone could counter the priest, he continues: "O king you have the finances and people under your command, do you not?. You are a believer, are you not? People also believe in the powers above, do they not? So why not do something which not only helps in affirming your status as a warrior who can rightly claim to be a king and also reaffirm your faith in the divine? When you build this temple on a grand scale you give everyone a stake in it - masons, artisans like sculptors, weavers, painters etc - hence these very people who are now questioning your legitimacy will now laud you for your devotion and also giving them an opportunity to serve the almighty!"

The priest rested his case.

This was a gist of the play titled Aalayathin Asthivaram (foundations of a temple)which students of class VIII so wonderfully executed on March 27 which also happened to be the world theatre day. This was another attempt in using theatre to popularize and internalize history within the fuzzy interiors of the child's mind. This time around the quiet, unassuming, Rajesh Chandran, my colleague and drama educator did more than the needful in concretizing a rather abstract but vital aspect of early medeival Indian history.

To me one of the issues that intrigues me is why and how India witnessed proliferation of temples from around the 5th century AD? The gist above I suppose will give one the reasoning. It is important for one to understand not just temple in its chronological or architectural specificities (when temple was built, who built it and its unique architectural elements) but also understanding the sociological and historical uniqueness of temples.

One thing I realized during the course of our work on the play - Rajesh's enthusiasm and energy. He jumped at the idea when I discussed with him few months back. I started working on 'something like a script' based on which he worked out the scenes - and he did that quite uniquely by making brilliant use of metaphors. The use of the staff (stick) I thought was an intelligent way of connecting staff with power. But initially it is the priest who wields it but later hands over to the king as part of the coronation ceremony. This in effect proved the point that political legitimacy all said and done remained within the precincts of religion and its representative i.e. the priest. Thus the subtle use of the staff to drive the point. And Mani the student essaying the role of the priest played it so well.

That the ruling classes were basically a class of "suckers", narcissists and megalomaniacs, Rajesh brought this facet by characterizing the king as someone who is constantly ingesting victuals i.e. fruits, nuts even as ministers salivate. Vijith the kid who played the role of the king wowed the audience.

Rajesh opened the narrative with contemporary scenario where temples have lost its symbolic, social, cultural and intrinsically political value ( as opposed to the overt use of temple politics by the Hindu right wing which today not surprisingly fails to make much of an impact beyond certain time and space) The mute sculptures adorning the walls and pillars of the temples who have witnessed better days of glory and power, are given a voice whence they narrate with lament and resignation, at the present state of temples and how it was in the past. Each kid acting as a sculpture performed their part well with excellent articulation of dialogues through which the temples history unfolded.

On my suggestion Rajesh agreed to the use of a screen as a backdrop which projected the numerous images of temples with an excellent rendition of an alaap as a background by another underrated faculty member, my colleague and music educator Nagraj Hegde. The play reached its crescendo with image of two different temple projected on to the screen. So it was also a multi-media presentation to boot where MS powerpoint was put to an integrated use and was not used merely as a prop. Once again it were the kids who did the montage of temples and the execution was flawless.

In the end the sculptures make a plea as to why temples have to be treated with certain respect and empathy - temples were the spaces which provided identity to the people in the past - priests and nobility apart but even sculptors, painters, masons, musicians, dancers, weavers and farmers all developed a stake in temples and indeed contributed towards it. People's identity then in terms of public spaces were constituted inter alia through temples and festivities just like today important markets, streets, theatres and shopping malls shape contemporary identities. Temples are reminders of our collective past.

The point is in this play there were no historic specificities - the year (except the fact that we were careful to mention as sometime in the early medieval period and not ancient period when India was basically Buddhist), the king was fictitious, the place, the temple itself, all were fictitious but yet I argue the play was historical since it captured the economic, social, political processes that transpired in medieval India. And that is more important I think in history to get a broader sweep rather than be bogged down completely ( I say completely here for it is still important for children or anyone not to completely loose sight of time frames, important events in that time frame, and the players in that event i.e. the whats, wheres and whens) by obsession with facts and sticking to those facts. In fact this was an attempt to expand the frontiers of history for children by using theatre as a tool of pedagogy.

At the end of the day I was wondering why in this school, especially its arts faculty which has the most proven and professional members, is the least seen and observed and hardly occupy much mindshare among faculty members, parents and even children alike? Are we underestimating their prowess? Is it also because verbally they are not articulate? and hence their presence and work goes unnoticed? Anyway good work Rajesh. Hope to work with him in future on certain select themes, in the realms of historical than history.