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Rakkasa Tangadi, Girish Karnad’s final play, takes the Battle of Talikota to the stage

Deepa Bhasthi | Updated on October 11, 2019 Published on October 11, 2019

The end is nigh: Set in 1565, Rakkasa Tangadi’s English translation — Crossing to Talikota — was directed by Arjun Sajnani   -  HEMANTH KUMAR

The play, staged in Bengaluru earlier this month, dwells on the last days of the Vijayanagara empire

Most of what the history books in school told us was about battles fought — date and place, and the parties involved in the combat Like most, I remember little of the chapters of my history books. But this imagery has been hard to forget — rubies the colour of blood, diamonds that shone in the dark and emeralds the colour of paddy fields that circle Hampi today were once sold in its markets like vegetables. That’s how abundant and safe the mighty Vijayanagara empire was.

Rakkasa Tangadi, the last play written by actor-writer-director Girish Karnad, who died in June 2019, is about the Battle of Talikota and the final years of the zenith of the Vijayanagara empire. It is a play of grand scope, as if it were meant for the large screen as a period film. In its English translation, titled Crossing to Talikota, the play premièred in Bengaluru on October 2, under the direction of director and producer Arjun Sajnani.

The play is set in 1565. After the death of Krishnadevaraya of the Tuluva dynasty, the greatest king of the empire, a string of weak monarchs comes to the throne. It takes the diplomacy and shrewdness of ‘Aliya’ Rama Raya (Ashok Mandanna), the son-in-law of the departed king, to strengthen alliances with the Sultanates of Ahmadnagar, Bijapur, Golconda and others and bring stability, albeit temporary, to the vast area under the empire. Despite being the most powerful man in the Deccan, Rama Raya, born of a lower caste, can never ascend the throne. This is a slight he never forgets. He doesn’t let his wife Satyabhama (Veena Sajnani) forget it either.

Sadashiva Raya (Tuffy Taraporevala), the current emperor, is powerless. He is at best a figurehead, at worst a caricature. Vijayanagara is run by Rama Raya and his two brothers. With the steady rise in his power and influence, Rama Raya, now an old man, becomes arrogant and ruthless. And soon enough, the issue of religion dents the alliance that the Hindu strategist had managed to forge with the Islamic Sultanates in Deccan.

The play, based on historical facts, opens with the ghastly scene of an empire in defeat. The Deccan Sultans have formed an alliance and attacked Vijayanagar. The Battle of Talikota, fought at the village of Talikota in 1565, was a watershed event that changed the course of Karnataka history.

Cut to some months before the battle begins. The play examines the ambitions of the Deccan sultans — Hussain Nizam Shah, Ibrahim Qutb Shah and Ali Adil Shah, the young ruler of Bijapur who urges the Rama Raya couple to accept him as their son after their own dies.

In the months preceding the final battle, the Deccan Sultans are all unhappy and uneasy with the power that rests in the hands of Rama Raya. They abhor each other on the best of days, but they still attack the empire as one. History says that the traitors in the Vijayanagara forces helped the Sultans win the battle.

Karnad does not make it about the two religions alone. One man’s hubris and the need to prove his abilities as the true king, a position denied him for 60 years, spell the beginning of the end of the Vijayanagara empire.

Politics has never been devoid of betrayals,, rumour-mongering courtiers, soldiers at the guarding posts, scheming wives and marriages as means of cementing profitable alliances. Palace intrigue and all these is aplenty in Crossing to Talikota. Adding to the visual treat are the backdrops projected on to huge screens at the proscenium. The women gather before the Lotus Mahal, elephants and mahouts are summoned to the grounds facing the elephant stables and the Deccan sultans meet in a room with intricate jaali work on the windows.

The ambience is where the grandeur lies — in the famous monuments of Hampi; the mahal, the stables, the Vijaya Vittala Temple and the marvellous Stone Chariot. We revisit a Vijayanagara that belonged to the kings, queens, handmaids, soldiers, palanquin-bearers, generals and commoners who lived in and around these beautiful places. We witness the abundance of the empire that ruled over nearly the entire southern India before it was reduced to haalu Hampi, the land of grand ruins.

Karnad’s plays have always used mythology and history to address contemporary issues. The stories in themselves are known, passed on in tales or included in books. But, to them, Karnad has always added layers of nuance and complexity. The result is never just one thing alone; instead, it becomes relevant to many centuries. Crossing to Talikota is in the same mould. In the way it examines power and politics, the play is as much a lesson for our times as it is a call to learn from history.

Rakkasa Tangadi will next be staged at Bengaluru’s Rangashankara on October 12 and then at HN Kalakshetra on October 16

Deepa Bhasthi is a Bengaluru-based writer

Published on October 11, 2019
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