CHENNAI: Imagine the thrill of picking up your favourite book and finding an entire portion that you haven’t read before. It is a similar thrill that most would have experienced at the Narada Gana Sabha on Friday evening, for a chapter of Tamil history that has so far remained hidden came to light with the staging of Veerathaai Velu Nachiyar by dance school Bharadhashram.
The play told the saga of a woman, who, despite having lived 77 years before the much-celebrated Rani of Jhansi, has never been acknowledged for her efforts in freeing her region from imperialist regime.
The Tamil historical dance drama, which featured over 65 dancers on stage, told the story of the forgotten 18th century queen, Velu Nachiyar of Sivaganga, the courage she displayed in ousting the British from her kingdom and her determination to restore the lost pride and self-respect of the Tamizhs.
Produced by political leader Vaiko and beautifully scripted by Sriram Sharma, who spent three years on extensive research on the topic, the programme used classical and folk dance interspersed with recorded dialogue to tell the story of woman power and Tamizh glory. The opening scenes are set in Sivaganga, using rustic, rural group dance sequences by several young men and women who sing the glory of their region.
The male dancers were especially captivating, their energy and zest palpable.
The villagers were enslaved by a British Colonel Bonjour.
When the British announced that failure to pay their taxes would result in the region being taken over, the sheer helplessness of the community was portrayed well.Devastated when her husband is unfairly killed by the British, Velu Nachiyar vows, with a fistful of Tamizh mannu, to avenge his death. Stumbling into a forest, she meets Udaiyar, a Dalit woman who quenches her thirst. Advised by the Marudhu brothers to seek refuge under Hyder Ali, the queen meets him. Promising help as a brother to a sister, Hyder Ali provides military support to Velu Nachiyar to build an army, which she names after Udaiyar. When Nachiyar finds the place where the British stock their ammunition, she builds the first human bomb. A faithful follower, Kuyili douses herself in oil, lights herself and walks into the storehouse.
Finally ending the agony that lasted eight long years, Colonel Bonjour’s troops promise to leave the region.
The lip-sync to the songs and dialogues was admirable, as was the coordination among dancers. The production used minimalistic sets and costumes that refrained from being over-the-top despite being loud. What stood out was the level of sincerity in the production — every actor seemed to believe in the power of the story they were telling. Ramjee, who played Colonel Bonjour, played his role with great attention to detail, ensuring his body language was western and different from that of the village folk. Nachiyar, played by Sowmya Guru Manimegalai Sharma, succeeded in expressing the required emotions of angst, helplessness, anger, disgust and triumph with ease, and the audience could feel every bit of it.
HMV Raghu’s music, set to carnatic ragas, with singers ranging from Nithyasree Mahadevan to Saindhavi, used various musical strains, including a gut-wrenchingly rendered Islamic prayer. It was high on drama, successfully inspiring feelings of patriotism, though the decibel output was far higher than necessary. Also, the play may have had a greater impact with more sophisticated lighting. Veerathaai Velu Nachiyar was a play about patriotism and sacrifice, the importance of Tamizh consciousness in an oppressed society, and the triumph of justice over injustice. Most importantly, however, it focused on the power and leadership potential that a woman can possess, and how her empowerment can lead to progress. It also spoke of courage that can transcend boundaries of gender, friendship and religion.
The play was effective, each scene drawing enthusiastic applause from the audience. Vaiko, in his powerful speech, emphasised the need for an effort to spread Tamizh heritage and for the story to be popularised. Danseuse Padma Subrahmanyam, who presided over the function, commended the use of dance vocabulary that was authentic to Tamil Nadu. She suggested that the play be staged in schools and bemoaned that Velu Nachiyar was excluded from history books. “A critical part of our legacy has come to light,” she said, adding that the play was touching and inspirational.