HIMAL South Asian Magazine
written and directed
By: Sivagnanam Jeyasankar
Paari Padukalam (The Death of Paari)
written and directed by Pralayan, 2008
Against a backdrop of increased marginalisation of minorities the world over under the banner of the US-led ‘war against terror’, a new stage play has come out of Tamil Nadu. Paari Padukalam (The Death of Paari), a 100-minute production, has been performed around Tamil Nadu since September 2008, following a month-long theatre workshop at Pondicherry’s Department of Performing Arts. It was written and directed by Pralayan, the renowned street-theatre maestro from Tamil Nadu.
Paari Padukalam tells the story of Paari, the well-known Tamil king of the Parampu Hills, believed to have been located at the modern town of Piran Malai in the south-central Pudukkottai District of Tamil Nadu. The monarch has long been admired for his willingness to help people in need; but unlike the entrenched legend of King Paari, Paari Padukalam explores long-ignored aspects of the king’s character. The Sangam, or body of classical Tamil literature that flourished between 300 BC and 200 AD, was largely a movement typically laden with romanticised imagery; Paari, who is mentioned in more than 50 Sangam poems, is similarly portrayed. For instance, in the Sangam literature dealing with the situation after Paari’s death, his daughters are said to have become homeless, landless, even nation-less wanderers seeking refuge. Such imagery is popular among the Tamil masses, and was successfully dramatised by the modern-day Tamil poet Inqulab and dramatist Pathma Mangai in “Kurunchi Paattu” (Song of Kurunchi).
While very few attempts have been made to take a non-romantic view of Sangam literature, Pralayan tries to explore the social history, hierarchies and power relations of the era. Paari Padukalam subsequently rejects several popular notions. One example of this is Paari’s legendary love for plants, as often evidenced by his offering his chariot to the Mullai (a type of jasmine) creeper on which to climb up. The play sarcastically dismisses this reference as the mere hyperbole of an overenthusiastic poet, as chariots were not used in hilly areas.
Pralayan’s production does place additional focus on other parts of the Paari fable, however. The king’s kindness to plants is also said to have extended to his subjects, allowing his people to live autonomous lives, unlike the strictures of other rulers of the time. Soon, bards across the southern part of the Subcontinent began to compose songs and poems in praise of Paari, whose popularity soon came to be seen as a threat by the kings of Chera, Chola and Pandiya – the three most powerful southern kingdoms at the time. The three agreed to unite to eradicate this ‘evil’ in their kingdoms – the only point in the historical or literary record of the three rulers fighting collaboratively.
The strength of Pralayan’s production lies in its exploration of how the tale of Paari, itself an old one, is of particular relevance to contemporary audiences. Indeed, the questions raised by the dying Paari are pertinent to the current global political climate, in which the thirst for ‘democracy’ is, ironically, often fulfilled through bloodshed. At the end of the play, as Paari is dying, he asks the bard Kapilar:
Oh Kapilar, what wrong did I do? Our land has no fences. Our land has no bunds.
Only the rivers and justice flow
I maintained ‘In birth all the species are equal’ – was it wrong?
I maintained ‘All are equal in the face of justice’ – is it wrong?
We the tribe of Velir lived harmoniously with mother earth, is it wrong?
Was it wrong, Kapilar?! Is it wrong?!
Was it wrong I listened to the learned and to the elders?!
As referred to here by Paari, the story of the Velir, the subjugated tribe to which he belonged, is an important one. Sangam literature often mentions the seven chieftains of the Velir, in addition to the kings of Chera, Chola and Pandiya, and there is significant epigraphical evidence to support the existence of the Velir clan. In the post-Sangam era, however, there is no mention of the Velir – it is as though they suddenly vanished. The belief is that that they were conquered and absorbed into the Chera, Chola and Pandiya kingdoms. In Paari Padukalam, one of Pralayan’s goals is to explore these very silences and pauses in history, thus hoping to inspire minorities today to refuse to allow themselves to be obliterated.
As responsible citizens, in contemplating our responses to Paari Padukalam we must wrestle with one question in particular: What is the place for minorities in a world that continues to be controlled by elites? In the case of Paari, his downfall appears to be a result of choosing friendship with his people over favourable diplomatic relationships with the surrounding rulers. Yet in today’s postmodern world, where differences are said to be celebrated and individuality respected, are these ideas feasible? Keeping in mind the draconian laws and military might used to impose order in many parts today, there appears to be no difference between ‘peace’ and ‘silence’ in the contemporary world. An exploration of the barriers that must be overcome to achieve a people-friendly world in the 21st century is a crucial need, and one that is specifically highlighted by the story of Paari.
One such barrier is fear, the alarm that led the three monarchs to put aside their personal conflicts and unite against Paari. A conversation between the bard Kapilar and the three kings illuminates several related points:
Kapilar: Kings, I did not expect this war.
You could avoid this war with Paari.
Kings: He defied our demands! Disobeyed our orders.
And he declined to offer his daughters as rewards.
Only the war will heal the nauseous of Paari.
Kapilar: Kings, the love to live with dignity is nauseous?
But, oh Kings, there are hundred reasons to avoid this war.
Kings: How? Tell us Kapilar, tell us one reason.
Kapilar: Chera, Chola, Pandiya and Paari from the Velir tribe all are Tamil-speaking.
They could unite as Tamils, can’t they?
Kings: Oh bard, how dare you equate the high tribes of Chera, Chola and Pandiya Kings and Paari of the low tribe?
King: Has Tamil get the power to remove this disparity?
Kapilar: Oh, is this your problem?!
Disaster for the tribe… devastation for the Tamil tribe…
Goodbye Great Kings!
As this excerpt makes clear, a favourite tool of rulers past and present is to generate fear, to create a situation in which the upstart and the independent can be labelled the enemy. After coming up with such inventions, the rulers then panic over their constructed ‘enemies’, and busy themselves creating forts, security zones, bunkers, intelligence units, weapons and torture methods. Few appear to be free of this psyche of fear, which has become the essence of the politics of rule.
Also requiring some discussion in this context is how the callous greed of rulers can act as a roadblock to a just society. Pralayan depicts this particularly well in a scene in which the three kings are discussing their shares and opportunities in the conquered Parampu. Indeed, such bargaining continues today among world powers, reflecting the market ambitions of the so-called democratic superpowers. Similarly, then as now, talk on planning and reconstruction is notably missing.
Interestingly, in the rhetoric of modern Tamil politics, the three monarchs continue to be celebrated for building dams, their forays into the high Himalaya and victories over invading Aryan armies, amid other achievements. Paari, meanwhile, is also admired, but for his philanthropic character rather than for his judicious political rule. Yet if these issues are explored in depth, Paari’s Parampu could easily be seen as a strong model for modern democracies – if what is truly desired is rule of the people, by the people, for the people. Given the examples set forward by Paari, it is confusing why Tamil social scientists have not long been busy designing and producing such a model. That Pralayan has chosen to present such a reassessment of Paari today is thus not only good theatre, but potent inspiration.
Sivagnanam Jeyasankar is a theatre activist and senior lecturer at the Faculty of Arts and Culture at Eastern University, Sri Lanka.