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Last week’s exceedingly brilliant staging of The Legends of Shiva has once again proved Chinmaya Mission NZ’s considerable ability to put together complex theatrical productions of excellence time and again.

Legends, which involved more than 120 cast and crew, is its third production in as many years, behind Ramayana and Mahabharata, which were also equally well-received.

From classical and folk dances to ballads and dance-dramas, India has a rich, timeless tradition of storytelling through a bewildering range of performing arts. While Legends drew from many of these traditions, it built its narrative on the one most favourite technique of Indian traditional storytelling: asker-narrator dialogues.

Legends is a collection of stories about Lord Shiva, perhaps Hinduism’s oldest deity going back to the Indus Valley civilisation who is continuously worshipped to this day across the subcontinent. The stories are drawn from several texts and traditions and all though popular and widely known, they were well contextualised by delightful Q&A between the equally delightful and endearing asker-narrator duo.

The eternally lovable young Ganesha asking innocent questions of Shiva’s trusted lieutenant and vehicle Nandi, who provides answers by way of preludes to acts that follow, were a well-devised mechanism that not only glued the production together but also provided a delightful sideshow – quite literally, on a side-stage midway up the auditorium.

Nine months in the making, Legends owes its success in large parts to its engaging, flawless script.

Indian culture seamlessly combines legends, beliefs, philosophy, ethics, ritual, devotion, artistic expression and much else into sheer kaleidoscopic beauty. And the script of Legends does full justice to all these facets most handsomely. It is many layered and one can take away from it as much or as little, depending on one’s proclivities and familiarity with our many splendoured traditions.

All the more kudos to scriptwriters Swami Atulananda and Nikhil Mokkapati for not just this stupendous effort but equally for contextualising it for the uninitiated and for the partially initiated, if I may use that expression.

(On a personal note, having worked as one of the editors of the well-known series Amar Chitra Katha many years ago – I recall having worked on Tales of Shiva and Sati and Shiva – I can appreciate the effort that would have gone into the script and I doff my hat to the scriptwriters.)

The different rasas of Shiva – fearsomeness, compassion, simplicity and steadfastness, to list a few – were expressed beautifully drawing from a variety of performing art traditions ranging from classical dance to traditional martial arts in the episodic presentations. The depiction of Ardhanarishwara to the instrumentalised accompaniment of the traditional Natanagara Atisundara was a standout, as was the quick-fire dance of Kali at her most fearsome.

The strong script provided a fine blueprint for the producers, directors and choreographers to build on – and what a wonderful edifice they did build! The talented choreographers creatively contemporized the dances, while yet rooting them in tradition. The backdrop visuals, lighting, on-stage effects and sound were perfectly synchronized rounding off the production as a flawless effort.

What was most impressive was the dedication and hard work of all concerned to draw the best out of one another in making this production so successful and memorable. The effort has proved beyond doubt that with dedication and willingness, it is possible to not only preserve our traditions in far off lands but also instill in our youth a love of our traditions while developing their talents and providing them a platform to display them.

Chinmaya Mission NZ’s President of the Executive Committee Ram Lingam says, “A mammoth effort like this is a hallmark of Chinmaya Mission youth not just in New Zealand but worldwide. With productions like these, Chinmaya Mission endeavours to highlight the spiritual wisdom of India to the community at large, particularly to our modern educated generation.”

If the standing ovations at the end of the each of the four performances is anything to go by, the audiences will be waiting with bated breath for this wonderfully talented team’s next offering.

First appeared in The Indian Weekender dated 14 December 2018.