A Man For All Seasons:
As a suburban theatre in Mumbai reopens post-lockdown with Chanakya, revisiting the successful play:
Manoj Joshi has been performing Mihir Bhuta’s play Chanakya over 30 years and more than a thousand shows, and still packing ’em in. Which is quite an achievement, because it is not an easy play to follow, particularly now, when most people’s proficiency in Hindi has dipped alarmingly; at a time when most speak a strange hybrid of Hindi-English-regional languages, characters in Chanakya speak a Sanskritised Hindi, that sounds like music to the ear constantly assailed by gibberish.
Considering his many achievements, Chanakya is not as well-known as he should be — his name is attached to that of Chandragupta Maurya — but the mighty ruler was just one of his creations. Joshi, working from Mihir Bhuta’s excellent script, paints Chanakya as a patriot, who dreamt of a united India, and did whatever it took to achieve it, even if his methods seemed devious.
Vishnugupt or Kautilya was a philosopher, economist (he wrote the Arthashastra) and political strategist, who picked Chandragupta, illegitimate son of the king Mahananda and a lower-caste woman Mora, steered him to the throne and the establishment of the Maurya dynasty.
In the play, Chanakya leaves Takshila and comes to Magadh, at the time when Alexander the Great is on his conquering spree. His information gathering through his network of students and spies is impeccable; his instinct and foresight unerring. Manoj Joshi plays him with an air of authority tinged with cruelty as well as humour.
Chankya finds Dhanananda, the king of Magadh, a dissolute drunk who had married Chandragupta’s beloved, and found an excuse to sentence him to death. Chanakya finds in Chandragupta (Rajeev Bharadwaj) the qualities of a ruler, and starts engineering his rise to power. He makes a vow not to tie the knot in his Brahmin’s shikha till he has accomplished his goal. He encourages Chandragupta to kill Dhanananda, with the help of his disgruntled wife, and then, so as to keep Chandragupta focussed on his goal, has her murdered. The only one to oppose Chanakya is Magadh’s loyal guru Acharya Rakshas (Ashok Banthia).
The greedy Dhanananda had weapons made for Alexander’s army; Chanakya predicted the exit of the Greek conqueror and had the arms diverted to a group of forest dwelling tribes. He got them trained in warfare and made them the backbone of Chandragupta’s army. He also manoeuvred to attack Magadh’s neighbouring kingdoms with the help of the king of Nepal, promising him the kingdom of Kalinga in return. The king is smart enough to know that Chanakya is quite capable of breaking the treaty and tries to ally with Rakshas, only to be outwitted by Chanakya.
It is a fascinating study of a man whose political acumen is admirable, and ambition unshakeable — not for himself but for the country. Joshi slips in comments about what an ideal ruler should be like, and also the ahead-of-its-time idea that if ‘dharma’ comes in the way of doing the right thing, it should be abandoned. In a rigidly caste-based society, he gives tribals a high status by making them warriors, and even trains a tribal woman to become a ‘vishkanya’ (Women who were fed small doses of poison, till contact with them could kill a man).
The play with its simple sets and rich costumes, runs for nearly three hours, but is so gripping that the length does not pall; neither does the heavy language, which the actors speak with remarkable ease. It is structured almost like a thriller, so that every time Chanakya notches up a victory, the audience applauds.
Joshi towers over the stage in his white garb and fierce oratory. He has been playing Chanakya on stage for so long, taking breaks to do films and TV, and returning to this immortal character out of history.
Chanakya has made an appearance in the 1991 TV serial directed by Chandraprakash Dwivedi, in which he also played the title role, but somehow this stage production has outlived the serial. The writings and ideas of Chanakya, of course, will outlive them all.
(This is a slightly modified version of a piece that first appeared in Mid-day, in October 2016)