Kudanthai Mali brought to stage the story of Mahan Narayana Guru

Scenes from Kudanthai Mali’s production, Mahan Narayana Guru.
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The stage was set for Mali’s most recent theatrical work, Mahan Narayana Guru, which Mali both wrote and directed, at the esteemed Narada Gana Sabha. Mali’s reputation for crafting plays that carry potent social messages is well-established. A theatrical representation focusing on the life and teachings of reformist Narayana Guru falls perfectly in line with his repertoire. Prior to the show, Mali distributed pamphlets full of quotations about Narayana Guru to attendees, creating not only a semblance of the Guru’s vast influence but also showcasing the profound impact he had on prominent figures like Tagore and Gandhi.

The narrative commences with the birth of Narayanan, affectionately called Nanu by his family, wherein early signs of his destined greatness already begin to appear. Even as a child, Nanu challenged centuries-old norms, refusing to accept them without question. His questioning nature only grows with time, blossoming into an impassioned spirit for social reform. His mother believes marriage will anchor him, yet he ultimately forgoes matrimonial ties to embrace a life of ascetic devotion.

A depiction from Kudanthai Mali’s play Mahan Narayana Guru.

A moment captured from Kudanthai Mali’s Mahan Narayana Guru.
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

In an era when lower castes were barred from temple entry, he courageously founded a linga for their worship. Recognizing education’s role as an emancipator, his gurukulam welcomed students from all societal levels. When children from his institute flawlessly recited a Sanskrit verse, Rajagoplachariar—then the Diwan of Cochin, later of Travancore—witnessed it as a testament to the Guru’s progressive ideals.

Narayana Guru was a champion of renewing tradition rather than rejecting Hindu philosophy itself, and he held no enmity towards any caste. One theatrical highlight was his portrayal of acknowledging that numerous reformists originated from Brahmin backgrounds. His silent, yet profound, interaction with Ramana Maharshi in the play, symbolizes the communion of two enlightened beings beyond the need for spoken words.

Mali masterfully captured the essential milestones of Narayana Guru’s life, with additional narration filling in the gaps of events that the play’s duration could not cover. Mali’s Mahan Narayana Guru unfolded more as a historical documentary rather than a conventional drama, which was fitting given that Narayana Guru’s approach to reform was one of serenity rather than confrontation—so naturally, no flamboyant stage action was present.

Over the course of two hours, Mali ambitiously wove the sage’s philosophy into his play. The cast, except for K.R.S. Kumar who portrayed the venerable Narayana Guru in his later years, took on supporting roles. The soundtrack by Kicha provided a soulful accompaniment, while Padma stage Kannan’s set design was spare yet thoughtfully suited the production.

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