The second most-famous game of dice in Indian literature was played by King Nal of Nishadh in the Mahabharata. On a board kissed by hubris, he lost his wealth, lands and kingdom — and was cast out to wander through the forests without food, clothes or shelter. Only his wife, the princess of Vidarbha, Damyanti, stays by his side and redeems Nal’s frailty with her unconditional love. A dance performance, Nal Damyanti, choreographed by Delhi-based Ranjana Gauhar, interprets this less-known story as a fable for modern times “when there are so many choices that we make the wrong ones”. The acclaimed Odissi dancer, who has been honoured with a Padma Shri and a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, among others, talks about the piece in an interview:
What made you choose Nal Damyanti over the more powerful story of the Pandavas losing at the game of dice?
Nal Damyanti is not commonly performed in North India. Interestingly, the story was told to the Pandavas when they were in exile after Yudhistira lost Hastinapur and Draupadi’s cheer haran has taken place. The starting point of our production is with Yudhistir, full of remorse, and a saint tells him, ‘You are not the only one. Nal, too, had made a wrong decision in agreeing to play the game of dice’. Nal was not good at games, he was very good with horses — he was an excellent charioteer, who could fly like the wind — but he still plays the game with his cousin and thus reveals his sense of ego.
How have you placed the story in the contemporary context?
We have not changed much. I find Nal Damyanti is relevant today as we are making wrong choices and suffering as a result. We are not a value-based society any more, which once India was. Even in the Mahabharata, Nal Damyanti is told by wise old people to the younger ones so that they understand what is choice and what is the price of the choices we make.
How have you applied the two dance forms to this production?
The performance depends on the vocabulary of Odissi but uses Chhau for the male dancers. The swayamvara is depicted through Chhau as well as the game of dice. Odissi highlights the lasya parts of the story, in scenes featuring Damyanti, her friends and other women.
You have innovated with computer-generated images in the performance.
The background will be given to an audio-visual screen on which whole scenes and actions will unfold with live performance on the stage. The palace, swans flying and the python wrapping around Damyanti are shown as animation on screen. To adjust and collaborate between animation and live dancers requires a lot of skill and understanding, which is a challenge I enjoy.
Nal Damyanti will be performed at Kamani Auditorium today, 6:45 pm