Epic Indian play Ponniyin Selvan staged outside India for first time at Esplanade

(From left) Actress Preethi Athreya as Princess Kundavai, actor Mu Ramasamy as chancellor Periya Pazhuvettarayar and actor Anirudh Chitoor as Veeran.
(From left) Actress Preethi Athreya as Princess Kundavai, actor Mu Ramasamy as chancellor Periya Pazhuvettarayar and actor Anirudh Chitoor as Veeran.PHOTO: ARTE COMPASS

Ponniyin Selvan, a production based on a Tamil historical novel, is being staged outside India for the first time, at the Esplanade

Actual curved swords from the Indian state of Manipur will be wielded this weekend as the actors of Tamil play Ponniyin Selvan battle it out on stage for the fictional throne.

Featuring sword fights, a cast of more than 50 actors and a set that had to be shipped from Chennai, India, in two large containers, the play will make its first performance outside India at the Esplanade Theatre from Friday to Sunday.

It is part of the ongoing Tamil Language Festival and is an adaptation of the eponymous Tamil historical novel, written by Kalki Krishnamurthy in 1951, which tells the story of how Chola King Arulmozhivarman rose to the throne.

First adapted into a play by Indian theatre group Magic Lantern in 1999, the popular production played to a sold-out audience for all its 35 shows in Chennai, Madurai and Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu.

  • BOOK IT / PONNIYIN SELVAN

  • WHERE: Esplanade Theatre, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Friday, 7pm; Saturday and Sunday, 6pm

    ADMISSION: $36 to $96 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com)

Its popularity captured the attention of Mrs Akila Iyengar, director of events company Arte Compass, the co-organiser of the performance here.

She says: "I grew up reading the book and when I heard about this in Chennai, I decided to bring it here. Die-hard fans have told me that if there's one production that you should consider, it's this.

"As far as the story goes, it's a popular classic, you can't really go wrong with the popularity of the content."

And while the novel's fans are a large reason for the play's popularity, says director Pravin Kannanur, the challenge in adapting a well-loved novel lies in meeting fans' high expectations.

He says: "We say that the fans will come into the theatre with the book in one hand and a gun in the other. If you change something in the story, they'll come after you."

But adapting the five-volume novel, which has about 2,600 pages, meant drastic changes to the story's plot and cuts in the number of characters. The original reading of the play took around 11 hours.

It was eventually whittled down to its current form of 31/2 hours.

Mr Elango Kumaravel, the play's scriptwriter, says: "The most difficult element in creating the script is selecting and omitting the characters, as all the characters are loved by readers."

However, the sheer length of the novel means that till today, the team continues to tweak the work.

Actor Hans Kaushik, who has been with the show since the 1999 version, says: "Sometimes, we go back to it and we think, we didn't look at that the last time and then things change - we start finding different layers of meaning."

He plays the character of the spy, Alwarkadiyan Nambi, in this version.

Despite the constant changes, the things that remain constant for him are the story's values.

"This story carries the idea of love and generosity and of sacrificing for the greater good. The idea of putting aside yourself for the greater good, that's always something that gets to me," says Mr Kaushik.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore debut for epic Indian play'. Print Edition | Subscribe