Centuries-old Incan epic gets a digital spin in Kaivalya Plays’ Ollantay

A collaborative project between the Embassy of Peru and the Delhi-based independent theatre group, this new Hindi play is ready for its online premiere this weekend

A scene from ‘Ollantay — The Fallen Warrior’

By Reema Gowalla

From the Globe to global, we are so used to adaptations of Shakespeare’s masterpieces that many a time we fail to look beyond them while bringing back a relic from the past to the modern stage. And then, there are new inspirations and fresh perspectives too. One such is by Delhi-based independent theatre group Kaivalya Plays. Their latest digital piece ‘Ollantay — The Fallen Warrior’ is based on the translations of a centuries-old Peruvian epic, the script of which was originally written in Quechua — the language of the Incas.

The idea to explore the rich literary and storytelling tradition of this ancient civilisation came up during a collaboration in late 2019 between Kaivalya Plays and the Embassy of Peru. Had there been no pandemic, the play would have formed part of an event in the Indian capital, marking the South American nation’s 200 years of independence. ‘Ollantay’ traces the journey of this “brave warrior of common birth, who was banished for falling in love with the emperor’s daughter”. The piece “carries the universal message of an empire bowing to the strength of love”.

According to Tariq Ahmed, who has co-directed the play with Raghav Seth, working on a script which was written ages ago and that relied on a culture so different from our own was the biggest challenge of making ‘Ollantay’. “Although one can trace similarities between the premise or the underlying message of this epic and the present times, there was a deliberate attempt not to infringe on the essence of the original piece,” he explains.

“We adapted this play from a translated script in Hindi, while we also kept going back to its original translation for reference. That helped us to remain true to it. The fact that the play was written for a completely different audience at a distinct time in history cannot be ignored. The narrative has been restructured keeping the Indian audience in mind, but the originality of the script is not compromised. The actors rely on their own perception while taking on the emotions of the characters they play, all within the essence of the words they speak,” he says, adding, “It’s interesting to see that the central themes of the play — religious dominance, caste system and hierarchy — are also the factors that influence present-day society. These aspects make ‘Ollantay’ a contemporary drama.” The play was translated to Hindi by Vikash Kumar Singh, Rishu Sharma and Shayama Prasad Ganguly.

The team paid a lot of attention to the accurate depiction of Incan costumes and ornaments. Thanks to the two students of Bengaluru’s Christ University — Sofia Fernando and Vaishnavi Shenoy — the shapes and textures of chakanas and the colours of the Incan Empire are thoroughly researched and represented.

There were other challenges too, particularly in terms of finding the locations to approximate the walls, palaces and hills of the empire. The Covid-induced restrictions meant the team used digital backdrops and adapted cinematic techniques. The performers filmed themselves individually at home and yet it looked like they occupied the same space on screen. The cast features actors Abhinav Kaushal, Bhavya Rampal, Deepriya Nagi, Gurpreet Singh, Nikie Bareja, Raghav Seth, Tariq Ahmed, Vidur Sehgal and Vanshika Verma, while Gaurav Singh Nijjer is the technical director.

Varoon P Anand

Kaivalya Plays’ artistic director Varoon P Anand, who helmed the production and photography direction of ‘Ollantay’, describes the coming together of Indian artists and the Embassy of Peru for a play on the ancient Incan Empire as an interesting venture, especially at a time when theatre is seeing a paradigm shift in terms of the use of technology and the digital medium.

“As a community of theatre practitioners, we have collaborated with embassies before — including that of Argentina, Spain and now Peru. Such ventures allow us to work closely with translators of Latin American languages, which involve combining efforts with the Spanish professors at the Jawaharlal Nehru University as well as experts at Instituto Cervantes of New Delhi,” says Varoon, who also teaches Spanish, adding, “Like French and German, many young people in India are also interested in learning the Spanish language. Thus, arts projects like these can be a nuanced learning ground for students who are picking up the language. It opens a window into the region’s culture and heritage, about which they have only probably read in books so far. ‘Ollantay’ presents the story without fiddling with the cultural tenets. We have also added English and Spanish subtitles to the digital piece for relatability, emotional engagement and to foster a better experience for the audience.”

He further says, “For the young cast and crew of the play, it’s a matter of pride that as artists they are being able to provide access to a completely different civilisation through their craft.”

Nikie Bareja

Nikie — who is better known for her opinionated and gender non-conforming roles — will be seen as a classic damsel-in-distress in this play. Ollantay’s love interest, she plays the role of Cusi Coyllur, the Princess of Cusco. She is the leading lady, the reason for the conflict who is also the most helpless person in the epic. Talking about her experience of portraying this character, Nikie says, “Although difficult to truly empathise with her, it’s interesting to play that kind of a woman on stage. It holds to the popular depiction of women in society, something that we have seen in our own familial structures — docile and ready to take the blame for anything.”

That this is a Hindi production and she got to work with a green screen for the first time were among the major takeaways for the actor, who also plays the role of Orco Huaranca in the play. Nikie did her bit of research into the Incan culture to get the nuances right — from what the princess wore and where she used to like spending her time to Orca’s crown and sword. “It was like a DIY arts and crafts session where I made my own costumes and fixed the feather on my crown, with the help of my mother and little brother at home, of course,” she sums up.

The digital premiere of Ollantay — The Fallen Warrioris scheduled to take place on February 13, at 5pm. You can book your tickets here.

The play carries the message of an empire bowing to the strength of love

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