Matsya Avatar: Tanariri Theatres’ new play uses ‘flood myth’ to show how inequality shapes a crisis

Written by Neeraja M Rajeev and directed by Pranav Patadiya, Matsya Avatar is set to premiere at Medai — The Stage Bengaluru on May 1

6 min readApr 28, 2024
Matsya Avatar is premiering in Bengaluru on May 1

By Reema Gowalla

Whether it’s a natural disaster or a pandemic, society’s least privileged are often the hardest hit. Obviously, class divide and inequality are at play here. But are we willing to talk about it yet? Through their latest production, titled Matsya Avatar, Bengaluru-based group Tanariri Theatres begins the discourse on a topic, which is both sensitive and relevant. The 100-minute Hindi play — written by Neeraja M Rajeev and directed by Pranav Patadiya — is premiering on May 1 at Medai — The Stage Bengaluru.

Matsya Avatar is the story of the people on an island, which is facing the threat of being completely destroyed by an impending flood. With the island on the brink of a crisis, a lot now depends on how the social structure would serve those who inhabit the island. The play explores “what the island folk believe in and strive for; and how they love and dream as the inevitable inches closer”.

Speaking about the play, Pranav — who has also translated the script — told TheatreRoom, “Neeraja has essentially written Matsya Avatar as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, while there is also some inspiration from the ‘flood myth’. She has placed the narrative on the basic premise that the flood is coming, and it is about to destroy humanity. Like in the original story, there is a king in this play too. But all the godly aspects have been removed, so as to situate the plot as a real-life narrative where we talk about the underlying factors that contribute to a crisis, and how we deal with that. For instance, some of the most interesting things for me in the play are the questions around one’s faith. How does faith play a role in the time of crisis? How do power structures that we’ve built serve the society during such a situation? Among the themes that constitute the plot include access to food and other basic amenities, as well the inequalities that emerge during crises. Although there is no direct reference to either the pandemic or the displacement of people during natural disasters, the agonising memory of migrant labourers walking miles during the Coronavirus lockdown period does have a bearing on the script of Matsya Avatar.”

Neeraja M Rajeev and Pranav Patadiya

The cast of the new play includes actors Divya Bajpai, Kousar Nawaz Afghan, Prateek Sultania, Prakil Singh, Vipin Naik, Devashish Singbal, Gaurav Deora, Gaurav Karmakar and Mahima Rastogi.

Adding to what led to the making of Matsya Avatar, Neeraja said, “It all began in 2021 when the country was in the grip of the Covid-19 second wave. It really pained me to see the way we were treating fellow citizens in the country. During that time, I was involved with some volunteer groups that distributed food, etc. There’s a lot of hunger, as people were not able to work and access to basic amenities were limited. Inequality was quite evident at that time. Millions of migrant workers were forced to leave towns and cities and walk home to their villages. They travelled on foot via road in the scorching sun. Many even died on the way. Then, there were also people dying around you because of the virus. All of this just reminded me of the flood myth somehow and I thought, I should write something in response to how I was feeling at that moment. Thus, I borrowed the structure of flood myth, and what piqued my interest in it is the original story.”

Commenting on the structure of the play, Pranav said, “The play has largely three narratives. There are two main stories that follow a family on the island — comprising a brother, a sister and their father. When the flood hits the island, they have to face the consequences of the decisions made by the ‘king’ and the ‘rajguru’. As part of a strategic move, these two people impose restrictions diverting all the resources of the island into building a ship. Now, the common people have to bear the consequences of the new rules, which also include imposing a ban on rationing. Then, there are also speculations about who will finally be allowed to go aboard the ship. So, the family is also bound to face these difficulties. Meanwhile, the third narrative (rather a subplot) is a love story. It involves the king’s gardener, named Kamal, and Uri, the sister in the above mentioned family. Now that everybody is preparing to somehow thwart the flood, Kamal’s job as a gardener becomes redundant and his labour too is redirected toward building the ship. What follows next forms the crux of the story.”

Snapshot from the rehearsal session

Anisha Anantpurkar is the dramaturg of the play, while Jataveda Banerjee is in charge of sound design and music, with Sneha Kumari taking care of the costumes. Set design is done by Norman Leslie Doss V and Rachana R, while Rohit Bhasi is the brains behind the poster. The production team involves Sneha, Shruti Havale, Suranjay Patil, Rittik Khilani and Aniket Gujarathi.

According to the playwright, although there are multiple versions of the original story, in one of them the king gets a small fish, which then goes into the big fish, and eventually the big fish saves the island from the flood crisis. “Of course, there is this concept of divine intervention that somebody is actually saving them from the disaster. And the ones who were ultimately saved in this version of the story are the king and the saptarshi. At the end of the day, it’s the powerful who get rescued. And that’s what we saw even during the pandemic. The privileged stayed indoors, with access to emergency services, while the circumstances were quite different for others. In the play, I have tried to draw parallels to that situation or story structure in order to see the myth from a common man’s point of view,” she elaborated.

Summing it up, Neeraja said, “There are no direct references made to the pandemic in the play. It takes on a life of its own, where a lot of parallels can be drawn in terms of the inequality that we experience on a daily basis, and especially during a crisis or even in a conflict zone. It’s about how the common folk somehow never get to be on that ship, although they are the people who actually work the hardest physically. Even when it comes to rationing, these are the people who are always in queue. This again overlaps with the religious aspect. Even though there is a social hierarchy, we tend to use religion to reinforce that, to say that whatever we suffer today is because of karma. There’s this justification that we use in order to ensure that the hierarchical structure continues and we don’t question it.”

Catch the premiere of Matsya Avatar at Medai — The Stage Bengaluru on May 1 (3.30pm and 7.30pm). You can book your tickets here.

The story is about love, faith and social structures