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    Nirupama Nityanandan: a snake in her hair Essay

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    I’ve been on stage since the age of 10. The smell of makeup, dressing rooms, sweat, costumes in their boxes for months, the smell of the stage it’s so familiar, so strangely similar everywhere in the world,” muses Indian-born actress Nirupama Nityanandan. “How can there be people who don’t know those things? What strange creatures we are!”

    Watching Nityanandan as Queen Rani in the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis’s American premiere of Garish Karnad’s Naga Mandala (Play with a Cobra), it’s quite obvious that she is the most exacting, exotic creature on stage. Her movement is flawless and reveals some deeply ingrained training, some knowledge of the body that sets her apart from the other actors. She invites a cobra into her hair, and makes it move even though it’s only a ribbon around her arms and face like an animal with an agenda.

    The play, which ran on the Guthrie main stage from July through September under Garland Wright’s direction, is a combination of Indian folktales about Rani and her vain husband Appanna, or “Anyman.” Naga, the Cobra, falls in love with Rani and disguises himself as Appanna to wend his way into her bed each evening. Rani, who has never slept with the real Appanna, becomes pregnant and is charged with adultery.

    The two narrators of Naga Mandala the Playwright and the Story have contending ideas about how to resolve this tangle of husband, wife and snake. The Playwright invokes tragedy and doom: Rani is cleared of the charges, but Naga is crushed by a rock. The Story opts for a brand of not-unhappy resignation: The snake survives to live out his days, clandestinely, in Rani’s hair. But it is Rani, Appanna and Naga not the narrators who must endure each alternative, learn by experience which of the resolutions works and which doesn’t. Their lives are transformed into an array of possibilities. The Playwright and Story dictate, but the actors make it live.

    Nityanandan likes Minnesota. Last season she appeared in a succession of Greek tragedies at the Brooklyn Academy of Music under the direction of her mentor and friend, Ariane Mnouchkine, but experiencing New York did not prepare her for her first glimpse of the space in the middle of this country.

    Pathologically adaptable 

    “It’s so big,” she says. “I’ve liked being here in Minneapolis what one does in a place means why you stay. I feel completely comfortable staying here. I’m pathologically adaptable; it’s one of my strengths, and weaknesses.”

    What Nityanandan “does” is a product of a passionate education in Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance technique, which she studied for many years in Madras. “I started learning to dance because it was a dream of my mother’s–I think it threw her a bit that I took her dream so seriously.” She was only 20 when she won a year-long theatre scholarship in France.

    Paris proved to be the right city, at the right time. Ariane Mnouchkine, artistic director of the acclaimed Theatre du Soleil, found Nityanandan at an audition, a meeting which would mean more to the young performer than just international recognition. “She helped me discover what I already knew,” the actress says. Nityanandan shares some of the cultural obstacles Garish Karnad experienced in writing Naga Mandala: “While my past had come to my aid with a readymade narrative within which I could contain and explore my insecurities,” the playwright says, “there had been no dramatic structure in my own tradition to which I could relate myself.”

    Nityanandan faced a similar conundrum, and under Mnouchkine’s direction, she bloomed. “Ariane said I had a method when I worked. She showed me how everyone has their own processes.”

    Nityanandan discovered that her own “method” was closely linked to the classical training of her early years, but dance was merely a framework, a tool to access a more worldly, dramatic self. “She taught me to listen carefully–very, very carefully, with as simple an ear as possible–to myself and others,” Nityanandan says with a sweeping gesture. “But always keep your terrain of despair fertile; recognize where you are in the world, recognize your despair and keep working efficiently toward what you are to become.”

    How words resound 

    Nityanandan’s native language is English, but her ear lends itself to other tongues. She can understand four Indian dialects, and speak one reasonably well. Acting in French, she says, was particularly revealing. “When you speak a foreign language, already you can’t recognize yourself which is the first step in transforming yourself. You pay more attention to how the words resound.” Naga Mandala is the first time she has acted in English. “I tended to take the text for granted,” Nityanandan admits. “I didn’t give the words much attention.” Paradoxically, though Rani his relatively few lines, she seemed to dominate the entire play.

    Why is that? How did this delicate performer, so at home with a snake coiled in her hair, become so powerful a presence?

    “Well, I’ve had a tremendous amount of luck,” the actress responds modestly. She casts around for the anecdote, the “hook,” the definitive illustration of her talent that the interviewer is seeking. For Nityanandan, however, it has been a history of tiny, incremental steps. She doesn’t have an anecdote.

    And she leaves it at that.

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    Nirupama Nityanandan: a snake in her hair Essay. (2017, Nov 03). Retrieved from

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