Rehearsal Log

Ajithlal’s Nagamandala Experience: An Exploration of Appanna and Naga

Ajithlal Sivalal played the parts of Appanna, the husband and Naga, the lover in the Malayalam production of Girish Karnad’s play, Nagamandala. He consolidated his work notes and experiences into a comprehensive document. Read excerpts below and also find the link to the entire document.

Nagamandala poster
Nagamandala poster

Decision To Do The Play

Nagamandala is an all-time favourite play so from the day I watched the play, attempting to do the play was on my mind. Few friends sent me Sunayana’s casting call but I didn’t really want to do it because I had decided to take a month off to chill and reflect. On April 15 I got Sunayana’s message about having a talk after I finish my production work. We had a small chat about the work. I asked around about her work but no one had really seen her work as such. So the next day I called her and asked a few questions:

  1. Why Nagamandala?
  2. Why Nagamandala in Malayalam in Bangalore?
  3. How are you going to do it?

I got satisfactory answers of which I remember the word ‘magic‘. She sounded confident in what she is said and that give me the confidence to say ‘yes’ to Nagamandala. I asked for food, stay, travel and profit and she said yes.

Indian Express Ajithlal
Pic Courtesy: New Indian Express

Casting Workshop

While travelling to Bangalore I read the entire script twice and planned my workshop strategy.

  1. Observe their way of working
  2. Work towards getting Kappanna or Kurudiamma’s role
  3. Don’t be too judgemental

Casting workshop was interesting in that she explored character possibilities by using indirecct ways to challenge the actors. But the way the space was arranged was a disappointment. The exercise Priya made us do on the first day seemed very basic but I reminded myself to be open to this new environment. By the end of the casting workshop I got cast as Naga and Appanna. While the workshop was in progress I could sense myself moving towards these characters.

Rehearsal And Structure Building

Predecided Dos And Don’ts

  1. Don’t to the curved palm over head to depict snake
  2. Be open as much as possible, opening up possibilities for the director
  3. Share thoughts and suggestions with the director
  4. Don’t hold back
  5. Don’t apply snake charmer sounds to snake movement
  6. Always play up rather than underplay

Initially, rehearsal started with a walking exercise intended to find the common rhythm, timing and tune of different bodies in the space. I wasn’t feeling fully warmed up because my earlier plays had heavy warmup routines. But gradually this warmup pushed me to create a new process of preparing the self for the rehearsal. The lack of a longer warm up reflected in the work during structuring in terms of breaking out of postures and adjusting the actor.

The first element of character exploration was distinguishing between Appanna and Naga’s walk. How could that be the same but also different?

  1. Created a common walk for both
  2. Embodiment of character can make a difference so played with that
  3. Naga feels the heaviness of the whole body and more line symmetry for Appanna’s body. First played Appanna at age 30 but Sunayana asked me to play it up to 35.
  4. Naga was created out of a more soft breath and zigzag nature but not fully playing it out
  5. Sharper look for Appanna and softer, infinite look for Naga (snake is technically blind so eyes are more like antenna, so keeping that sense)

These are the basic points used to explore the walk. We tried a couple of ways and Sunayana made observations and suggested corrections.

Read Ajithlal’s entire exploration of his Appanna and Naga characters here: Ajithlal’s Nagamandala Experience (PDF, 17 pages)

Rehearsal Log

Nagamandala Rehearsal Log

This post was first published on the Indian Ensemble blog on 28 April 2018.

Stage 1

This is a good time to check in on rehearsals. Nagamandala opens on 23rd May at Ranga Shankara. We have worked on one scene so far. Nagamandala was not written with any scene numbers, just two acts and a prologue. After having done some dividing, we have arrived at 17 scenes. Even at a speed of one scene a day, this is really cutting it fine. The show is on the 23rd. For the last year of the director’s program, I have been finding myself approaching show day with less than a month to go and no scene work started. I thought this time would be different, but it is not.

Nagaamandala is play that has been countless times. It’s very popular, common, and in fact is being performed the same week as we are in Hindi at Chowdiah Memorial Hall for a Girish Karnad festival. Having been told a lot and several times about the writer’s stickler for accuracy when it comes to people following scripts, I was surprised with his one-line response to my lengthy pitch for an adaptation that read ‘feel free to interpret it as you please.’ Given the green light from Mr. Karnad, we proceeded to adapt the context and re-imagine some elements of the play

So far the process has included:


This has involved working with the story and context of the play. The events of the play are dependent on the young female protagonist being completely unaware, until the very end, that her husband and the man she is sleeping with at night are two different men. She reconciles herself with not asking questions and is granted agency because of her deification by means of proving her purity. Whether or not she knows all throughout is ambiguous, and her knowledge is only confirmed at the end of the play. Rani accepts both her oppression as well as the way out of it that is offered rather than claimed by her. The initial work with the dramaturg was towards interpreting the play such that Rani is someone who makes choices and navigates her unhappy marriage to claim agency within it. To do this, we interpret Rani as someone who doesn’t accept her fate and makes the conscious choice of having a lover outside of her marriage.
The other key thing to focus on with the dramaturgy of the play was its context. Being staged in Malayalam, we needed to find a context in which this story could occur.


After two days of auditions (to which six people turned up of which I wanted to cast two) I spent several days reaching out to people and looking for actors to begin a casting workshop. I wanted to work with trained or experienced actors that could give a good amount of time every day from now till the 23rd of May, and also be interested in traveling with the production.

The purpose of the casting workshop was to figure out which actor would be suitable for which role, for me to set the language of the rehearsal room, and for the actors to get a gist of what the rehearsal process would be like. The casting workshop is also a process that is great for finding the right team because it becomes clear over the period which performers will last and which will be consistently late or drop out entirely.


Working with the movement director on Naga’s transformation, how Kurudiamma will be carried, specific body languages for each character, and a relationship between Naga and Rani.

  • First scene between Naga and Rani
  • Character and voice with Kurudiamma
  • Interactions between Rani and Kurudiamma
  • Trying out sound while the actors perform scenes and the transformation from Naga to Appannan

CHALLENGES SO FAR (all the standard ones)

  • Raising money
  • Getting all the actors to come at the same time for long periods of time on any day except weekends
  • Finding actors
  • Transliteration
  • Finishing everything that I want to by May 23rd


The production needs to meet the following deadlines in order to be able to get on stage satisfactorily.

  • 23rd May – Show day
  • 15th May- Runs
  • 12th & 13th May – Chorus scenes
  • 10th May – Set, Costumes, Props