I was going through my work directory just now and found the story from a long time ago that I thought I simply had to share. There was this play at Ranga Shankara (a fabulous place) and I was there to talk to the grand old man. After a stellar performance, he was thoroughly exhausted and couldn't talk to me much. But there was quite something about him.
Legends do not need applause. When a life is the manifestation of an art, appreciation is rather relative. When it is the doyen Yenagi Balappa on stage, a standing ovation is not surprising; it is almost mandatory. A full 25 years later, the legendary Balappa, rather frail at 96 years of age, donned the grease paint again to revive his own old production of Jagadjyothi Basaveshwara at the Ranga Shankara Festival. No faltering steps, not one hint of the frailties of age, Balappa's performance made the audience sit up in nothing but awe, the sheer brilliance of experience and talent could only evoke inspiration, a salute.
The play, directed by Balappa's son, Yenagi Nataraj, follows the life of the saint-poet Basavanna from birth, to his rise to the post of chief minister in king Bijjala's darbar, his reforms, and his renunciation. The play is peppered with his vachanas, also thoughts and reform measures that he tried to introduce. The story culminates in a marriage between the children of Haralayya, of a low caste and a former minister, a Brahmin. The social conditions are not such that a revolution of this gravity can be accepted; Basavanna has to renounce his post.
Balappa had always played the role of Basaveshwara, so famously that people in the northern parts of the state still bow to him with folded hands; its Basavanna himself in front of them. Quarter of a century later, when he agreed to perform once again, he wanted Haralayya's part, a role he had always wanted to play. It was a role he played to beyond perfection.
A little into the play, he walks in and there is a standing ovation. He starts singing in a brilliant high pitched voice and all other sounds become immaterial. The stage has no microphones, not that Balappa needs any. He is a different persona there, his steps are steady, voice modulation, perfect. Every time he is on stage, the awe-struck audience simply has to applaud; his performance almost demands it. A stellar performance; and this, 25 years after he last commanded the stage, this, when he had a fever; not that it could stop him from acting.
After the play ends, another ovation. Yenagi Balappa suddenly looks frail, sitting in a chair in the middle of the stage with the rest of the cast around him. He bends over, a third generation Yenagi boy, also in the cast, leaning on to his chair. There is still that awe that hangs around the auditorium.
The legend gets some fresh air, dips cream biscuits into a hot cup of tea. He is tired but the next show has to go on and he has to don the make up again.
When passion inspires, even age stands on the sidelines and watches, again in awe.