I have a number of students who have just begun their EE in Theatre Arts. One of them, Lois, wanted to write one that looked at Asian theatre styles. In the course of our discussions we alighted on the idea of how the same ancient stories and myths form the narratives of theatre from right across the continent, but are told in a variety of styles. As always, prompted by my students, this got me thinking about the value of these stories in a modern context.
Then I came across this article, a book review, in the Times of India about how artists are trying to make these ancient tales reflect and have meaning for the modern society in which they are now performed.
I reproduce it here for you in full.
New avatars of Ramayana reflect modern times
The Indian epic Ramayana is moving beyond convention to more profound retellings to reflect new realities.
Ruminate on this: Kumbhkaran, the giant sibling of the demon king Ravana in the epic had to grapple with excess sleep all his life. Sleep got into the way of his contribution to the battle between Lord Ram and Ravan, leading to his death.
Lakshman, the sibling of Lord Ram, battled sleeplessness – or rather the guilt attached to the act.
“My sleep, what does it mean.. That I sleep for 14 years or I get 14 years of sleep in one night? Is sleep the only way to find out,” muses an agonised Lakshman as he fends off sleep. Kumbhakaran, on the other hand, is bothered about his sleep cycle that he monitors on his wrist watch.
Lakshman and Kumbhakaran debate and spar over the implications of “this sleep” in a contemporary anecdotal re-telling of a slice from Ramayana in “Nidravatwam” – a 50-minute solo performance by playwright and director Nimmy Raphel.
Puducherry-based Raphel, who was in the capital recently for the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the annual theatre festival of the National School of Drama, used a combination of traditional Indian Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi, traditional martial dances and contemporary body dance to narrate her interpretation of Ramayana – a transposition of the ideas associated with sleep into the realm of contemporary absurd projected against the realities of fickle sleep cycles.
Lakshman becomes a symbol of modern-day sleep abuser- caught in the throes of time, multi-tasking and deadlines.
Sleep also becomes a device of self-introspection to search for deeper truths about existence.
Kumbhakaran is the sloth who struggles with his psyche to keep the killing inertia away, but succumbs to sleeping over.
Both are connected by boons that dramatically alter their cycles of sleep and wakefulness. While Lakshman bequeaths his 14-year sleep to his wife, Kumbhakarn is allowed six-hours sleep.
The act has conflicting redemption for both – while it kills Ravana’s brother, who begs Lakshman to take away some of his sleep, for the latter, the lack of it brings uncertainty.
Raphael, who has studied dance at Kalamandalam in Kerala, describes her act as a “dialogue between Kumbhakaran and Lakshma on the battlefield”.
The monkey god Hanuman had taken pride in the fact that he had a better version of Ramayana than Valmiki and had even asked the seer to take it, says playwright-dancer and director Suresh Kaliyath.
A native of Kerala, Kaliyath, who is trained in the folk performing tradition of Ottanthullal, Kuchipudi and Parichamuttukali from Kerala Kalamandalam, has scripted a linear and impressionistic version of “Hanuman Ramayana” – the tale retold from Hanuman’s point of view.
The play opens with Hanuman’s hunger and his “fetish for food”.
“It is an attempt to expose the raw power of ritual and improvisation and link modern audiences with ideas in the centuries-old epic, Ramayana, where human complexities are involved in narration,” Kaliyath said.
“Human is worshipped as a symbol of strength, perseverance and devotion – and in my play he talks about the different hungers in life. I have tried to refer to the tradition of Muslim wedding feast in the northern Kerala and link it to Valmiki’s interpretation of the tale,” Kaliyath said.
Hanuman’s needs are different. “Hanuman has the freedom to speak of his carnal requirement of food,” he added.
A project, “A Modern Presentation of Ramayana: Dance in Three Parts and Comments” by Anita Ratnam, uses a short story by N.S. Madhavan, “Domestic Violence and Neurosurgeon”, to compare it with the Ahlaya episode where she turns into stone because of a curse and is redeemed by Ram.
“We are conducting a three-year Ramayana Project through which we are trying to open the epic to performers for interpretation,” Veenapani Chawla, director of the Puducherry-based Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts Research, said.
“We have used different experiences and performance genres to interpret the Ramayana. We had invited scholars like Ashish Nandy and Romila Thapar to speak at our seminars on Ramayana – and explore the various shades of perceptions,” Chawla added.
The Ramayana Project, supported by the Ford Foundation, is trying to rescue the epic from purism by giving it new voices – by members of different cultural groups including Dalits, tribals, Christians and even Muslims, who address social issues through the tome and try to draw parallels between modern society and that of the past, according to Chawla.
“The project was inspired by L. Rajappan, a Sangeet Natak Akademi award winning leather puppeteer who spent the last five years of his life at Adishakti,” Chawla said.
Every year since 2009, Adishakti has been hosting Ramayana festivals that present interpretations of the epic in a wide range of genres – using traditional and modern idioms from literature and folklore.
The Ramayana has been interpreted in numerous ways over the years. In southern India there are at least seven versions in Sanskrit derived from the ancient scriptures, nearly 20 versions in regional languages and at least 10 Asian avatars.
The epics have been tweaked to cater to local sensitivities in many of the versions.
Paula Richman, in her book “Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of Narrative Traditions in South Asia”, explores the different retellings of Ramayana – the story of Lord Ram, his wife Sita and Ravan – from the different communal and socio-cultural perspectives of India.