The Ramayan festival at the Adishakti campus in Puducherry was a space for reflective theatre, providing a context for intellectually demanding and sensitive performances. Spare and elegant, the campus seems to nurture performances rather than just present them.

The Ramayan festival at Adishakti offered a rare opportunity to spectators for both watching an array of performances linked to the epic, and reflecting on them with practitioners and scholars.

The dearth of alternate spaces which can counter the bland foyer and proscenium stage experience, has affected the very imagining of art and culture festivals in India. This has imposed a sameness to most festivals on the urban circuit. Any talk of the success of the Ramayan Festival, a long term enquiry into the nature of plurality underlying the epic, (supported by the Ford Foundation and organised at the theatre company and laboratory Adishakti's campus on the outskirts of Puducherry) must begin therefore, with a description of its space.

The main auditorium with its high ceiling, fitted with features for natural acoustics is carefully, even lovingly, constructed following principles of traditional architecture with in-built provisions for natural light. The outdoor amphitheatre like space is a perfect foil and is suited for more elaborate events. Spare and elegant, the campus seems to nurture performances rather than just present them.

In its second year, the Ramayan Festival was able to offer an alternate envisioning of a festival based on a proper regard for the human capacities of its organisers as well as its spectators. For instance, support functions for the 10 day festival were provided by Adishakti's team of full time actors, which contributed to the intimacy and unfussy efficiency of the event. For the audience, the absence of administrative over-burden and micro-planning alone, eliminated festival stress.

It was curated by Rustom Bharucha, independent critic, writer and dramaturge, and Adishakti's founder and artistic director Veenapani Chawla. “A mega festival with programming vying for attention and no time for reflection is not my idea of how a festival ought to be structured. I am interested in the residue after the festival is over,” says Bharucha.

And so, while individual encounters were intense, generous swathes of time were left free. Thus, although an evening performance was the high point of each day, performers, interlocutors and viewers came together the next morning for discussions that stretched right up to lunch time. The afternoons were left free and it was back again to another one of a kind performance in the evening.

Easy exchange

On the face of it, the 10 day festival appeared to have aimed high and might even be termed intellectually demanding. A Sanskrit play by Bhavabhuti, with a fine presentation by writer Arshiya Sattar, a lecture on the Thai Ramayan by Professor Srisurang Poolthupya, an expert on the Thai Ramayan the Ramkien, a Nangiar Koothu performance titled Sita Parityagam by Kapila Nagavallikkunnel and a discussion on the art form, a session by Russain scholar Vladimir Latsenko on the chanting of the Ramayan, historian A.R.Venkatachalapathy's brilliant account of the Dravidian critique of the Ramayana, and Carnatic singer Aruna Sairam who followed up her inspired concert ‘Bhavayami Raghuramam’, exploring the Ramayana through music, with a long conversation on her experiences with voice training, were the high points of the festival. Thanks to thoughtful curating and sensitive handling, while these encounters between practitioners and listeners were quite intense, unusually for the seminar-festival circuit, nobody felt intimidated by the specialists.

The festival began with a Hindi adaptation of Bhavabhuti's Sanskrit classic, Uttara Rama Charita by theatre guru Kavalam Panniker, his first play in Hindi. Sattriya monks came all the way from Majuli, Assam and performed Ram Bijoy, a play written by Shankaradeva, the 16th century founder of the sect, in a magical outdoor performance. The pure and lyrical movements of the Vaishnav monks had a pristine folk feel as well as subtle and rigorous stylisation.

This was followed by Madan Gopal Singh, a Sufi singer whose deep yet unaffected erudition and empathetic sense of the cultural history of Punjab, gave him a rare feel for his subject and made his listeners rethink the superficial and sharply reduced Sufi experience that is the subject of much marketing effort and consumerist programming these days. As Singh explained, the folk and Sufi poets of the region did not seem to take Ram as the central figure of the epic too seriously. From the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries these poets had preferred to select fragments from the epic and work it into their songs. Thus, in a striking instance of how one culture can switch a received symbol or imagery with its own version, the golden deer of the Ramayan becomes the mysterious black deer in Sufi songs and it is on the latter that a besotted Sita expends her deep and obsessive passion in more than one song.

Taking a break from the traditional Indonesian dance of his early training, Sardono Kusumo, one of Indonesia's leading traditional dancers and modern choreographers produced a charming improvisational piece on the three male characters of the Ramayana: Ram, Hanuman and Ravan. He was supported by Adishakti actress Nimmy Raphael.

Magical encounters

There was more. A Yakshagana troupe from Mangalore provided a rousing three hour performance of Indrajitu Vadhe. The group of about 50 actors and musicians began in proper ritualistic fashion, trooping onto the earmarked performance area after circling the open air space accompanied by traditional songs of invocation. The high powered performances gave spectators the opportunity to flow with the irrepressible energy while also imbibing the slower, more personal nuances of this story. Later, in a truly magical unplanned encounter, the 100 odd viewers were led by the actors off stage into the indoor auditorium which served that night as the green room. There, surrounded by open suitcases, bundles, paint, props, crowns and masks lying on the floor, they were introduced to the actors once again, their shy demeanours showing them up for what they really were. Biotechnology students, salesmen, bank clerks-- modest men transformed by their passion and deep feeling for the Yakshagana form and the lure of the mythic characters they played. It was a privilege to feel so close to them right after a performance and see the mechanics of the troupe from that close.

The festival also offered opportunities for discovery. The Muslim Ramayana from Kerala or the Mapilla Ramayana as it is known, existed as an oral text till it was collected by Malayalam scholar and writer M.N. Karassery in 1960. The tribal Ramayana of the Wynad district in Kerala has a text which combines the fabulous with the subversive and has more departures from any notions of the “original” text that any one is likely to come across. Scholar and critic Samik Bandopadhyay's presentation on Abanindranath Tagore's version of the Ramayan was a revelation too. The artist, who is often maligned today for his Indic twilight phase, had used a few incidents and characters from the epic to create a sharply satirical and utterly modern piece of work. It combined text and images drawn from popular culture, advertisements reflecting the beginnings of a consumerist age, newspaper clippings and headlines on the War, the early years of Hollywood as well as the era of expanding civic infrastructure.

The organisers mean to expand the orbit next year to include more interpretations from South East Asian performers and scholars. There are plans to include contemporary re-workings of the Ramayan from the region as well as Wayang kulit shadow puppetry. “I will keep the informality of discourse but engage with scholars from India and elsewhere and performances will be the spring boards for discussion”, promises Bharucha.

Unhurried and focused, the experience of this festival is inseparable from Adishakti's tree lined space. In its second year, it already has the makings of a site specific event given its proximity to culturally vibrant centres like Puducherry, Chennai and Bangalore.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012