Kalakshetra’s best known and most loved dance drama production is the six-part Ramayana series choreographed by Rukmini Devi, based mostly on Valmiki’s epic. It moved spare-tongued Rajaji to exclaim, ‘Rukmini Devi has built a veritable temple!’

Like a vast monument, the six parts took 15 years to build (1955-70), with the contribution of many scholars and composers. Rukmini Devi was assisted by dancers she had trained from childhood who could follow where her imagination led. She also had a great music composer in Mysore Vasudevachar whose understanding of Sanskrit, kavya niceties and the dance form itself created an outstanding score for the first four parts. V. Rajaram and Seetharama Sharma admirably completed the task.

What is unique about staging of this magnum opus at Kalakshetra’s 57th art festival (20-25 Dec)?

Marking the occasion is the release of the Ramayana DVDs filmed by Madhu Ambat Productions. Long discussed and abortively attempted in the past, it is director Leela Samson who has finally orchestrated a faithful documentation of Rukmini Devi’s pioneering work for posterity. And it is the present generation of dancers who have had the opportunity to record Rukmini Devi’s singular vision. Tremendous effort has gone in to preserve the work intact, including faithful replication of costume and colour, with original performers and old-timers consulted for authenticity.

Retaining classicism

The series is performed now by a younger generation of dancers. For many of them, Rukmini Devi is a distant memory. Unlike the old brigade, these artists have learnt their roles from their seniors and by observation of their performance. They have had to evolve their own conceptualisation of the whole, and their assigned roles. The biggest challenge is, of course, to avoid imitation, while retaining classicism and depth. The video documentation exercise has helped enormously to arrive at this precision.

Recalled by Kalakshetra to take charge of rehearsals, alumnus and veteran P.T.Narendran who has played several roles including Rama, is visibly exhilarated about the task. “I’m discovering that these works are as fresh as ever, in some ways more relevant today. Rukmini Devi’s creations are like Tyagaraja’s compositions. There’s nothing to change, but much to understand.”

Shaly Vijayan, who has an interesting combination in Manthara, Tara and Mandodari, explains that having worked with artists such as Janardhanan, Krishnaveni Lakshmanan and Balagopal has definitely helped her to make sense of the epic as a whole. Any anxieties? “Yes. I’m doing Manthara, a role done by Sarada (Hoffman) Teacher! It’s a turning point in the epic and offers great scope.” Even minor characters are challenging. Mandodhari appears once, briefly, but in a crucial, moving moment. “I realised how important eye movements can be.”

“If you tamper with a single movement, even alter slightly the position of a character, it becomes distortion,” remarks Ganga Thampi, who adds that Sita cannot be played as a mere woman, and to invest her with the divine demands deep focus and meditation.

“You can’t treat this as dancing alone. You must get into the character. Then the performance too strikes the right note and communicates to the audience,” Narendran explains. “Even Guhan’s hunters performing the stick dance must identify with their forest world. It is pure Bharatanatyam. But how evocative of tribal life.”

Says Ganga, “Hanuman (Balagopal) offering the kanaiyazhi to Sita (Krishnaveni) used to bring tears to my eyes everytime.” Haripadman, playing Hanuman, says wistfully, “We will definitely try to bring that quality… I’ll try my best.”

All agree that the Ramayana offers extraordinary opportunities to deal vividly with the navarasas. Narendran cautions, “To me if you are not where you should be it is a disturbing vulgarity. We must achieve accuracy in minute details.”

Emerging from his corner Sheejith Krishna (Dasaratha, Ravana, Guhan, and Rama by turns) explains, “I haven’t met Rukmini Devi, but I see her everyday in her work. 75 per cent of the beauty-bhava-bhakti is in the composition itself. But I don’t think we should do just what is given. Without changing the structure, there is scope to bring our individual stamp into what we do, make the work spring to life by letting it soak into our beings.”

Singing for the Ramayana series since 1985, vocalist Sai Shankar continues to be amazed by the dynamism and diversity of the music. “It was great to start by singing for the senior artists who performed with total understanding and involvement. When Janardhanan Sir showed Rama lamenting over the jewels Sita had dropped as Ravana abducted her, I forgot he was playing a role. It was easy to sing with feeling.” The tala varieties and kalapramana changes provide as many challenges as the new ragas he learnt from the production. He concludes, “The advantage is that they are all rendered with bhava, never for their own sake.”

The Kalakshetra festival has a Hindustani Samagam segment in collaboration with Gandharva Mahavidyalay, New Delhi, with many artists less featured in Chennai, like Sayeed Zafar Khan (sitar), Tejendra Narayan Majumdar (sarod), Padma Talwalkar, Vinayak Torvi (vocal) N.Rajam and Sangeeta (violin).

The last section, besides Carnatic music, has dance performances in three genres – "Punarnava" (Kathak, choreographed by Kumudini Lakhia) "Krishna in the Mahabharata" (Bharatanatyam, Sheejith Krishna), "Karna Sapatham" (Kathakali, Kalamandalam Gopi, Sadanam Balakrishnan).