KALAKSHETRA Dancing, costume, sets and lighting… every aspect of the Ramayana series of dance dramas deserved credit

What joy to hear K. Sai Shankar and K. Hariprasad sing splendidly, seamlessly, alternating voices for “Sita Swayamvaram”, the first of Kalakshetra's Ramayana series. Every word rang clear, every phrase composed by Mysore Vasudavachar was soaked with feeling, in raga-ripe verse and viruttam, empowering the dancers every step of the way. Highlighting the composer's excellence in swara-jati blends, they also explored the scope he offers for manodharma.

This “Sita Swayamvaram” belonged to P.T. Narendran. From the moment Viswamitra enters Dasaratha's court to demand Prince Rama to defend his forest rituals from the demons, Narendran was all commanding presence and quicksilver responses, his abhinaya moving from fury to reluctant compliance, flowing from an assured grasp of the idiom and secure internalisation of character.

Poetic mudras

Rukmini Devi depicts Viswamitra not only as an imperious yogi, but as a paternal mentor to Rama and Lakshmana, guiding them to Mithila. Flowing with ragamalika magic, the sage became a rasika, his poetic mudras pointing out the wonders of Nature to the young princes. Humour had full play as he reeled back from the dizzy mountain heights, sprang away from a supine serpent or teased the excitable Lakshmana. The trio brought the forest to life, throbbing with roars, birdcalls and scents.

Action shifts to the harried city in the contest to win Sita – Janaka wanting the best groom, the competing kings envious and Sita fearing Rama's failure to win her. Red-robed Ravana seated in sole majesty (according to Ananda Ramayanam), creates terror by his mere presence. Utilising Gambhira Nattai's resonance, Sheejith Krishna's Ravana balanced the magnificence of Kathakali's stylised movements in bragging his might, with a kaleidoscope of feelings after his failure -- disbelief, shame, humiliation, rage, disgust…

Insights into the darker side of the human psyche were tellingly drawn by Manthara (Shaly Vijayan) and Kaikeyi (Ganga Thampi) in “Srirama Vanagamanam”, as the humpbacked maid beguiles the queen to forsake her innate nobility for fear of losing her prime status. Swaras and jatis turned dialogue into a drama of shifts and contrasts, ending with a silhouetted Manthara watching the queen's split mind engaged in spot-lit debate. No match for her mulishness was poor Dasaratha (Sheejith Krishna), played with a decrepitude that made him appear paternal instead of the doting spouse to his favourite wife, and lose dimensions in monochromatic grief.

It is difficult to make unblemished virtue appealing, but Narendran playing Rama this time, invested the hero with both moral strength and tenderness – pleading with Kaikeyi to tell him why his father was sorrow-stricken, or begging Sita not to share his exile.

Rich ground

Of the first three parts, “Paduka Pattabhishekam” offered the richest ground for the navarasas. The cast had only to follow the evocative music and choreography to recreate an amazing range of visuals and bhava, which they did for the most part. Haripadman depicted Bharata's anger-steeped sorrow and Ramabhakti with sincerity. As folk kolattam replaced courtly tillanas, Sheejith Krishna's Guhan blended a chieftain's authority with devotion to the liege lord. The challenging segments of sheer meditation – Guhan's tribe worshipping the Ganga in the exquisite Khambodi-drenched opening scene, or in the evening riverside prayers by Rama, Sita and Lakshmana, came through convincingly. The mere drinking of the Ganga's water or anointing heads with sap from the banyan tree became purifying rituals.

The audience revelled in “Paduka's..” choreographic marvels. The simplest movements and mood lighting created the illusion of a boatride across the river. Ragas Latangi and Naganandini imaged the mountain slopes as much as the angika abhinaya and the sweeping eye movements. A breathtaking visual had dancing kinnaras flashing in and out at the topmost peak.

The moving finale saw the four brothers united in mourning their father, and Bharata urging Rama to return home. The entire cast was on stage, enveloped by lilting Kalyani and praising Rama's inviolable ideals, universally relevant through the rolling ages.

Haripadman (Bharata) etched the sincerity that the role demanded, in righteous anger and pathos. Narendran as Rama united dignity with bhava, sparkling in sringara interludes, melting in fraternal love, majestic in his commitment to truth. Lakshmana (Sibi Sudarsan) showed spiritedness. As always in Kalakshetra, the costumes and sets were a treat to the eye. So was the caring lighting design. The young cast impressed with nritta. The group formations, special to Kalakshetra productions, emerged with precision and verve.

Casting newcomers with seasoned artistes, though a welcome trend, resulted in notable unevenness. Breathing adolescent simplicity, the first Rama (Shyamjitkiran), Lakshmana (Sreenath) and Sita (Savita) as also her sakhis, playing the age of innocence, impacted well. The next two Sitas could not get beyond the sweet smile. Other youngsters showed that they have a long way to go in grasping intent and credibility in interaction. Whether Dasaratha, Janaka, Kausalya, Ahalya or a nameless attendant, they could not get far on rehearsed movements alone, without inscaping the essence of character and bhava in one of the world's greatest dhvani kavyas.

The vocal blend in “Vanagamanam” (K. Hariprasad, Shyama) remained patchy and uneasy, the feminine shrillness ironing out the range of moods essential to the production. “Paduka” fared better (K. Sai Shankar, S. Murali), though the voice shifts lacked flow and continuity. Jyotsana Menon and Nirmala Nagaraj (nattuvangam) had confidence, while K.P. Anil Kumar (mridangam), V. Srinivasan (violin), T. Sashidhar (flute) and Rijesh (maddalam) contributed their own binding spells every day.