The Ramayana is an epic that epitomises inclusion and generously invites multiple interpretations. It is a complex web of stories that has crossed national, cultural, caste and religious barriers with amazing ease.The 6-day Ramayana series begins on Wednesday at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha.

The Ramayana is a living epic, not dead literature — it is constantly reinvented, re-imagined, reinterpreted by poets, writers, artistes and performers of all genres, not only in India but many other cultures across Asia. A recent creation of the six kaandams or segments of the Ramayana was commissioned by the Cleveland Aradhana Festival in April 2011, with eminent composers and choreographers working with a cast of more than 50 dancers and musicians.

A few years ago, the Cleveland Aradhana Committee decided to expand the scope of the dance section of its festival by inviting inputs on the Ramayana from young people growing up in North America. As an experiment, 30 individuals in the age group of 10 to 20 were divided into groups and assigned a kaandam each from the epic. The reference works were Valmiki's Ramayanam and Rajaji's version of it. They were asked to analyse the story, define the character of the main players, address morally indefensible actions by them, if any, and write a fresh interpretation. It was an incredible experience interacting with these individuals on conference calls, hearing fiery arguments against Rama (the killing of Vali by stealth and the ordeal by fire of Sita), and the unjustness of the curse on Ahalya. It was evident that despite modern influences in a very rational western world, these children had developed a great reverence for the epic.

Artistes of the calibre of Chitravina Ravikiran, Suguna Purushothaman, Rukmini Ramani and Neyveli Santhanagopalan were commissioned to pen the lyrics and compose the music to add to the existing body of compositions written for dance. The choreographers, Savithri Jagannatha Rao, Narthaki Nataraj, Jayanthi Subramanium, Anitha Guha and Rhadha brought their unique vision into the creation.

To add to the uniqueness, the composers sang for the dance performance of their creation along with artistes such as S. Sowmya, Papanasam Ashok Ramani, Gayathri Venkataraghavan, Nisha Rajagopal, K. Gayatri, S. Girish Sriranjani Santhanagopalan, Anahita and Apoorva.

Artistic interactions

Pulling the team together offered its own challenges. Fifty-two dancers from different schools in North America, the Middle East and India, performed multiple roles in more than one kaandam.

The choreographers had numerous interactions with the musicians to match the music and tempo with the moods that the characters would portray.

A strong spirit of shared vision, give and take, and artistic integrity prevailed. Ravikiran coaxed the dancers to accept a complex Chaturashra Tishram in the concluding Tillana but willingly curtailed the fight scenes in the final episode. Neyveli Santhanagopalan changed ragas for certain scenes based on Anitha Guha's request.

It was a challenging experience for the younger dancers to work with such a range of choreographers, dance styles and musical structures. The experience of playing different roles and bringing alive all the characters, playing rakshasas, munis, monkeys, heroes and heroines, all back-to-back, was singular.

A recipe for a multiple personality disorder, one would think; or a trial by fire — not for Sita, but for the dancers, to prove their capacity and versatility in switching roles, genders, species and above all, costumes, in seconds.

Each composer rose to the occasion magnificently, creating masterpieces — Ravikiran with his exciting juxtaposition of music, created for violin and flute during the Maricha-Subahu sequence (Bala Kaandam), and the eerie Ravana Rama Yuddhame (Yuddha Kaandam), Suguna Purushothaman's incredible music for Kooni and Kaikeyi culminating with Dasharatha's lament (Ayodhya Kaandam); Rukmini Ramani's superb compositions for Shurpanakha and the Jatayu Moksham; Neyveli Santhanagopalan's beautiful lyrical creation for Vali and Tara (Kishkinda Kaandam) and his exquisite bhakti-filled pieces for Hanuman (Sundara Kaandam). One cannot fail to mention the cameo roles played by some of the choreographers — Rhadha as Kooni, Narthaki Nataraj as Kaikeyi and later as Mandodari, Jayanthi Subramanium as Shabari — these were gems; precious moments glowing in one's minds forever.

Intense rehearsals for three months in Chennai followed by tight schedules in Cleveland, marinating in the Ramayana from day-break to nightfall, colonising every inch of space at the hotel, thus forcing everybody including the hotel staff to marinate in it as well — one could hear the Mexican waiters humming the Indrajit-Lakshmana fight swara sequence. But the amount one learnt — about music, about dance, about the Ramyana, especially, with Sudha Seshayyan's lectures — was indescribable! An exhausting yet exhilarating experience…

A timeless epic

The Ramayana is an epic that epitomises inclusion and generously invites multiple interpretations.

It is a complex web of stories that has crossed national, cultural, caste and religious barriers with amazing ease. We have recently seen extremist activities that rigidly refuse to accept the glory and incredible proliferation of stories based on the Ramayana, and their attempts to stop publications, to censor and judge which interpretation or analysis is worthy, according to them. But the Ramayana is beyond judgement or ownership, as this production showed, rejoicing in the individual interpretations and moods that each musician and dancer brought in. In the Yuddha Kaandam, when Rama repudiates Sita, questioning her virtue, she says, in the lyrics penned by Ravikiran, Ivarum oru kanavaro? “Can you call him a husband?” The Ramayana gives us a democratic space to question existing norms and interpret social relationships; a precious heritage of love and tolerance. We hope that there will be many more opportunities to relive this eternal epic.

(V.V. Sundaram is an entrepreneur and organiser. Sangeeta Iswaran is a dancer, choreographer, research scholar and social worker.)

Correction

This copy has been corrected for a factual error.