Of Sitas and Satis

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Interview Ranjana Gauhar on her production that gives a voice to four pivotal women from the Ramayana. TAPATI CHOWDURIE

Voice and vision:Ranjana Gauhar in ‘Tejasa.’
Voice and vision:Ranjana Gauhar in ‘Tejasa.’

Re-examining the epics is an ongoing process in the arts. Recently Odissi dancer Ranjana Gauhar presented a new production in which she looked with the contemporary woman’s sensibilities at the events that shaped the lives of four important women in the Ramayana: Sita, Kaikeyi, Mandodari and Surpanakha. Here she speaks about the making of the production, ‘Tejasa.’

What led you to choose the characters of Sita, Kaikeyi, Surpanaka and Mandodari from the Ramayana?

These four women of the Ramayana, with so much of apparent difference amongst them, have intrigued me ever since I was a child and heard their stories in my mother’s lap. Ever since I became a dancer I have been toying with the idea of doing the Ramayana and their story was revealed to me as a divine inspiration, so to say.

Critics have said that your interpretation has been different and unique, not there in any known versions of the Ramayana.

As a woman living in the 21st century I think each of these women of the Treta yuga or epoch, speaks of her own predicament, beliefs and disillusionments, which we women are experiencing in the present time also. Though I live in Kali yuga I could identify their disillusionments with the modern woman’s. Sita had her own bit of disillusionment, when at the behest of the people she was asked to go for a fire test to prove her purity, and I could cry out and say “I am Sita and not Sati”.

Kaikeyi, who had a mind of her own, had no hesitation in deciding that the throne of Ayodhya should go to her son Bharata. Why should it only be a father’s prerogative to make decisions for their offspring? She was isolated for her decision.

Surpanaka had fallen in love with the handsome Ram, and was it such a great offence that needed her to have her nose chopped off and be humiliated? Couldn’t Lakshman show any human qualities by just a refusal rather than being inhuman? Surpanaka was disillusioned and became mad with rage, and revenge was in her mind.

As for Mandodari she felt cheated and disillusioned with her husband Ravana’s greed for Sita who was pure, chaste and beautiful. Didn’t she have the same qualities too?

I merely tried retelling this universal story of the Ramayana which has stood the test of time, from the perspective of a modern ethos.

The story is part mythology and part history. How has it stood the test of time?

Each narrated her story from her personal point of view. In doing so, they have reflected on their conflicts and compulsions; their inherent strength and their claim to dignity. The values represented are eternal and so are their emotions and hence it is contemporary and will ever remain so.

You as Sita were in the main role when each of the others were as disillusioned as Sita. How was the yarn spun?

Sita as all know is the daughter of Mother Earth, who is a mother to all, who is present everywhere and a witness to all their activities. She is wise, compassionate and non-interfering. So in my production ‘Tejasa,’ I made Mother Earth the chief narrator who wove the epic struggles of these four women in and out of the Ramayana even as she transported them from age to age, into the present and to the future.

What prompted you to choose four classical dance styles to represent the four?

Our country is rich in its cultural heritage and I therefore wanted to delve deep into this heritage. My own style, Odissi, I thought would be suitable for depicting the character of Sita who was raised in Mithila, which is close to present-day Odisha. I chose Kathak for the depiction of Kaiykeyi’s character, because she was the consort of Dasaratha, king of Ayodhya in North India, and Kathak is a North Indian style of dance. I thought that the precision and swift footedness of Kathak will go well with Kaiykeyi’s character. Mohiniattom is considered to be the dance of the charmer. Surpanaka was charmed and wanted to charm. Therefore I thought this would be suitable for the character of Surpanaka. And of course Kuchipudi is a beautiful form that would suit the role of Mandodari who is a beautiful person.

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