DANCE In a meticulously executed Kudiyattam performance, an oft-ridiculed character of the Ramayana is portrayed in a new light. Tripurari Sharma
The story of Shoorpanakha is intertwined with the narrative of Ram. She forms the link between him and Ravan, thus giving the tale a twist that also plays with Sita’s destiny. The episode of her meeting with Ram is often treated with amusement, often belittling her character, in the Ram Lila of Delhi and around. However, watching a performance of this episode in the Koothambalam at Vadakkum Nathan in Thrissur revealed many more dimensions and shades that can emerge from the epic. The traditional Kudiyattam and its methodology and aesthetics have been passed through generations and, hence, the dramatisation is meticulous and austere in its execution.
The performing space was a raised platform around which the audience were seated. A brass lamp was placed just below the frontal edge of the platform. The steady flame of the lamp became the connection between the actor and the audience. The wooden pillars, dimly visible in this light, receded into the shadows as the accompaniment of the drums filled the night-long performance, helping to un-layer the shades of the story, taking the audience along. The elaborate and nuanced mudras (hand gestures), singing and abhinaya built the atmosphere, the story and the emotion of the event. The length of the performance gave it scope to delve into moments and give expanse to its emotion. Each character was allowed to develop, and the circumstances revealed therein rendered judgement redundant. Ram had his moments of glory and Shoorpanakha too stood high as a character, different from Sita but no less.
The actor performing Ram sat on a stool placed close to the lamp on the platform. He faced the flame as he enacted the experience of being in the forest. He described the beauty of nature, the interaction with creatures of the wild, and a sense of bliss created by the closeness of Sita. By folding the attire inwards and shifting his stance, the actor denoted the presence and feminine grace of Sita. Portraying dual characters is a part of the Kudiyattam tradition. However, on this particular occasion, the other actors portrayed only a single character, while Ram and Sita were depicted by a singular performer. This in itself eloquently defined the fact that the two were inseparable. The oneness of their bonding was reinforced by the ease with which the actor harmoniously blended their characteristic opposite energies.
As he played Ram, the enacting of Sita could also be interpreted as the internalisation of Sita by Ram — her presence as being contained within him, as having become a part of him. It was this connection that was threatened when Shoorpanakha entered as a beautiful maiden in Lalitha roop and approached Ram. Hence, Sita was afraid, and this fear as internalised by Rama compelled him to maintain a distance from the enticing damsel. A young woman performed Shoorpanakha in this part of the episode. When rejected by both Ram and Lakshman, she took on the form of a demon, and from this point a male actor began his impersonation of Shoorpanakha. He did not pretend becoming a woman. Huge cloth breasts were stitched on the outer front of his costume. Thus created, the character narrated her life story, her speech carrying a distinct nasal refrain, and the pathos did evoke some merriment in the audience. It was interesting to note that this actor’s performance was freer than the others, and the conspicuous lack of the use of the mudras made it closer to the Lokdharmi style of performance.
Aware of Shoorpanakha’s presence and concerned about Lakshman’s wellbeing, Ram decided to deal with Shoorpanakha. He made a dramatic exit, only to re-enter with a sword, mildly smeared with red. Before the audience could gauge what had transpired, a heartrending lament pierced the quietness of the night. The sound was of an invisible Shoorpanakha and emanated from the space outside the building. It grew louder, sharper and closer as the distraught woman moved inwards. She did not enter the stage but emerged at the doorway behind the audience, which was diametrically opposite the performance platform. She sat at the entrance and wailed. The audience moved and made way for her. A still and quiet Ram saw her from his position on stage, the sword still in hand. Shoorpanakha stood up and tottered a few steps forward — the false breasts of cloth had been slit and red shreds of red cloth were bursting like flesh. The face too was similarly disfigured. The aharya brought forth the horror of the mutilation. It is to the actor’s credit that, despite the apparent artificiality of the wounds on the body, Shoorpanakha’s agony seemed insurmountable. She would sit and then move a few steps and then sit again, as if weak in strength but mustering the courage to move towards Ram. The wailing did not stop and the grief seemed inconsolable. She stood amidst the people, as Rama stood isolated on the stage. Her lament sought justice.
Then Shoorpanakha faced Ram and he had to face her and her mutilated body. The steady flame in between stood witness as time stood still. The performance did not show the act of mutilation. It skips the visibly dramatic moment. The action is not important — it is the consequence which is of greater significance. The doer must face the imprint of his deed on the body of the other. Ram had no answer. Shoorpanakha vowed to avenge the wrong done to her and then through the stage made her exit. After she had left, Ram explained his deed, he narrated the action. The audience heard him too. The “happening” was not what the performance was about; it was about realisation. It was about Ram facing Shoorpanakha, tormented by the violence he had inflicted. The intimate space of the performance facilitated such a delicate communion with the essence of the performance.
The sombre night echoed the lament of a woman wronged, long after the drums had grown quiet. The performance was not merely an enactment of the past, it was an act of reckoning that searches its own enigmatic occurrence. Ram and Sita were played by the same actor, while two actors played Shoorpanakha. Beauty and vengeance were split. Who can tell which was the real self of the woman?