Shobana tells Shiv S Kumar about her latest production ‘Maya Ravan’ and why the epics need to be retold

“It’s a debonair Ravana,” declares Shobana, sitting straightbacked and elegant on a plastic chair in the very bare premises of Kalarpana’s new building in Alwarpet. She pauses, sees my bemused expression, and quickly adds — “but it sticks to the traditional format.”

“Maya Ravan, in its detailing of Ram, also raises him (Ram),” she explains. What she is referring to is the fuller delineation of Ram, who ironically, might otherwise be left with a slightly flatter characterisation: good, virtuous, and handsome, but somewhat lacking in colour and suffering in comparison from the wicked, but exciting Ravan.

It’s one of the delicious ironies of casting, she informs us, that it’s easier to find people to fill the roles of Ram, Sita and Lakshman, than it is to find a Mandodari, Mareecha or Ravan, because the latter require more histrionic ability.

The actress and danseuse is discussing her latest production, Maya Ravan, and her all-consuming passion, Kalarpana, the cultural centre.

Combining genres

For those of you not in the know, Maya Ravan is a path breaking attempt to retell the Ramayana, on stage: but it’s not straight drama, or musical or dance; it’s all of these and more. As Shobana puts it, the Ramayana is a story that has to be told, retold, and told again an infinite number of times, for every retelling brings with it fresh insights.

The accomplished actress (she won a Best Actress Award for her role in the Malayalam film Manichitrathazh), and dancer (“I’ve always been a serious classical dancer,” she points out) is now taking the epic ballet on a road show across the major metros in India, Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Pune, Kochi and Chennai, after a hugely successful tour of the U.S., where it was staged in 36 cities.

Star voices

Conceived, interpreted and choreographed by Shobana herself, Maya Ravan is in a dance and theatre format with dialogues in English. The voiceovers have been done by actors such as Naseerudhin Shah, Mohanlal, Jackie Shroff, Suhasini Maniratnam and Revathy, among others. “And then Tabu called me to say that she wants in too,” says Shobana, underscoring how successful it’s been.

Most artistes would be content with just being able to bring to stage a two-hour show with such stunning backdrops, exquisite costumes and spectacular lighting; but not Shobana. Her sights are set higher: on Kalarpana, or rather Kalarpana as she would have it.

It already exists as a dance school, where Shobana is, in a sense, trying to give something back to the art that she so closely identifies with. A disciple of Chitra Visveshwaran, Shobana wants to pass on her knowledge and skills to a new set of artistes.

She’s very clear about her role as preserver in that sense; she points to the exquisitely detailed murals from Indian mythology which adorn Ananda Hall, the hall which doubles as a classroom at Kalarpana. Each of them took a month to be painted, and she says you can’t find such craftsmen any more. Such art is dying because the craftsmen’s children are not taking after their parents, but being schooled in other professions because it doesn’t pay to be a craftsman any more.

This is why she visualises Kalarpana as both a living ‘gurukul’ with trained teachers imparting their priceless experience (“let’s not forget good teachers are hard to find because they’re so underpaid”) and a cultural storehouse, a ‘kala kosha’ with a one-of-a-kind physical and digital archive of artistic treasures in the form of audio, video, text and pictures — all accessible through the new media.

Shobana is both a traditionalist and experimenter. She believes that classical dance need not be boring if it is packaged and presented right. In her defence, Shobana points to her blending of Bharatanatyam with Western classical music (setting a tillana to Bach, or the Mahabharata to Vivaldi) and its acceptance in the supposedly conservative Chennai sabhas as a pointer to what can be achieved.

But the ultimate aim is not a dilettantish wish to dabble in this and that: rather, “it’s an attempt to get deeper into our own traditional forms, and strengthening them,” she says meditatively. Maya Ravan then, as she sees it, is an expression of her experiences as an artiste in totality, a reflection and a culmination of Shobana’s learning process as actress, teacher and artiste.

Maya Ravan

Venue: Music Academy

Date: July 18, 2008

Time: 7 pm

Tickets available

at Samsung,

T. Nagar, Landmark,

Nuts and Spices,

Fashion Folks (Adyar),


(044- 65341135)/

99400-28541 and

Music Academy

(3 days before the show).