Reinterpreting the characters from the Ramayan

Anita Ratnam in ‘AH SU RA’

Anita Ratnam in ‘AH SU RA’   | Photo Credit: T_Singaravelou

‘Ah Su Ra’ takes a closer look at three important characters in the Ramayana

‘AH SU RA, A Ramayana Triptych’, featuring senior dancers well-known nationally and internationally, and Sangeet Natak Akademi award winners, Anita Ratnam (Neo Bharatam) as Ahalya, Sharmila Biswas (Odissi) as Surpanakha and Geeta Chandran (Bharatanatyam) as Ravana, sounded like a collaborative effort on misunderstood characters from the Ramayana. On the contrary, they were stand-alone pieces, some were characterisations and some were social commentaries. AH SU RA was presented at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha.

There are many versions of the Ahalya episode, as regards her birth, on whether she committed adultery knowingly, on whether she was turned into a stone on Sage Gautama’s curse, etc. Valmiki clearly states that Ahalya saw through Indra’s guise, and yet obliged him as the king of gods, but Gautama’s curse is less clear, ‘… unseen by all beings you shall live on in this hermitage while repentantly resting in dust.’

Artistic licence is taken usually to make the narrative more dramatic, and Anita’s presentation was built around the subtext ‘… a woman of pure gold imprisoned in stone… as the veil lifts to a new womanhood… Ahalya finds her voice and questions the injustice forced upon her.’

The visuals were literal — a beautiful clearing in the forest with rocks, and Anita as Ahalya, was crouched as a rock. The piece showcased her struggle and the eventual break out (of a metallic sheath). The soundscape was an eclectic mix of the Ahalya Kruta Rama Stothram and Sri Suktam with non-descript sounds, alternating with strongly-worded voice-overs.

The starting point was Ahalya’s predicament but the scope stretched far beyond to the modern woman’s world with ‘.. ideas of entrapment, hegemony of patriarchy, narrow world view..’ The woman silently shouts for help as the victim’s lips and tortured eyes are revealed from within the sheath… Finally freeing herself, she seeks her space and stands atop a rock as a victor. The piece ended with, ‘We women will not settle for less!’

The build up was promising, but there was no progression of arguments beyond the protest. The scope had been thrown too wide open for resolution. By Anita’s admission, “Ahalya is a work-in-progress”. Choreography and music direction were by Hari Krishnan.

Using folk tunes

It’s not often that Surpanakha is made the hero. Odissi dancer Sharmila Biswas’s ‘Surpanakha’ went a step further, and portrayed her as a victim. Her references were Valmiki Ramayana, Kamban Ramayana (where Surpanakha is portrayed as having taken the form of a beautiful woman), and works by Upendra Bhanja, Viswanath Khuntia and Balaram Das. Sharmila said, “I see Surpanakha as a happy-go-lucky madhyama nayika (one who is average ); she even becomes uttama in my eyes.”

Sharmila Biswas in ‘AH SU RA’

Sharmila Biswas in ‘AH SU RA’   | Photo Credit: K_V_Srinivasan

Surpanakha, the ‘Queen of Dandakaranya’ is curious about the footprints of alien people on her territory. She falls in love with Rama, transforms herself into a beautiful woman and proposes to him. Not seeing through Rama and Lakshmana’s game, she is shunted from one to another. Frustrated, she attacks Sita, and is disfigured in retaliation. Surpanakha justifies her behaviour, ‘How could I know that they were making fun?’

It was a well-thought out presentation using folk tunes and processional beats from the Sabar tribe along with typical Odisha music, to give a local flavour to the demoness. There were little artistic additions such as showing Surpanakha’s different facets through face masks and the creation of a sand sculpture as part of Surpanakha’s transformation, along the way. The portrayal felt real through the honest treatment of frill-free dance and beautiful music; and so convincing that at the end of thirty minutes, when Surpanakha falls in a pool of blood, you felt sorry for her.

The idea behind Ravana’s portrayal was innovative — it elaborated only one scene from the Ramayana, that of Ravana propositioning Sita in Ashokavana. Original verses from Sundara Kanda in Valmiki’s Ramayana, ‘Yadyatpashyaami te gaatram’ and ‘Chaarusmite chaarudati..’ were used. Ravana's lust and arrogance are plainly visible as he declares that each limb of hers bewitches him.

Geeta Chandran in ‘AH SU RA’

Geeta Chandran in ‘AH SU RA’   | Photo Credit: K_V_Srinivasan

But the characterisation was holistic. It included Ravana’s piety as a Shiva bhakta, with the verse from Shiva Maanasa pooja, ‘Chatram caamarayor yugam’ and Ravana’s Shri Shiva Tandava Stothra chanted. Ablutions and prayers done, Ravana readies himself for the tryst with Sita. Full of himself, he reaches Ashokavana with his retinue and turns his leering eyes towards Sita…

Geeta Chandran had planned it well, using the tisra beat for Ravana’s characterisation. But the portrayal was a let down; it was too forceful and contrived to be artistic. The repetitive circular movement pattern also limited the space and reach. The resource person was Sudhamahi Regunathan.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 11:46:33 AM |

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