Epic Retellings

Poorna Swami is a Bengaluru-based choreographer and dancer
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Dance and theatre productions upturn popular versions of characters and stories from the Ramayana

THREE BUNDLES OF newspapers swing back and forth with the force of battle weapons. A man dressed in a black suit knocks each bundle with a glowing stick that could easily be a lightsaber from Star Wars. He whacks the bundles again and again, harder and harder, until they fall, papers strewn across the stage. Printed tales lie dismantled beside him, a woman stirs in a pile of red dirt that fell from the sky. Soon, this episode too will pass, morph into another tale of them searching for how their story went.

Unfamiliar and disorienting, this happens to be a story we all know. German director Felix Mathias Ott’s Ramanaya is, as its misspelt title suggests, a playful undoing of the Ramayana. The two performers in this play begin with an argument about how their favourite tales in the Ramayana unfold. Each narrates the stories differently, remembering locations and details with differing colour. “Lakshmana never cut off Shurpanaka’s breasts,” one argues, “That was added later.” Contesting what makes the ‘real’ Ramayana, these two contemporary characters enter the epic and get lost in it, only to find themselves anew as they become Mareecha and Sita and even Rama himself.

This production of the Ramayana that premiered in February 2018 is just one of many recent attempts at retelling the epic through performance. Like the characters in Ott’s Ramanaya, these productions argue that one person’s Ramayana need not be the same as another’s. Puducherry-based Adishakti’s The Tenth Head (which premiered in 2013) revolves around one of Ravana’s heads disagreeing with the rest, as a way to discuss the relationship between the individual and the collective. In fact, Adishakti has produced multiple works under its Ramayana Project, started by its late founder Veenapani Chawla in 2009. Dancer Anita Ratnam’s A Million Sitas (2011) unravels the inner monologues of various female characters in the Ramayana, while Maya Krishna Rao’s Ravanama (2013) traces the journey of an actor in search of Ravana. The Mumbai-based children’s theatre company Gillo performs Hanuman ki Ramayan (2012), based on a contemporary story by Devdutt Pattanaik and staged in the traditional Swang Nautanki form. In this play, Hanuman eats up the beautiful Ramayana that he wrote so that the world might remember Valmiki’s version forever.

These are just a few contemporary urban productions that have rendered characters and stories from the Ramayana in ways that upturn the popular versions of the tale. This impertinence is political. It reveals a renewed interest within the performing arts to investigate the Ramayana as one of the most widely inherited myths, and also as an archive of moral stances that continue to shade the national discourse.

India—like parts of South and South East Asia and the Caribbean— bears a long tradition of the Ramayana being performed through dance, drama and music. Certainly, in India, the story of the Ramayana holds a prominent place in public imagination, whether in the stories told by grandmothers or in state-sponsored performances and parades. The historian Romila Thapar suggests that the Ramayana, in India specifically, has taken on a political role that stems from the idea that there is one authoritative version of the tale. The 1986 Doordarshan television production, Ramayan, as well as the debate about the site of Babri Masjid being Ram Janmabhoomi, are both instances of this kind of push toward a singular, authoritative telling. Each gives the Ramayana a definitive narrative by assigning it an unrelenting chronology of events and unbending version of characters. Moreover, these narrations of the Ramayana have been distributed widely by the media and are thus unparalleled in their reach.

Despite this assertion that the Ramayana has an ‘original’ story, the culture of retelling the Ramayana is also full of subversion and reclamation, particularly in performance. The story, as it is performed— albeit at a smaller scale— varies from region to region, caste to caste, from one performance form to another. Different groups of people find in the Ramayana a unique way to tell their own stories. Most often, these stories are not created to consciously rebuke say, the Valmiki or Tulsidas version, but to simply tell the tale as they know it or would like to know it. In the Tolubommalata tradition of Telugu puppet performances, for instance, the story of the Ramayana includes episodes of deviant and debauched clowns that feature nowhere in more popular classicised versions. Here is a performed story that is both the Ramayana and a Ramayana of its own mind. What we have then is many Ramayanas, which, as AK Ramanujan contends, are neither the original story nor its variants. Rather, each is inherently a telling. And performance has been a particularly prominent and enduring way of retelling the Ramayana beyond any impulse to pin it down to an irrefutable version.

The act of making sustains the Ramayana beyond restrictive politics. Even though this epic might be contested, it carries the stuff of its own resistance, always waiting to be mined by someone with body and breath and voice

The history of retelling the story of Rama through performance can be traced back hundreds of years. As early as the 5th century, royal courts were commissioning dramas based on the story of Rama, even though the epic didn’t have as strong a hold on public imagination as it does today. Still, it is curious that governing political bodies commissioned these artworks to build the state’s culture. Over the centuries, the link between political life and the perpetuation of the Ramayana grew stronger, with rulers endowing themselves—through architecture, inscription, and performance—with the power of divine rulership like Rama’s, or by using the Ramayana story to create a sense of unity against invading (particularly Muslim) armies. As the Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock proposes, the Ramayana is a tale of otherness, in which outsiders—like Shurpanaka, or Ravana, or Vali—are all presented as morally devious. A tale of moral decisions and repercussions, insiders and outsiders, the Ramayana then seems also to be a tale of political strife. And theatrical performances of the epic rarely escape its political ramifications.

Today, outside the theatre, the Ramayana is a key symbol in political speeches and assertions to power. Recently, for instance, a controversy broke out around a video in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seen comparing Congress leader Renuka Chowdhury’s laughter to Shurpanaka’s in the TV serial adaptation of the Ramayana. As the performance tradition of the Ramayana continues to flourish against this politicised backdrop, it rests at once upon a particular genealogy of performance traditions and political meaning. Each performance, in proposing its own account of the Ramayana, invariably resists the notion of the sole Ramayana that is so often deployed as political ammunition. In doing so, it opens up the Ramayana as a repository of many stories and possibly also of many political views.

ORAL BY NATURE, the Ramayana is uttered and re-uttered through performance. The Ramlila is integral to Dussehra celebrations in different parts of North India, though no two productions will ever be the same. Classical dance forms such as Bharatanatyam or Kathakali teem with Ramayana compositions, each pulling at a different aspect of a deity’s life. It isn’t hard either, in several parts of India, to stumble upon a distinctive folk version of the Ramayana on the street, be it with the lone masked player or children decked up as gods and paraded in processions. Some folk forms, such as Tolubommalata, have even been gentrified as they have moved to urban settings. Cleansed, more or less, of its clown episodes, Tolumbommalata now enacts a different politics from when it began—its Ramayana reflects the a history of caste and class purification that has changed both the story and the performance form itself.

As these more ‘traditional’ performances of the Ramayana continue to play out within and outside cities, the concurrent wave of performances emerging from urban settings in non- traditional performance idioms warrants attention. These performances, of course, must acknowledge that they are part of a longer legacy of Ramayana in performance, but they often upturn that baggage with what might seem strokes of irreverence. To pit Ravana’s heads against each other through a multimedia performance with a dark, minimalist aesthetic, for instance, is far from canonical. Such departures from both traditional form and established narrative in contemporary urban Ramayana performances take on a peculiar political position—these productions, in their decision to retell the Ramayana through performance, escape any demand to speak as their form has before them. They are, after all, devising contemporary idioms that are not obligated in any way to traditional tropes; they are free to retell the Ramayana as they please, to invent it, distort it, and even destroy it.

In her Ravanama, Maya Krishna Rao sits at a plywood desk with a coffee mug. She turns a newspaper slowly, pondering in a drawn-out, animated voice. Suddenly, her eyes tremble like a Kathakali performer’s, though she wears no mask. Instead, she looks quite ordinary. She could be any one of us, and she is Ravana too.

These productions are devising contemporary idioms that are not obligated in any way to traditional tropes. They are free to retell the Ramayana as they please, to invent it, distort it, and even destroy it

Rao says that she has never been drawn to consciously depict mythological characters with a noticeably contemporary perspective. Her interests lie more in theatre as a form that can “grab content,” that can, in the events between performer and spectator, excavate how various stories—old and new—jostle with mythology. Relying on her own training in Kathakali, Rao first sought out the Ravana of Kathakali. She then collected multiple, often contradictory, tales about him and toyed with them. In one story, Sita is Ravana’s daughter but doesn’t know it. Through improvisations, Rao found connections between Ravana’s stories to those beyond them, from Lady Macbeth’s to tales around her; as these stories came together, she began to make up her own stories of Ravana as well.

To simply “put new words into characters’ mouths,” Rao believes, creates “straightjacketed narratives.” To her, “mythology is great;” it is “delicate and tantalising as well;” it allows for characters to exist in multiple shades. Admittedly, Rao was first excited by Ravana’s contradictions as “a man who doesn’t quite know what he’s feeling, much like how we are today.” His aloneness and unsureness resonate with us. And the multiple tales she lets him live on stage reinforce the proposition that the Ramayana can’t exist in “binaries”.

Rao recognises the political pulse of her work, even if it doesn’t ring loud. “It is political to go searching for stories off the beaten track.” But she also finds performing those stories fulfilling. “It’s as if you have carried the history of millennia… here’s all this politics cramming your papers every morning, and those myths and these things push against each other,” she says.

Nimmy Raphel of Adishakti, too, is enamoured by the abundance of storytelling that the Ramayana allows. “There are so many different tellings of the Ramayana and you soon realise that yours is just one grain in a desert of stories.” Raphel’s newest work, Bali, set to premiere in April 2018, explores the moment of Bali’s death, and prods at the polarisation of contemporary politics. In a series of vignettes, different characters analyse whether it was right or wrong for Rama to have killed Bali from behind a tree. Perhaps Ravana (who was a friend of Bali’s) might have returned Sita out of goodwill, had Rama not committed this act. Perhaps then, the Ramayana as we know it might never have happened.

“We have a rich tradition of telling stories and receiving stories,” Raphel says, “and myth opens up the possibility to push this. Through the moment of Bali’s death I am trying to make an argument about different points of view on the same event.” Current politics, Raphel argues, is in the Ramayana too, for both are politics of alliances. “Rama is a political person,” she offers, “and he killed Bali because he needed an ally. He would have been a lesser hero if he had asked Bali for help.” Retelling the Ramayana in this way, Raphel seems to pull the myth through epochs to confront how it is being read politically and how it could be interpreted. The Ramayana in her performance is not an old story, but one that is playing out now.

Bali is not Raphel’s first Ramayana-based work. Besides performing in Adishakti’s Ramayana Project plays, she directed Nidravathwam (2012), which is a meditation on the sleep and sleeplessness of both Kumbakarna and Lakshmana. In both her works, she noticeably places the epic in the performer’s agile body. She works from images that rely on rigorous physicality to “express something that can’t be expressed fully in text.” This is where performing, rather than interpreting, the Ramayana gains prime importance—the performer becomes the living, breathing argument against the politics of an original, exclusionary Ramayana. “Like a text, a body can be understood from another angle,” Raphel explains, “and in our times, we are leaning to either one side or the other side—we are struggling to engage with another view.”

Outside the confines of theatre, the Ramayana might be retold as ideology, or used as political justification and propaganda. Inside the hall, artists like Raphel and Rao and so many others seem to eternally return to that very epic. Perhaps this isn’t because they always want to speak against what’s happening outside, but because the Ramayana itself never seems to retire. The act of making sustains the Ramayana beyond a restrictive politics; as with most epics, its life is cyclical. Even though this epic might be contested, it carries the stuff of its own resistance, always waiting to be mined by someone with body and breath and voice. “The Ramayana is an amazing story,” Raphel says, “I can make as many stories as I want from it… I am not thinking outside the myth, but looking for the human in it—all that we are trying to figure out.”