When Gowri Ramnarayan talks about her new production Fire and Ash, she begins by saying that she is from the swinging sixties. “I am from The Beatles generation, and I though Shiva was the original hippie.” Fire and Ash studies Shiva from a 21st century perspective, twisting modern issues and ancient mythology into a knot that’s as tight as the god’s famous dreadlocks. Chennai, where Fire and Ash premiered in November 2014, has given it a resounding response but Ramnarayan is keen to see what Delhi thinks. Over the phone, the director, who has worked with mythology previously in theatre productions such as Sarpa Sutra (a Mahabharata episode about serpent sacrifice) as well as tackled contemporary concerns in Night’s End (a story woven around tiger conservation) among other productions, talks about her search for Shiva:
What triggered your interest in Shiva?
Fire and Ash was born from my concern about the degradation of nature. I am not talking as a conservationist or an activist, but I was angry that our greed and love for everything in excess was destroying nature. Shiva represented qualities of austerity, restraint and control. He is a god who doesn’t want much. When I think of Shiva opening up his hair to trap Ganga, I see him as a symbol of a mountain, with his wild hair like the forest that holds the rivers and releases their water. When you have a civilisation as ancient as ours, a lot of stories and images are meant as symbols that have to be interpreted accordingly. Shiva is about abandonment as well as control. Here, I must add that the performance is not about Shiva the god but about what Shiva means.
How is your performance structured?
It is divided into six sections, beginning with a sutradhar, played by me, talking about who Shiva is — he is present in the cave paintings of Madhya Pradesh and the Pashupati seals in Mohenjodaro; the Aryans refer to him as Rudra while the Dravidians claim him as their own. Subsequently, in the piece, we explore Shiva’s meeting and marriage with Parvati. The forest is burning due to Shiva’s intense tapasya, when we meet Parvati who brings with her spring and a refreshing renewal. As Shiva becomes the Ardhanareshwar, we realise that power needs to be tempered with tenderness. After that, we try to understand the meaning of ‘Shivam’ as a mantra in our daily lives, and Shiva as the destroyer. What is it that he wants to destroy? My answer is that he wants us to control our negative thoughts.
You have made the theme more complex by using a wide range of art forms.
One of the undertones of the piece is also about art. Shiva is a drummer and the greatest dancer, whose movements energise all of cosmos. We have used the more dramatic language of Bharatanatyam (rather than subtle mudras), poetry and songs from the sixth to the 20th centuries in different languages, Hindustani, Carnatic and folk music.
Savita Narasimhan, the vocalist, has also made six paintings of Shiva and the five elements. The Bhakti poet Surdas tells a story of Shiva going to meet the infant Krishna in Vrindavan. The mother Yashoda has one god in her arm and another on her doorstep but she doesn’t have the eyes to see them. Only art can made you see what human eyes cannot.
Fire and Ash will be staged at India Habitat Centre today from 7 to 9 pm. Entry is free. Contact: 24682002