This version of the Ramayana started 41 years ago. Gopal Sharman and Jalabala Vaidya of Delhi-based Akshara Theatre had just completed a successful season in London with their first play,Full Circle when the Royal Shakespeare Company of Great Britain invited them to create another work for the prestigious World Theatre Season. Sharman decided to base the play on the Ramayana. We rushed back to India to write a script good enough to present in the capital of world theatre, says Vaidya.
Sharmans method of writing was to lie on his back on the floor,in the dark,and dictate the words to Vaidya. He said that after making his mind completely blank,words and paragraphs would rush into his mind,like a revelation. Thus was born the play,The Ramayana,with Vaidya in a solo act. Since its premier on November 3,1970,Akshara Theatres The Ramayana (popularly called Gopals Ramayana) has played 2,000 times in venues ranging from Broadway on the West End,and the United Nations Headquarters in New York to national theatres in Europe and Canada and in US universities besides 35 cities and towns in India.
All these decades,it was Vaidya who gave the powerful script its meaning. She would sit on a low chair with the Ramayana on a bookholder before her and begin to play with her voice and body language,bringing alive one of the worlds greatest stories. She was the lovestruck Ravana simpering,I have pined a lifetime to be able to pine like this. With a toss of a shawl,and a subdued body language,she was Sita telling Rama,I must leave now. The time has come when you must do your duty and I mine.
Now,it is from the same low chair that Vaidya watches as her 20-year-old granddaughter Nisa Vaidya adjusts a pale green sari,draped like a Bharatanatyam dancers garb. Thats the same costume I wore when I played Sita, says Vaidya,74,in a quivering voice. This year,for the first time,the play is being performed by a multiple cast,which includes Nisa as Sita.
At the wood-furnished hall of Akshara Theatre,where meticulous carvings and niches breathe a calm silence,the spotlight picks out the new actors. I have,over the last few years,painstakingly gathered and trained a group of talented young people to perform the different roles. Preparation for the new multi-cast version of The Ramayana has been on for a year, says Vaidya.
As the new cast presents their acts,Vaidya plays the narrator and a few other characters. Many things have changed over time,she adds. The much-remembered extremely low-cut blouse that she wore to symbolise Ravanas lustful,sensuous and hedonistic character,has given way to a rich black and gold Kanjeevaram sari. The low chairs have been raised a bit,given the height of the male actors. Even the duration has been reduced,from 3 hours to 2.40 hours. The faces in the famous third row of the theatre,too,have changed. Prime Ministers like Indira Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee had watched Gopals Ramayana; now a new crop of celebrities grace these seats. But the essence of the play remains the same,insists Vaidya.
The four-act play ends with all the characters disappearing,leaving only Vaidya to play Ram and Sita,and show them merging into one whole being. As the hall reverberates with applause,Sharman,hunched and barely able to walk or talk,whispers hoarsely,I wrote the play. I wrote the play.