At the beginning of time, Sita is a million microbes which live in a watery planet called Ganga. Centuries of evolution turn her into a forest that teems with life and possibilities. When Rama, the heir to a large business corporation, strums the string of Shiva’s bow, the forest is enamoured. He asks Sita to take a human form so that they can marry.
What happens next makes up the climax of Forest Tales: A Sitayana, a play by California-based performance and media artiste Anuj Vaidya. It will be performed at TIFA Working Studios on Thursday.
“People have been retelling the Ramayana for hundreds of years to mirror the trials and tribulations of the society of the time. For me, Sitayana has been an opportunity to revisit the epic from Sita’s point of view, as well as draw attention to the context of the present. Deforestation is so rampant in India and across the world that we are forgetting how tightly human lives are tied with forests,” says Vaidya, who has a BHA in English-Theater Arts from Carnegie Mellon University, and MFA in film/video/new media from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Not only a green statement, the play also enters the queer discourse by freeing Sita of gender before she takes a woman’s form. Presenting Ram as a businessman is a comment on the “corporatising of religion” and his playing Shiva’s bow as a musical instrument is a call for an end to war. The forest, where digital plants grow, is a dystopian view of the future.
“We are at a time when we need to reimagine the Ramayana. Sitayana merges science and religion as well as avoids binaries of casting one character as bad and another as good,” says the performer, who originally thought of the concept as a film but realised that a film about ecology would defeat the purpose as it would use up some natural resources.
“That’s one reason Sita is a microbe in my play. She had to be the smallest thing. With insects disappearing from our planet, we need to realise that we need the minutest organism for our survival,” says Vaidya.
The play, which Vaidya performs solo and includes audience participation, also features forests of California. Future iterations of the play will weave in issues of Aarey and the Delhi Ridge, among other forests of India, which Vaidya is researching at present.
Forest Tales: A Sitayana, which he has been working on since 2012, is inspired by Kanchana Sita, a Malayalam film by G Aravindan made in 1977, which was based on a 1961 play by Malayalam playwright C N Sreekantan Nair. The stories deal with the final episodes of the epic, when Sita has been abandoned in a forest and gives birth to Luv and Kush, who meet their father in a fight over a holy horse.
“I have also read of the Gond Ramayana, which has Sita as the central protagonist,” says Vaidya.