One of the fascinating chapters in the history of Bharatanatyam is on Rukmini Devi Arundale’s Ramayana. It was the first time that Valmiki’s great epic was adapted into a major dance drama and Arundale, the grande dame of Indian classical dance, who passed away in 1986, increased the challenges by using pure Bharatanatyam with western ballet influences and mixing this with her political thoughts on war, gender and beauty. Now, the Ramayana has travelled out of Chennai — the only other excursion was to Lucknow several years ago — and is being staged at Meghdoot, the amphitheatre of Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), till tomorrow. Arundale had broken the epic into six episodes, presented between 1955 and 1970, each of which is presented every evening at SNA.
“The production has been retained the way it was when Rukmini Devi had created it, from the textures of the costumes to the colours on the stage. New dancers have been trained according to tradition, among them A Janardhanan, who was taught by Rukmini Devi herself,” says Priyadarsini Govind, Director of Kalakshetra, the arts institution in Chennai that Arundale had founded.
Consequently, there is a restful purity about the steps of the dancers. The choreography uses Bharatanatyam predominantly, with Kathakali kept for vigorous passages. The sets range from the grand court of Dasaratha in Sita Swayamvaram, staged on Saturday to the foliage-printed wings in Jatayu Moksham on Tuesday. The astute choreography is evident where the main action is in the foreground while the other dancers, are active participants in the narrative. “Rukmini Devi used space in such a way that each character is doing something different in different parts of the stage but the audience sees a common picture,” says Govind.
Arundale’s strong feminist tones come across in sequences such as the one with Surpanakha. “The production does not show Surpanakha as transforming herself into a beautiful maiden because, in her eyes, she is already beautiful,” says Govind.
Coming up tomorrow is Maha Pattabishekam — the battle between Rama and Ravana and the agni pariksha, among others — of which Arundale had reportedly said, “Of all the Ramayana series, Maha Pattabishekham has been the most difficult to produce. The Yuddha Kandam is full of sorrow and such scenes as are almost impossible to depict. So, to give the true character of Rama has been a difficult task.”
The Ramayana is being staged at Meghdoot, Sangeet Natak Akademi, till November 21 at 6.30 pm. Entry is free.
‘We want to achieve a grey matter across black-and-white’
When a playbill features children and other “up-and-coming” artistes, you brace yourself for a performance that’s amateur — or juvenile. Ram ki Shakti Puja, which was presented at IGNCA by a Varanasi-based centre called Roopvani earlier this month, also appeared to stock up the odds by choosing an unusual muse. The dance drama is based on a difficult Hindi poem of the same name by Suryakant Tripathi “Nirala” and was presented under a starry sky on a vast, open ground. The IGNCA amphitheatre, audiences and artistes would admit, respects only a confident performer. Yet, on a balmy evening, the children of Roopvani drew in and held a packed house, aided by a rendition of Nirala’s stanzas in true Varanasi gharana.
“I opted for a difficult poem because it would be the craft of failure,” says poet Vyomesh Shukla, who had directed the dance drama — and he could be forgiven for punching in the air. The plot revolves around an episode from the Ramayana, in which Rama is fast losing hope of winning the war with Ravana and rescuing his wife Sita. He has seen the Devi fighting on Ravana’s side and the gloom of the evening reflects the darkness of his mind. On the advice of the elderly Jamwant, he decides to hold a Shakti Puja to draw the favour of the Devi.
Ram ki Shakti Puja wins by melding antithetical elements together — the unsophisticated young dancers are held up by the powerful, full-throated musical score (the original composition contains a few lines by Sitara Devi and Pandit Jasraj). Rama continues to wear a crown even in the forest, a sign that the play holds him high in the league of gods, but the casting has girls playing the mythological heroes in a defiant anti-stereotyping. The choreography is based on Bharatanatyam, with a sprinkling of kathak, but folk images disturb the classical pace — one of the most striking being of Hanuman (played by a little boy) sitting on the shoulders of another simian character while Ram performs aarti to him. This is a reference to the Ramlila of Varanasi in which the swarup or the boys who play the lead roles are carried around on shoulders of devotees. “We want to achieve a grey matter across black-and-white,” says Shukla.
When the audience gave the play a standing ovation and crowded around the players, it proved once again that opposites attract.