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Myth and Reality: Heritance and Variance...

Aham Sita
(Image courtesy: Ravi Pothukuchy)

The question to question classical arts’ shackles with history and legacy often receives highly contrasting answers, in turn giving a work of art, the freedom to explore and leave an open end towards understandings and perception. The most constructive outcome of such a 20th century situation is multiple and varied navigations through myth and tradition to give transitional reflections of reality!

Aham Sita places itself into a genre of dance-theatre presentation that blissfully holds on to a custom whilst customizing a narrative that questions its ideologies. Aham Sita, focuses itself on pursuit of classical dance and deliberation towards catering to neutral audience in the Pan-Indian context. Aham Sita prevails on confronting idiosyncrasies that every human fights not to accept!

Journalist and playwright Dr. Gowri Ramnarayan chronicled the untold emotions of five women characters from our gospel epic – The Ramayana, while renown dancer Vidhya Subramanian essayed a ‘Sita’ to seldom used literary works of yore! Patriarchal domination in Indian culture finds verbose critique as Sita is displeased with summon from Rama seeking her opinion on which of their two sons could be crowned prince. Dr. Ramnarayan powerfully declaims such hypocrisy in the ‘ideal man’ shunning his wife but wanting his sons as progeny. The dance followed a contrasting tone in visualizing Sita and Rama as Lakshmi and Vishnu who parted ways in ‘Amrutha Mathana’ only to be united in the forest. Amongst such wonderful metaphoric treatment was Vidhya’s essenced performance especially the sequence of first glance that both of them share. This, precisely connecting to her training of and vision for Abhinaya on stage which she explained to depth in an illustrated lecture the previous day to a heterogeneous crowd of students and enthusiasts at the University of Texas at Austin. Vidhya’s definition of abhinaya as a tool of a yearning soul towards seeking compassion found considerable interpretation also in the next sequence where Sita the wife taunts Rama and herself laments in how he could have imagined to live without her in exile. (Eppadi Manam Tunindado). Mixed feelings of anxiety, anger, fear and nostalgia silted through the underlying stayi of sringara, her lover for Rama.

Vidhya Subramanian at UT, Austin
Another very disturbing outcome of an imposing culture, oft downplayed and intentionally sheltered – ‘sibling rivalry’ sought emphatic attention. Dr. Gowri humanized Urmila, Sita’s sibling in her pronounced insecurity of reeling in Sita’s shadow through her life: devoid of her father’s attention, subject to her husband Lakshmana’s insensitivity and finally craving for her own sister Sita’s consideration! This is then counterpoised with the most factual real life insecurities of all – that of a woman’s in relation to her man! The narration of Ahalya’s fervor for the pleasantness between Rama and Sita in turn makes her rue on the very irrational relationship Ahalya shared with husband Gautama, doubting her fidelity and hurling an ugly curse. Be it a massage on a strong ego or fighting out jealousies for the want of a man’s love, the treatment that the dance-theatre made towards this feeling struck a chord with the audience and with a culture that revels in man-woman relationship through literature, painting, sculpture, music and dance! In a rare piece of poetry and dance content, Nayaka’s perspective is shown through Lakshmana’s enthusiasm in describing his city of Ayodhya to a group of villagers and that of Nayika’s with Sita typically shying away on being asked of who among the two bright young men was her husband.

From a culture steeped in caste discrimination, even as India now raises to fight it through youth outrage, what better than the medium of art to voice suffering identities and humiliated personas from the myth themselves! ‘I am Meenakshi’ exclaimed Dr. Ramnarayan taking center stage. ‘Meenakshi’, the very name conveniently forgotten and replaced by the wicked, ugly mask of ‘Surpanaka’ – the scheming sister of a cruel brother. Echoing the utter distraughtness were powerful dialogues: ‘What fault was it to desire for Lakshmana? Would he have been so humiliating to someone of his own caste? Unlike the Aryan wives who surrender to their men, I had the courage to choose to love a man! What fault was I in? While the placing of a folk tune after this heavy sequence, seemed a mismatch to traverse, the Telugu lyric : Ratiri Pani Emo, its folk music set up and treatment of dance choreography challenged the notion of consequent placement of pieces with similar emotional import and rhythm. The dancer justified this challenge by characterizing Sita in all her righteousness to forbid Rama from going out to killing demons rather just ‘be’ in the duty of exile and in depicting the sulking and coaxing between a husband and wife with soothing colour and flavor!

While it is a fact that cultural context of Indian classicism be it in music, dance or theatre or in literature, epics and poetry is subject to change, it is quite a reiterated routine of rooting oneself in the right foundation to be able to innovate. In as much as Vidhya very coherently explained this aspect to students at her demonstration by tracing history of Indian dance from the precincts of the temple to modern proscenium, and in urging the need to evolve from basic capacities and training, the most impactful implementation of Vidhya’s values came towards the closure of Aham Sita.

If Dr. Ramnarayan presented Mandodari’s strength in dealing with Ravana’s lust for Sita, the other woman in her life and death of her husband and son in front of her, Vidhya summed the production through a personal understanding and evolution of the dance and dancer within her, be it in the Telugu ‘Enduku Ee Riti Baduku’,: Why live a life like this? Or Sanskrit ‘Magadeenam Tu… Kim Karishyami’: What shall I do? And Hindi ‘Janaki Ka Ab Kahin’: Janaki will not bow down. In a process of navigating from self-pity to self-respect, from giving justifications to questioning her fault, from giving up to accruing strength, Vidhya’s portrayal beseeched an eminent pedestal for the classical arts in re-gaining efficacy from tradition and legacy and transporting it towards contemporary revisits and presentations of the genre.

Dr. Gowri Ramnarayan
In tracing Sita’s sensitive contour along a predominantly male dominated epic and drawing parallels of her journey to that of four other bygone stories of women, this mélange of dance and theatre, two very interdependent yet independent visual art forms, brought out new dimensions to synthesize current work in Indian arts. Whether it was precision in literature excerpts or buttress by the best of music, be it stage décor or compact lighting design, either the actor/dancer wardrobe or stage placements, the production urged the need to imbibe dance-theatre in the organic whole so as to scope for better divulge to a wider audience ratio.

Credit is due to ICMCA for endearing this, the two way – for both the artiste and a global audience. Facilitating a discussion with the artiste the previous day and targeting it to students was indeed an optimum effort to create the much needed dialogue! Caught in the right mood: Images by Ravi Pothukuchy.

Your undersigned will humbly accept that the production was an uphill to assimilate the right way, and this comes as an effort to document work in its most raw understanding….