Exploring the diverse performance traditions of the Ramayana

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A new book situates modern Ramayana renditions within the secular context of contemporary Indian theatre

Paula Richman and Rustom Bharucha are the perfect combination to explore the ideas that are brought together in Performing the Ramayana Tradition: Enactments, Interpretations and Arguments — Richman with her vast and varied knowledge of the many Ramayana stories that dot the sub-continent and beyond and Bharucha, with his lifelong commitment to dramaturgy and the diverse performance traditions that animate some of our best known and most loved stories. Richman and Bharucha locate this book and its inspiration in the three-year long Ramayana performances festival that was held under the auspices of Adishakti, the performance repertory company in Puducherry, founded by Veenapani Chawla.

But, in fact, the essays they commission go far and beyond what was seen, experienced and discussed by performers, critics and lay audiences during those festival years. The project of the book itself is massive and the volume opens with several caveats about the extent and intent of the editors and the other contributors. Be the caveats as they may, there is much to enjoy and a great deal to learn from what is presented.

The contributions are a marvellous mix of photographs, play scripts, interviews with practitioners and theatre-makers as well as essays by critics and scholars, all of which serve to remind us just how rich and diverse this performance tradition is. It also tells us of how many ways there are to know, to read, to interpret and enact this ancient tale of a morally grounded prince, who is soon elevated to the status of a god, and the trials and challenges that he must face during his time in the world of humans.

The book was eight years in the making, but the impulse for the Adishakti festival and the timing of the book’s publication are both deeply felt responses to a national and religious politics that stifles difference and to a culture that is becoming increasingly hegemonic and monochromatic.

Maya Krishna Rao in the contemporary production Ravanama

Maya Krishna Rao in the contemporary production Ravanama
 
| Photo Credit: S. Thyagarajan

One story, many narrations

More than ever, now is the time to be reminded that Hinduism never expressed itself in a single voice or a single language, that it was never wholly held by a single caste, that it was a tradition that maintained both vibrancy and relevance precisely because it questioned itself and nurtured its own subversions of power and hierarchy. Richman and Bharucha are excellent guides in this project, which seeks to acknowledge the many ways in which a tradition remains alive and meaningful to those who are in the process of creating it as well as to those who find sustenance within it.

In Performing the Ramayana Tradition (Oxford University Press), we are treated to such simultaneously flourishing extremes as the highly classical and Sanskritised renditions of the Ramayana in Kerala’s Koodiyattam and the rambunctious energy of such folk performances as Koothu from the Tamil country that remain always in the moment even as they contend with ancient stories and paradigms. We are also confronted with the way experimental and avant garde urban performers such as Maya Krishna Rao and Vinay Kumar set out to make the text their own through nuanced depictions of the story’s antagonist Ravana, for example. The editors are fortunate in that some contemporary performers (such as Usha Nangiar who, as a woman, performs a radical Nangiarkuthu) are extremely articulate about the traditions they inhabit and animate anew. We hear from them about the constraints of convention and expectation and appreciate more fully their own barrier-breaking interventions.

Also very important to this collection of essays is that neither the editors nor the contributors shy away from issues of caste and gender that are intrinsic to these performances and to the larger ownerships of the text itself. In fact, the editors seek out these particular elements, re-asserting the fact that the text itself has been and is still under contention and contestation. What becomes compelling here, as we consider how caste and gender inflect performance, is what parts of the story are emphasised and what parts are ignored, how the story is remade in the hands of a performer such that their own position and politics are represented by a text that might otherwise ignore them.

P.Thilagavathy as Surpanakha in P. Rajagopal's Ramaravana in the Kattaikkuthu tradition

P.Thilagavathy as Surpanakha in P. Rajagopal’s Ramaravana in the Kattaikkuthu tradition
 
| Photo Credit: A. Prathap

Elevation of Shambuka

Nowhere is this more critically presented than in the 19th and 20th century retellings of the Shambuka story in Hindi. In essays by Aaron Sherraden and Sudhanva Deshpande, we see how a relatively small but very significant incident from the last book of the Ramayana, the Uttara Kanda, where Rama kills a shudra for practising austerities intended for privileged caste men, is transformed in Hindi versions into a call to Dalit castes for revolution. Shambuka, who speaks but a few short lines in the Valmiki Ramayana, becomes a leader and educator of marginalised castes in the hands of the Adi Hindu movement galvanised by such thinkers as Swami Acchutanand (who followed Jyotirao Phule).

The caste politics of the Ramayana, indeed of the entire edifice of Aryanised Hinduism, is turned on its head by the elevation of Shambuka into a man who challenges the status quo of brahmin supremacy, a man with a vision of history and a sure sense of the place of non-caste/low-caste Hindus in a larger and more inclusive South Asian narrative that foregrounds the indigenous peoples of the subcontinent.

While nothing can substitute or stand in for the experience of a live performance, the essays here give us a glimpse of the extent and pluralism of a tradition that, apart from the Ramlilas of the north (the spectacle of the Ramnagaram in particular), we do not often associate either with plays or with dramatic performance in either folk or classical traditions. We are lucky, as a culture, to have a rich repertoire of performance and enactment that still largely maintains its context. It is fascinating to see how the Ramayana is claimed equally by the Sattriya monks of Assam as it is by Koothu performers in Tamil Nadu and that to each, their performance context is not only continuous with the past but also complete in the present.

Typically, traditional Ramayana performances, whether determined by agricultural season or a sacred calendar, remain within a ritual sphere. These times and spaces continue, in the main, despite the pressures of capitalist economies and modernising communities. Among the many wonderful things the Richman and Bharucha volume does is situate modern Ramayana renditions within the secular context of contemporary Indian theatre, generating a perspective that is both appropriate and alive with potential meaning. In the book (if no longer in our shrunken world), traditional and contemporary Ramayana performances and their makers are able to speak to each other across ideology and practice.

As much as I enjoyed and learned from this volume, for me at least the book’s greatest importance lies in the feeling of security it generates — that the traditions of subversive and contentious narratives that we fear losing are, in fact, robust and strong.

The writer works with the Ramayana and with the myths, epics, and storytelling traditions of the subcontinent.



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