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A re-look at the Ramayana

The Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Art Research seeks to record the many voices about the ever popular Ramayana. Kausalya Santhanam meets Veenapani Chawla, the brain behind the project

PHOTO: T. Singaravelou

EPIC TASk Veenapani Chawla

In the wooded acres of the Adishakti away from the cacophony of the world outside, you feel you would not be surprised to see a Vaanara peep at you from the overhead branches or see Sugriva leap into the clearing. Time and the contemporary seem to have no meaning in this green oasis a few kilometres from Puducherry where the Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Art Research has created a special ambience for the performing arts. The compact, ethnic auditorium built in the style of the ancient Koothambalam, and the aesthetic living spaces make it the right setting for a discussion on the epic that holds a nation in thrall millennia after it was written.

Second session

The Ramayana project conceived by theatre doyenne Veenapani Chawla, Artistic Director, Adishakti, is under way here. “Pluralism and Performance: The Many Voices in the Ramayana,” from May 2008 to 2011, is now in its second session. The Director of the National Folklore Support Centre, M. D. Muthukumaraswamy, speaks to the handful of participants about the interpretations of the epic and how it lives in many forms today — debate, music, discourses…

“I wish to release the many voices in the Ramayana. I thought of the project after Sanskrit scholar Arshia Sattar, who has translated Valmiki’s Ramayana into English, came to talk to participants a couple of times at the Adishakti. The idea of exploring the Ramayana in performance and life was stimulated by these observed interactions,” Veenapani tells this correspondent later in her soft tones. “In the next three years, numerous performers, experts from other fields and academics will attempt to throw up new knowledge, and creativity about the epic.

“The Ramayana is getting appropriated by particular groups of people — feminists, radical right wingers… everyone is getting worked up about it,” she says. “I wanted to record the many voices — philosophical, metaphysical, folk versions, classical interpretations, those of rationalists like EVR… Versions that go both with the trajectory of Valmiki and against. Then you get so many texts for performance you can keep on unpacking them.” In the next phase, Mahesh Rangarajan will speak on Nature in the Ramayana, Venkatachalapathi on history, Radhika Bordia on the Ramlila, Anuradha Kapoor on the Ramlila of Ramnagari, David Schulman and Lakshmi Holmstrom on the Kamban Ramayana, says Veenapani. Performers of Ramanatakam, Kudiyattom, Kathakali, Ottamthullal, folk and classical forms will participate in the project. Shadow puppetry shows are based entirely on the Ramayana. “Our late resident puppeteer Rajappa has presented many shows at our campus,” says Veenapani.

“At the end of the project, I want my actors (she has an ensemble of six) to create their own scripts based on the Ramayana.

“Adishakti will document and disseminate the findings on its website and the NFSC among the folk performers,” says Veenapani. “And Arshia is coordinating the project.”

But haven’t projects on the Ramayana been done before?

“They might have been. But it’s something I feel strongly about. It would feed the performer. Young people don’t know much about our rich tradition of texts. The idea is to make it a site where more people can come and take it to different corners,” says Veenapani with conviction. She thinks it is the best work she has done till now. And that says a lot considering how much acclaim she has won both as actor and director.

EXPERT TOUCH

“It feels wonderful to be involved with this project,” says Arshia Sattar who has been working on the Ramayana for 25 years. “My English translation came out ten years ago. It sank then because of obvious reasons but now it is back on the bookshelves,” says Arshia who obtained her Ph. D. from the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilisations at the University of Chicago, where she worked closely with Profs. A.K. Ramanujam and Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty.

“The Ramayana is part of our cultural landscape whether one is Jewish, Muslim or Christian. Caught in the issues about the Ramayana, we forget what a beautiful story it is,” says Arshia. “It lives not just in performance but also in sculpture, painting and music. We are exploring all this here.”

Now she teaches the Ramayana in the National Film Institute, and the National Institute of Design. She is happy that young people are very interested in it.

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