Blogging from Germany: The Ramayana and Me

…have not been acquainted in a long while. So this is such a lovely chance to get in there and remember one grandmother’s puja/reading room with the evening lighting of the lamp and all us cousins sitting together and chanting Suklam Bharadaram Vishnu Shashivarnam. The other grandmother’s puja room had a giant picture of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, standing, so pale and tall and the kneeling Hanuman (not furry or primate-like at all).

I trot off to Blossom on Church Street to buy as many copies of The Ramayana as I can lay my hands on. The one I want the most, my friend Arshia Sattar’s translation, is unavailable. Dammit. No use buying the Kumba Ramayana since this project is pure Valmiki. A.K.Ramanujam’s Many Ramayanas is also missing. So I return home with C.Rajagopalchari’s Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan version, the Natak Kala Conference collection of papers on the Ramayana in Performance and last but not the least, the Amar Chitra Katha comic - Story of Rama. I nearly buy the Chandamama comic Ramayana, but at Rs 500 a pop (for a comic version that is not exactly Neil Gaiman’s Sandman) I ditch it.

We begin talking about the Ramayana at home and Konarak critiques his mother’s play, Sita, because he says that Rama must be seen differently, not as merely anti-feminist, but as representing a far more subtle and important argument. Oh dear…. my work’s cut out for me. I’ve wrangled with the moral dilemmas of Savitri, Shakuntala, even Shoorpanaka and now I’m handed Sita. How will I make this work? And why so many esses? And oooh, can’t I just play the Acid Queen for a change?

A shameful but important detail – in the name of research, just before leaving to Germany, I went to see Mani Ratnam’s Raavan with my family (oh, it’s only shameful because I did the research fib-thingy, when I really just wanted to sit on plush Gold class seats and scoff popcorn) and it was absurdly bad. The only redeeming factor was that Aishwarya Rai looked truly ethereal in some frames. Sans that, the film’s a dud. Poor Abhishek – buk-buk-ing away in some sad attempt at portraying the torment of having ten heads, all thinking wild thoughts simultaneously. Or else the director said to him “Think Hamlet”. But the fact that Sita is attracted to Ravana (albeit once her husband is proven more Rakshasa than God) is a good if not new approach and I’m sure the aforementioned Bajrang Dalis only let this pass because the film sank like the proverbial stone at the box office.  No moolah, no threat.

But here in my garret in the funky Jungbusch, the Ramayana has started meaning so many things to me. Last night reading late by lamplight, I was so moved by Vishvamitra. Call it what you will, ego, ambition, madness…to toss away the fruits of such severe tapas, to scorn the titles of Rishi, Maha Rishi and to embark on a fresh 1000 years of brutal austerities in order to gain the title of Brahma Rishi, what a grand thing! I’m never going to complain about cleaning the dog’s mess again. Prudence, the constantly shitting Basset Hound puppy, shall stay and be honoured as a catalyst of spiritual growth, a harbinger of greatness ahead.

At rehearsal, Simone, the actor playing Sita, asks me what I think about the Agni Pariksha. I (masterfully, dear Reader) return the question to her. I hate it, she says, but how do I deal with the text? Hmmm… (I haven’t found the subtle argument, but I’m still looking.)

I shift the conversation to Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She’s an Amazon princess who Theseus “does injury” and drags back to Thebes. When the play opens they are preparing for their nuptials. Into this coziness walks Aegeus complaining about his daughter Hermia and her love for Lysander. Theseus just goes with Aegeus every step of the way. Now watch Hippolyta in this scene. Has the Amazon warrior princess been defeated and subdued? I don’t think so, for she says not a word. But her silence is loaded. She is separated from the action of the scene by this very silence.

I think the potential of subversion by an actor, of text and action, is massive. The text can say one thing, but the politics of an actor’s body can say the opposite and these polarities are exciting to witness. So with Sita too, she agrees to the Agni Pariksha, but with what spirit does she walks through it? Do her feet move swiftly or does she drag them? Are her arms free by her side or clasped in anjali? And finally…

Where do her eyes set?

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