It’s not enough that the Ramayana and Mahabharata are part of our cultural DNA. It’s what we do with them artistically and I’d like to bring two outstanding examples from SE Asia to your kind attention. We won’t look at our tacky, shiny Ram Lilas with the male actor playing Sita nipping out in public view for a quick beedi. Or at the supersonic speed in Bharata Natyam varnams. I mean, where’s the magic?
Doesn’t anybody want to take responsibility for magic anymore? Have we left it all to JK Rowling?
Let’s look at what Indonesians do with ‘our’ old magic. They do gigantic public sculptures of the Parthasarathiyam (Krishna-Arjuna in the war chariot at Kurukshetra). Plunging, rearing horses, muscular, dynamic warrior figures, Krishna and Arjuna look like proper fighting men, like godly heroes.
It hits you with the most appalling jolt that your Indian eye has been fed flat, frozen, two-dimensional figures wearing goody-goody milksop expressions, whereas the Parthasarathiyam in Bali gives you goosebumps, my God, this is a BATTLE they’re going into, not a gujiya-fest for dollies in dinky pink dhotis.
I blame it squarely on Ravi Varma, although I’ve grown up kowtowing to his oleographs in family pujarooms. I loathe him now for emasculating our heroes and for the calendar legacy of staring, thumb-sucking mama’s boys, though to be fair, Sri Hanuman and Shiva do look less wussy than the rest.
So let’s see a muscular Thai dancer in khon (classical Ramakiendancing). I’ve tried to catch khon wherever possible, in the big annual productions, at lec-dems or like this week, at the dress rehearsal of a contemporary interpretation. The choreographer is Pichet Klunchun and I am blown away by his deep, subtle work. The music is mostly that of the meditative ku-cheng (Chinese dulcimer), with Jatayu’s shriek and other story cues soundscaped. The Sita dancer wears tight white lace like in the Philippines Ramayana where Sita emerges from the fire as a lace-veiled bride. Pichet’s Sita also wears long scissor-hand spikes. She morphs lithely from Sita to the Golden Deer in a menacing duet with the super-hero. In Vali’s breathtaking solo, his powerful muscled back stretches and twists as you watch in terror, knowing that Rama’s arrow will soon plunge into that beautiful back. Pichet’s production is going to an arts festival up in the tiny Dutch town of Groningen and then to Zurich. If we saw it in India, our gods will be men again.
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture