Seethayanam in Nangyarkoothu  
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur 
Photos: Raghavan Sahasranaman 

August 26, 2008 
The Malayalam month of Karkidakam is the month of Ramayana in Kerala. An agrarian community found leisure when the monsoon rains meditated over its land. In feudal Kerala, the day in Karkidakam began with the head of the family reading a portion of Ramayana under the light from a bell-metal lamp. With the break up of joint family, this ritual confined itself to temples and cultural events. Bharatam, a club that promotes culture, premiered SEETHAYANAM, in Thrissur. A three-day programme in traditional format of Nangyarkoothu by Margi Sati is an innovative effort.  
Koodiyattam is the oldest Sanskrit drama preserved by the community of Chakyars and Nambiars as part of ritual performance in Kerala. It was Painkulam Rama Chakyar who brought it out of temple precincts. Poet Vallathol who founded Kalamandalam made it a subject of study.  UNESCO recognized it as the intangible tradition of mankind. Koodiyattam artistes like Margi Sati and Usha Nangyar concentrate on Nangyarkoothu, the female centred part of Koodiyattam. As heads of faculties, they are doing a lot to enrich this classical art. Nangyarkoothu is a solo show by a woman performer for which extant texts are limited. 

Margi Sati emerged as a ground-breaking artiste with her interpretation of Sree Rama Charitam and Kannagi Charitam. 
Changing times have brought new perceptions and philosophies to the fore in Kerala. The story line of Seethayanam is true to the original. Yet the choreography focuses on a modern interpretation of the familiar story. Another inventive effort is to introduce a simultaneous verbal rendering of the visual sign language so that ordinary people follow each and every nuance. And serious viewers get a chance to learn the grammar of the sign language specific to Koodiyattam. Like Painkulam Rama Chakyar, Margi Sati tries at democratisation of an elite art form.  
Seethayanam focuses on three chapters of Seetha's life that defines her persona and paints her growth from an innocent maiden to a matured woman and a mellowed noble lady who acquires an iconic status. Seetha is the quintessence of the feminine, fallible but strong and dignified.   
Seetha in Panchavati is a beautiful presentation of girlish charm and childlike simplicity. Away from the palace, perhaps for the first time in her life, she explores the beauty of the wild. Flowers burdened with honey, twittering birds, water-falls and rushing streams exhilarate her. Each is a thing of beauty, an object of wonder. Surprise and curiosity lead her to flora and fauna. It is as if Seetha herself had become a gentle being of the forest. Suddenly she spots a woman, a beauty. She sees her talking to Rama. And she hears Rama telling her that his wife is with him and asking her to seek Lakshman. Seetha wonders why Rama tells a strange woman to go to Lakshman. After all, Lakshman too is a married man, married to her own sister. It is just a fleeting thought. 
Distracted by striking flowers, the girl bends down to pick them up to make a garland. Soon Rama joins her. Seetha gifts him the garland of flowers which in turn adorns her hair. An exquisite love scene with all lyrical charm is superbly executed. Now, Seetha is drawn to a deer nearby, nibbling grass. She tries to feed it; wants to hold it. But then, it trots away in all playfulness. She requests Rama to bring it for her. And Rama goes after it.  The inevitable happens. The cries of Rama rent the air, a disturbed Seetha asks Lakshman to go in search of her husband. And Lakshman, who knows the strength of his brother, tells her that his duty is to safeguard her, a woman. Seetha says that a woman is saved not by a man but by her intrinsic strength. She does not hesitate to tell him that he cannot harbour any evil design as she would not live without her husband. The troubled Lakshman goes out; Seetha sits immersed in thoughts. She is alerted by the presence of a sage near the ashram. With all nobility, Seetha invites him and promises to serve him with things needed for his pooja and goes inside. 
The second day presents Seetha in Ashokavanam, in Lankapuri. Her encounter with Ravan and Hanuman later in the scene juxtaposes two aspects of her character. The Seetha we see here is grief stricken: she is thoughtful, regretting her past actions. The technique of flashback is used to describe her abduction by Ravana, and meeting Jatayu who fights to save her. A resourceful Seetha has discarded her jewels on the way to lead Rama through the trail. She regrets how thoughtlessly she had blamed Lakshman. How gullible she had been not to sense the trap. Yet she wonders why Rama did not check her whims and fancies. Although Seetha has matured at one stroke, her innate love of nature is irrepressible. She is surprised by the beautiful garden. It is a contrast to the wild Panchavati. This is a cultivated grove with rare trees full of scented flowers as if they were heaven sent. Wonder overwhelms her. She picks up a flower to enjoy its exciting scent. But suddenly she feels it is not hers, but her enemy's. She is imprisoned in this garden. Sure enough, there comes Ravan, lovelorn, eager for her. She becomes alert and withdrawn, ready to fight in her own way.  

Ravan is conscious of the superiority of his physique, of his material wealth. He is willing to offer anything to make her his own. Seetha plucks a grass and speaks to it. It is a sign of her nobility as well as her courage to dare a devil.  Ravan adopts a softer tact. He prostrates before her. But Seetha has only contempt and revulsion for such an act. Defeated, Raven withdraws crestfallen.  
It is admirable to see that fear does not cross Seetha's mind. She is conscious of her superior inherent strength. Soon she hears Rama's name, repeated with devotion. Trapped once, Seetha could not believe what she hears. The mighty Hanuman jumps down from a tree. And in girlish innocence Seetha is frightened of the huge monkey. He prostrates at her feet. Intuitively she blesses him. What a contrast to Ravan's gesture of prostrating at her feet and her reaction! It is a tender scene in which Hanuman gains her confidence. She recognizes Rama's signature ring. Hanuman whispers something, a verbal sign. The rejuvenated Seetha recalls a warm scene of their happy days when the verbal sign was made. And it sets the mood of trust and friendship that is to last for the rest of their lives despite tragic events. Seetha watches a retreating Hanuman filled with hopes… 
Abandoned on the banks of River Thamsa: On the final day, the story from Uthara Ramayana was staged. The scene begins with Seetha plucking flowers for pooja. Her thoughts take her back to the day her trusted brother Lakshman brought her to the river bank just to abandon her. It was sage Valmiki, who took her to his ashram and gave her shelter. It was here her twin sons were born. Seetha could never decipher her rejection by Rama. Can it ever be justified after the so called Agni- pariksha, trial by fire? And how could Rama, who had brought Ahalya back to life after her trespass, abandon his own wife whose purity was declared before public gaze? All along these years she has swayed between hopes and fears. Knowing the truth as a husband, Rama has to come. But a fear lurked that such a thing need not happen because Rama is a king. And there is really no such need after all these years.  
Sage Valmiki has undertaken the mission of educating her sons. The sage has taken them to the palace of their father, the king. There they will sing their story. Her imagination conjures up how a surprised Lakshman recognizes them. Rama may not display his emotions publicly.  
Again she wonders whether there will be a reunion! Perhaps another trial by fire! And what is the point? Does it matter now? Her foster father, King Janaka took her from the lap of Mother Earth. She has found succour and solace only in Nature. And there is her final resting place, Mother Earth. Seetha is like a hermit now, all her desires vanished, with no regrets and no hopes. Calm of mind, accepting life as an experience, Seetha sits in a meditative poise waiting for the final exit. 
The presentation of the performance retains its hallowed traditional format. The sound of the conch as twilight deepens is the curtain raiser. The bell-metal lamp with its three wicks: one turned towards the audience, two towards the performer is part of the salutation.  

The percussive support (on mizhavu, the drum exclusive to Koodiyattam, by  Ramanunni and Sajikumar, thimila Mohanan and Edakka Sudeesh, all  Kalamandalam artistes except Edakka by Krishnaraj, thalam, singing and verbal rendering by Rangasree, Revathy) gives the perfect musical backdrop evoking temple association. And the quality of the music creates the right mood in a traditional rhythmic sphere. Simultaneous verbal rendering of choreography correlates stylisation with realism. Visual imageries and emotions are conveyed in fluid movements. The enactment of the male and female roles, evocative music, thought process and expression of emotions remain in perfect alignment.  
Seetha looms large as a part of the backdrop of Nature. Nature reflects her moods and thoughts, preparing for her final exit. We read the growth of Seetha's mind from the feminine to the feminist. The change in her attitude is hinted at the very first scene itself when she wonders why Rama should send Soorpanakha to Lakshman. Fidelity in matrimony is a modern concept introduced. This perception sets the tone and tenor of Seethayanam. The character of Seetha is portrayed with grace and charm, with dignity and restraint, evocative and profound especially where her thoughts border on a feministic stance. Yet, the finale is the supreme spiritual grandeur native to Indian philosophy that has made Seetha an icon in Indian imagination. 

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to