Telling it slant: Ramayana at Adishakti
- Devina Dutt

August 9, 2010

Devina Dutt attended the Ramayana Festival at the Adishakti Theatre and writes about a particularly interesting performance she witnessed.

This review first appeared in the Prithvi Theatre newsletter, Mumbai.

Half way through the ten day Ramayana Festival organized by theatre company and laboratory Adishakti at its campus outside Pondicherry, leading Indonesian dancer Sardono Kusumo (65) presented a sketch on events and characters from The Ramayan. Watching the 40 minute piece was like learning a new vocabulary while watching a foreign film without subtitles.

Till then, the array of performances had offered glimpses into the manner in which diverse living local traditions in India like the Sattriya monks of Majuli, Assam and Yakshagana troupes of Karnataka, have over the centuries, made the text of the ancient epic their own. Invariably each of these diverse performances spoke for and of a collective belief system and the evolved aesthetic of a group.

Sardono, described as one of Indonesia's most respected yet rebellious dancers, has had long years of training in various forms of traditional Javanese as well as contemporary dance in the US. Supported by Adishakti actress Nimmy Raphael, their untitled piece was based on pure movement with no spoken parts at all.

Crafted over three short days, the wordless production, coming as it did after the frequent argumentativeness and over intellectualization of the public discussions following each performance, was a relief. Till then, debates had featured sets of a few very vocal protestors who were given to reducing the Ramayan text to a study of its unremarkable and well known inadequacies and refused to either recognize or yield to the tragic ambiguities inherent in it. Sardono's piece allowed the audience to approach the shadowy emotional spaces lying concealed beneath the well known twists and turns of the epic story, in the quiet of their own souls.

The first few notes of the distinctly European score, Alina, by Estonian composer Arvo Part indicated that this was going to be a very different experience. As the forlorn (but entirely unsentimental) and spare melody wended its way to the audience, the constancy of time, place and context which we have come to recognize as part of our epics and Puranic lore, was replaced by a more featureless universalism and the purity of an artistic endeavour just starting out. At one corner of the stage, Adishakti actress Nimmy, in a stance of pure yet understated waiting, crouched before a plate of rice slowly straightening, bending, listening. The deliberately slowed down movements had an exquisite grace and becalming effect; this could be a lost woman in waiting for her husband anywhere. It could very easily also be Sita immobilized by destiny into the permanent sorrow of waiting.

It was this initial performance which Nimmi describes as nothing more than a response to Sardono's directive to her to only improvise to the music, that shaped the rest of the performance. Taking his cue from her, Sardono then decided to play the three principal male characters of the Ramayana, Ram, Hanuman and Raavan as they interact with Sita. Shorn of the usual ways we in India receive these characters with overt emoting and a narrative text close by at all times, Sardono's choreography was a study in contrast with its clean and minimal approach.

First, after Sita had set the opening mood of the production, Sardono, back to the audience and mid stage, began to emerge out of the stillness of his lotus pose; turning slowly, his assumed awkwardness of movement and misshapen body suggested an aged trembling Rama, remembering his wife and perhaps his own misdeed towards her? The acute inwardness of the moment came with the complete absence of the didactic.

Next, a transition from Ram to Hanuman began to take shape. As a brilliant young dancer, Sardono at 16, had faced a moment of crisis, when he was asked to play the part of Hanuman and not Rama in a key production at the Prambanan temple. The shattered young dancer had floundered for a while wondering how he was to play a part he had not trained in. His search brought him to studying Tarzan comics in a bid to pick up some cues for playing an animal based character and he devised an asymmetrical stance which lengthened his body. More importantly, this was a style familiar to Javanese audiences from an existing Indonesian dance style. Sardono's Hanuman then had a distinctly stylized touch and despite the energetic movements, never descended into the tomfoolery of popular caricatures of the character we often see in India. Jumping up on the table near Sita, smearing ash on to his being, this section chose the incident regarding Rama's ring and used it to represent the tug between doubt and faith underlying the jest and snatching of the ring between the two.

As the tension between Sita and Hanuman rose, the latter seized a few tissue papers lying on the table and lighting them, threw them up into the space between him and his co- actor. With such deft and light touches was a familiar narrative re-sketched, steering the viewer's attention to the elemental power of movement alone.

Finally, it was time for the face-off between Sita and Ravan. Smearing red powder on himself, Hanuman transformed himself into Ravana, beating the lids from the serving dishes together like cymbals; the use of the colour, a premonition of his self destructive desire. Rice, a constant feature in the piece, was used to indicate that the waiting Sita was capable of defiance as she spat the rice out towards Ravan.

For Nimmy, a trained classical dancer and actor with Adishakti, the experience was similar to the theatre training that the group is known for. Although Sardono, trained as a child in traditional Javanese dance and martial arts and developed characters from the Mahabharat and Ramayan, he later traveled to New York, immersing himself in contemporary dance for several years. Absorbing several influences, Sardono has developed a contemporary dance style that recalls his early traditional training, cuts away unnecessary verbiage and is able to keep the complex criss-crossing of emotional connections and artistic vision very clean and simple. "The body is the magic. It is natural and it has an intelligence which I believe in," says the dancer who chafes at the over use of analysis in understanding his form.

"We are always being taught about the power of pure movement and how to control and use it as theatre at Adishakti. When I was asked to improvise, that's exactly what I did. To me it felt like theatre more than dance," says Nimmy. Certainly, the way that the production was put together points towards theatre too. The two actors would observe each other separately and then respond. "In fact, the only time we really had a full rehearsal was the actual performance," says Nimmy.

To those in the audience who were expecting a straightforward display of a traditional Indonesian art form based on an ancient Indian text, the production was expectedly a disappointment. Some in the audience were openly dismissive of its sketchiness and its work in progress feel. Clearly, Sardono, who has made quite a habit of upsetting the neat expectations of his audiences and places his individuated response as a creative dancer in the fore while choreographing a piece, had done it again.

But this also raises questions about how we tend to relate to our epic traditions and performances. As members of the rapidly decultured urban classes, we tend to view our traditional performance forms with a certain passive pride and are appreciative for the fact of their survival but prefer to keep a distance from them. These are useful cultural markers and that is their principal use. They have stopped mattering to us in a living, breathing, organic way and that is why we like our performing arts and traditions without too many interjections or variations.

Sardono's piece, sketchy as it was, aimed for a composite creative choreography. For the sensitive in the audience, the use of traditional, Javanese dance skills, the transmutation of mythic characters through a dancer's own form, the contemporary approach, were all there to be perceived and enjoyed as glimmers in the work.

Behind the artistic attempt was a less argued, more inward plurality. Unlike the notion of unity in diversity, we in India tend to disinterestedly flaunt, Sardono's little window to another culture hinted at the possibility of saying it differently. By seeking the underlying oneness in storytelling, text, art and performance indicated in the pervasive animist traditions of an archipelago nation, which has found its own unique way of fashioning a unity out of its own kind of diversity. It was befitting that a new notion of this central premise was hinted at in a festival dedicated to exploring the very idea of plurality inherent in the many versions of an ancient epic like the Ramayan.

Devina Dutt is a Mumbai-based editor and art and culture critic. She also runs First Edition Communications which specializes in corporate communications.