Chinmaya Naada Bindu’s Rama Darshan in dance and music
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat

October 6, 2011

The 2nd Naada Bindu Festival for the Arts took place in Chennai on October 1 and 2, 2011. The Chinmaya Heritage Centre in Chennai generously supported this festival, by sponsoring their premises for a month of stay and rehearsals and auditorium for performance. Focused on the Ramayana, Rama Darshan featured classical dances from India and Indonesia, music from Southern and Northern India, shadow puppetry and free educational lecture-workshops. Ramaa Bharadvaj, the brain behind the concept and direction of the show, envisioned day one of the fest to include movement art forms and day two to feature music forms.

The first evening of the fest started with an invocation song sung by renowned musician Sriram Parasuram. In keeping with the theme of the fest, he aptly chose “Ram ka gun gaan kariye” and he was also clad in a kurta that was almost saffron in color! Chief guest N Murali spoke about the timelessness of the epic, how the Ramayana has crossed barriers of art forms and the inextricable link between art and spirituality. Swami Tejomayananda made a short and sweet speech. “Rama’s life is open to all of us to view, understand and interpret as we like. The final outcome should be that we should grow in love for him.”

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The first program of the evening was ‘Ram Katha’ choreographed and presented by Ramaa Bharadvaj along with youngsters Lakshminarayan, N Varsha and Ashrita Keshav in Bharatanatyam style. The sequence covered Bala Kandam to Ayodhya Kandam, from Rama’s birth to his banishment.  The accompanists were Kritika Arvind on vocal, Anil Kumar on mridangam and Srilakshmi on violin.

Clad in a beautiful turquoise and gold costume, Ramaa began with an invocation she had created specially for the festival in collaboration with acclaimed music composer Rajkumar Bharathi. The words were taken from Nama Ramayana. At the end of the item, it was interesting to note that the floral offerings were laid before the idols of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman kept on one side of the stage. Sita and her sakhi spend time happily in the garden when they happen to set eyes on Rama. Both wonder about the other’s identity. In a dramatic moment, Sita runs to Rama and they look at each other, before the sakhi drags her away. As in a flashback, the sakhi narrates the important incidents from Bala Kandam – Rama is the son of Dasaratha, king of Ayodhya, Rama destroys the demons who come to obstruct Vishwamitra’s yagna and Ahalya is redeemed of her curse by Rama.

Enters Ramaa Bharadvaj again and plays multiple roles, giving the call for the swayamvaram by beating the drum. Instead of the predictable scene of would be suitors trying to lift the bow and failing, Ramaa chose to depict the thoughts of the suitors, wise men and audience gathered at the swayamvaram, with verses from Tulsidas. The competitors wonder how the young man with pretty face is going to lift that heavy bow. To the brave contestants, he seemed like an amazing warrior (veera rasa); to the demons as princes in disguise, he seemed like Yama (bhayanaka rasa); to the wise sages, he appeared as a radiant cosmic form (adhbuta rasa); to King Janaka’s wife, he seemed like a child (vatsalyam); and to Sita, he appeared as a lover (shringara rasa). Finally, Rama lifts the bow and wins the challenge.

The next scene shows Rama and Sita getting married in south Indian style with a charming oonjal sequence. The wedding celebration takes the form of a happy thillana by the couple before Ramaa enters again and plays the three roles of the scheming Manthara, and the petulant Kaikeyi demanding her two boons from the hapless Dasaratha. Dialogues taken from Kamba Ramayanam were used here to good effect. Ramaa’s angika and vachika abhinaya and facial expressions changed rapidly and admirably as she got into each character’s role. This little group of 4 dancers managed to convey the story well through well edited sequences and evocative choreography. 

Kaikeyi stands firm demanding the banishment of Rama. In a master stroke of direction by Ramaa, the Balinese dancers portraying the trio walk along the rear of the stage into the forest, smoothly transferring into the next dance style and Aranya Kandam. The Ramayana happened in India and the epic then spread across Indonesia and other countries, hence the Bala Kandam and Ayodhya Kandam were done in Indian dance style and the Aranya Kandam in Balinese style, says Ramaa.

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Huge leaf shaped painted props carried by the dancers made for a forest atmosphere. The pretty Surpanaka flirts with Lakshmana and gets her nose cut. She runs to complain to her brother Rahwana / Ravana (P Anggaradana Suka) whose very entry was dramatic, held aloft by his subjects. In a sprightly scene, the golden deer weaves in and out among the trio and runs away. After Rama goes in search of the deer and Lakshmana also leaves, we see Ravana trying to get near Sita but a strong force does not allow him to. The transformation of Ravana into the sage was done beautifully with the huge leaf hiding the sage behind it and with the twisting around of the leaf, Ravana goes behind it and the sage moves to the front. After abducting Sita, the sage transforms again into Ravana in the same theatrical manner. In the meantime, Rama shoots an arrow (he really did!) and kills Maricha. The Jatayu - Ravana confrontation sequence was as colorful and striking; Rama and Lakshmana then do the last rites for the slain bird.

Hanuman (I Ketut Gede Agus Adi Saputra) enters in a white costume, and does a somersault into the hearts of the audience. Rama gives his ring to be given to Sita. She is sitting sadly at Ashokavanam with the good hearted rakshasi Trijata who begs Ravana to be patient with Sita. The Ravana character wears a mask but his very demeanour betrays his lecherous intentions. Hanuman gives the ring to Sita, a brief battle ensues and in a grand finale, Rama is held aloft in a human pyramid declaring him the victor. 

The selection of artistes was very good, as the serene Rama (AA Gede Rahma Putra), the bashful Sita (Ni Putu Diah Yeti Mahayani) and the faithful Lakshmana (I Wayan Plong Widiana) really looked their part. Ravana’s very body language through the program was majestic and powerful, accentuated now and then by growls, somewhat like we see in Kathakali. The other characters like Jatayu (I Putu Candra Pradita), the sage (I Gusti Bagus Surya Prabhawa), Maricha (I Wayan Sujana) and Surpanaka (Ni Putu Sinta Ulantari) all played their parts well. The costumes were specially designed for the show and the special accessories made with leather and gold paint. Choreographed by Rahma Putra (who also played Rama), the lively performance was well edited. The troupe of Kita Art Community from Bali worked under the guidance of Indra Udayana (director of the Gandhipuri Ashram in Bali) and artistic director Ketut Widi Putra.

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The third segment was a leather puppet show titled ‘Hanuman in search of Sita’ by Seethalakshmi and the Indian Puppeteers Group from Chennai. Wherever there is danger, Hanuman is there and brightly colored puppets showed us in nataka yakshagana prabandham prevalent in Andhra, some scenes from Kamba Ramayanam. The lyrics were in Tamil and easy to understand. Some scenes depicted were the Vali-Sugriva fight, killing of Vali, Rama giving Hanuman his ring to give Sita, the hospitable and inhospitable characters like Nagadevatai and Lankini that Hanuman meets en route to Sri Lanka, Hanuman giving Sita the ring, Rama slaying Ravana and the rescue of Sita. Hanuman reducing in size and growing in size was done very well. Unfortunately, the white screen was not stretched properly and the puppets sometimes did not appear in clear silhouette. 

The evening ended with a ten minute talk session by the artistic directors of the evening that was moderated by VR Devika, the director of Aseema Trust. Ramaa Bharadvaj said, “When we research for a production, we become fully educated. The characters come to life for us. In this production, my focus was to get Valmiki, Kamban and Tulsidas together and touch on how each of them looked at the Ramayana.  Some elements found in one Ramayana are not found in another, like the lakshman rekha episode. In Valmiki Ramayana, Rama and Sita don’t meet. Tulsidas says the two saw each other in the garden and fell in love. Getting to know the regional aspects is very interesting for me.”

Indra Udayana said they first prayed to Valmiki for blessings, then they chose the dancers and performed rituals for each character. “This production is not totally Balinese. The original choreography was put together specially for this show. Usually, our characters have only four expressions with a general smile, but today Sita looked sad.  Since people from Orissa had migrated to Indonesia years back, Bali feels closely connected to Orissa, so we have incorporated some Odissi poses as well as a couple of finger postures inspired by Bharatanatyam. From school up to university, we have Ramayana as part of school curriculum. Of course, the story is a bit adapted where there is Muslim tradition.” Balinese puppets used to be black before but now they are colorful.

Seethalakshmi spoke of how when she was young, puppet shows were held in the light of oil lamps or petromax light with the whole family behind the screen. Now they have modernised the puppets as well as music to cater to present day audience. She rues that puppet theatre is a dying art.

The next evening was a happy musical experience of diverse concepts. In ‘Geet Katha’, Pramodini Rao (Resident director at Chinmaya Naada Bindu) presented a beautiful musical medley of 8 bhajans in different languages that were soothing and pleasing. The screens on either side of the stage flashed the meaning of the songs as text with appropriate illustrated visuals. Among her accompanists were Pt Kalinath Mishra on tabla and Padma Shankar on violin, Chitaranjan Rao on side rhythms, Shoba Iyer, Geeta Chakravarthy and Arun Raman on vocals.

In the Marathi song, Rama hears his own story sung by his sons Lava and Kusha. They bring to life the very thoughts of Valmiki with their rendering at the yagnashala. Rama embraces them but how many know they are father and sons? In Hindi song “Thumak chalat Ramachandra…” of Tulsidas, everyone watches the child Rama swaying unsteadily as he is picked up by Dasaratha’s queens. Tulsidas is thrilled with the face of Rama, which has the glory of the sun. In the Sanskrit number by Thyagaraja, “Pavanaja….” behold the marriage celebration of Rama and Sita. Rama, the praised son of Lord Pavana, who with the sun and moon as his sacred eyes, is truly pleasing to the heart. Thyagaraja eulogises Rama who was praised by Lord Shiva, who ferries people across the ocean of samsara and is rightfully born in the solar dynasty. “Ramanukku mannan mudi” in Tamil from Arunachala Kavi’s Rama Natakam was next. Parasurama’s pride was thwarted by Rama, the one who protects all. Isn’t Rama being crowned as king the best for the welfare of all?

Rama leaves for exile. Oh, Rama, where are you taking Sita and Lakshmana? The Oriya bhajan narrates how clouds of darkness will envelop Ayodhya for how will people live the 14 years that Rama will be in exile? The Gujarati song by Umashankar Joshi (Kaag) describes the boatman Kevat, who washes the feet of Rama. “Your feet have magic. Stones come to life with the dust of your feet. What to speak of my boat which is softer?” Sant Kabir asks why the name of Rama is so sweet. Since you are in this samsar, taste the rasa of Rama naama and you will gladly forget the taste of every other rasa in life. All that is born has to die. Therefore, do not grieve. Drink the nectar of Rama naama. The final number “Rama naama…” in Kannada was written and composed by Susheela Acharya. Say ‘Rama’ once. Let the strings of the veena of your heart play the name of the Lord. Say the word ‘ra’ once with your mouth open. Let the sins caused by speech or action leave through this gate. Seal your mouth with ‘ma’ so as not to let the sins reenter through the gateway.

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In a surprise move, Swami Tejomayananda joined the group on stage and sang a keertana on Lord Rama. This was followed by the release of the illustrated book ‘Nama Ramayana’ and an accompanying CD of hymns created by Pramodini Rao. It was a novel idea when the giant book was opened to reveal the CD and book inside it! The book presents 108 original paintings of Valmiki Ramayana by young artist Arun  Raman each accompanied by a detailed narrative researched and written entirely by a team of youth writers under Swami Mitrananda’s guidance. The artist was woken up as early as 3am by swamiji to shower first and then get ready to work on the illustrations, with each composition detailed by swamiji. Each painting has been likened to a piece of meditation.

One did wonder how a flute recital would pay tribute to Rama but in ‘Nava Rasa to Rama Rasa,’ Hindustani flautist Himanshu Nanda and tabla player Pt Kalinath Mishra had quite a few surprises in store. The moods and bhavas of Ramayana put together with melody under the guidance of composer Rajkumar Bharathi also had elements of theatrics! Rama and Sita spot each other at the upavan and sringara rasa of love at first sight was evocative in raag Basant. The breaking of Shiva’s bow in raag Durga made for hasya rasa. Mandodari cries for the death of her family – karuna rasa in raag Darbari. Ravana is angry when he loses his sons and relatives in war – raudra rasa in raag Sohini. Vishwamitra wanted the brave Rama and Lakshmana to protect his yagna – veera rasa in raag Gambeeranattai. Trijata has a dream about Rama vanquishing Ravana – bhayanaka rasa was special effects on tabla and eerie vocals by Mishra and new sounds on the flute! The war field is full of dead bodies, vultures preying on them – bhibatsa rasa had special effects on tabla that brought out the battlefield on stage and a wailing flute that were again greeted with rapturous applause. Water represents knowledge, cloud represents noble person. Rama enjoys the beauty of nature – adbhuta rasa in raag Miya ki Malhar. Rama pattabhishekam sees peace and happiness in Ayodhya – shanta rasa in raag Bhairavi. In a surprise treat, Balinese dancer Rahma Putra who had played Rama the earlier evening, accompanied the melodious number with beautiful sinuous movements. A lovely end to an innovative recital that had the audience guessing every forthcoming rasa and raga with interest.

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The final program of the evening ‘Sangeeta Maruti’ was a collection of 7 compositions by various composers directed by Rajkumar Bharathi featuring a melodious Kritika Arvind on vocal, Karthik on mridangam, Ganapathy on tabla and Srilakshmi on violin. Rajkumar Bharathi explained each bhajan along with how the raga is used. The invocation “Anjani maindaa potri” from Kamba Ramayanam was in raga Nattai. Arunachala Kavi’s “Hanumane swamikkindha adayalam” is when Hanuman meets Sita in the Ashokavanam and she gives him the choodamani to give Rama. “Kaluguna padani raja seva” is a rare composition by Thyagaraja composed in rare raga Poornalalitha, as if Lakshmana is addressing Hanuman. Next was “Veera Hanumate namo namaha” by Muthuswamy Dikshitar. Kanaka Dasa’s “Enna kanda halliya Hanuma” in Peelu ragam was followed by Purandara Dasa’s “Hanumana mathave Hariya mathavu” in ragam Sumanesaranjini. The recital ended with a bhajan “Vande santham sri Hanumantham” that had the audience joining with full gusto. 

The post performance discussion was moderated by Dr. Rama Kausalya, director of Marapu Foundation, Thanjavur. She asked Pramodini Rao about her selection of songs in her voyage with the vaggeyekaras through the length and breadth of the nation! One song had been written by her mother, some were known songs and she picked up a couple of songs from You Tube! How did Himanshu Nanda zero in on the ragas for the rasas? Since this was the first time he was trying out a theme based concert on flute, Himanshu was guided by Rajkumar Bharathi who found translating emotions into music interesting. But for bhayanaka and bhibatsa, one would hardly be making music in fear or disgust, hence the special effects! For Bharathi’s own presentation, to highlight the work of different composers was of importance.

Ramaa Bharadvaj says the idea is to make this a traveling arts festival so the artistic directors get to work with local talent and the city chosen first for this was Chennai. So many Ramas in this festival…Lord Rama, Ramaa Bharadvaj, Rama Kausalya, Arun Raman, Rahma Putra! 

Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of