the intimacy of an epic memory

Devina Dutt

In its third year, the Adishakti Ramayana Festival (16 to 23 February 2011) in Puducherry, a long term exploration of the plurality of the Ramayana and its prodigious capacity for retellings, proved to be a deeper and even more intense experience than before.  As in previous years the focus on diverse performance styles with artistes working with a particular fragment from the epic was retained, but to this was added a strong intellectual component comprising scholars like Romila Thapar, Ashis Nandy, Paula Richman and Gulammohammad Sheikh as well as Paritta Koanantakool and Pornrat Damrhung from Thailand, dancer-critics Sal Murgiyanto and I Wayan Dibia from Indonesia and Eddin Khoo from Malaysia.  

The festival unfolded over eight days and  artistes as diverse as Pandit Channulal Mishra who sang the three Gitas from Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas and some couplets from Kevat Prasang (Exchanges with the Boatman); Mohiniattam dancer Bharati Shivaji who pushed the boundaries of her dance form to present Sita Parinamam, a collection of poems culled from Malayalam literature (Vallathol, Ezhuthachan and Kumaran Asan) depicting Sita at various junctures of her life; Mugiyono Kasido who combined Javanese classical dance with a spare animism to present Sita’s Memory, a modern piece created for the festival; and the Meghawal and Manganiyars who  came together  to perform Ram Bhajans, constituted  the performance section. Among the other pieces specially created for the festival were Ravanama, an exploration of the exquisite and tense fragility between Ravana and Sita presented through a series of improvisations by theatre artiste and teacher Maya Krishna Rao and RamaRavana, a Kattaikuttu folk theatre performance with a folksy, intelligently crafted script alive with ethical ambiguities, presented by the young and spirited cast of the Kattaikuttu Sangam, Kanchipuram. 

Over the last three years, a higher than usual standard of spectatorship has been one of the many revelations of this festival. In addition, the heightened closeness and lack of formal dividing line between artiste and viewers with plenty of scope for unplanned intimate interactions through the day led to some untypical encounters, particularly in the discussions that followed each performance. Not surprisingly, the more popular artistes accustomed to the perfunctory slickness and habits acquired on the urban trail, often misread the expectations of the audience and could not do justice to the space and possibilities offered at Adishakti.  So, Pt. Channulal Mishra squandered a sizeable chunk of his time on stage by replaying his standard performance circuit repertoire comprising a few well known chaitis, thumris and horis, diluting it all with excessive talk and samples of some quite ordinary  poetry before getting down to the heart of the matter with Tulsidas.  In contrast, Bharati Shivaji’s sincere attempt to create a memorable experience for her viewers saw her pushing the boundaries of the Mohiniattam form to accommodate the narrative planks of her selected material. The dancer communicated a certain purity of intent with her carefully orchestrated music though some spectators felt that the performance could have worked just as well with less explanation particularly in the extended abhinaya sections which had to bear the weight of some detailed storytelling.  Shivaji’s response highlighted the plight of the contemporary classical artiste torn between a need to communicate with increasingly superficial audiences with short attention spans and somehow remaining true to her art and aesthetic sense. “One is always being criticised for being too slow or too obscure.  We are not always fortunate to have intelligent and sensitive spectators”, she said adding that she would probably not dare take the show to the big performing venues and halls in metros.       

Discussions as performance   

The distinctive feel of this year’s festival was constituted by the wide ranging interdisciplinary scholarship and discussion, made all the more inspiring because it had been disentangled from its usual seminar circuit context.  These sessions took place every morning while performances from diverse creative artists, many of whom had specially created pieces for the festival, took place each evening. But although the sessions were thus separated, each had managed to inflect the other in interesting ways. So, the sessions with scholars in the mornings were quite animated with the latter rising above their academic trappings to explain and be understood in the presence of students and faculty from JNU’s Arts and Aesthetics course as well as writers, musicians and painters who had gathered there from all over the country.

As some of India’s leading intellectuals responded to the freshness of the forum and the informality at Adishakti’s ecologically pure space, it led to a feeling of relaxed intensity which helped in the free wheeling communication of ideas. In this atmosphere, devoid of formal timekeeping, their spectators, intelligent non specialists for the most part, could engage in long discussions with the scholars. All of this added a performative dimens
ion to their sessions (which were held on the very stage where performances were held every evening) in the way that the play of ideas as well as the tug and tussle of new ideas and work in progress found expression.  

Thus, Romila Thapar’s solid historical approach while analysing the role of the variants in the reading of the epic was the stuff of pure unwavering classicism while Ashis Nandy was irrepressible and dynamic in his exposition of the epic culture and its inherent plurality which endorsed the  reconstruction of the past as well as the future in countless ways.  Eddin Khoo’s talk on the proscription of shadow puppetry in the Northern district of Klantan in Malaysia was not just a great talk on the politics of culture in that country. The meshing of ideas on culture with reportage, quoting writers and poets like James Joyce to Derek Walcott (invoking the latter’s description of a Caribbean city to underscore the diasporic ethos“mongrelized, polyglot, a ferment without a history, like heaven”), as well as the switching of contexts from one nation to another, in an examination of South East Asia’s fragmented past and its implications for the present, made this a wide ranging and masterfully constructed session. Painter and scholar Gulammohammad Sheikh’s presentation titled ‘Visualising the Ramayana’, was a more muted almost meditative and intricate experience of retracing the epic through 150 paintings including miniatures and folios.  

But it was Tamil author C. S. Lakshmi in a talk titled ‘When Grandmother’s Stories become Epic Texts: Experiences of Listening to Ramayana and Studying the Ramayana’, whocame closest toemulating thedynamics of a live performance. At first, Lakshmi’s autobiographical account introduced us to her mother who narrated stories from the Ramayana to her as a child before taking us through the arc of her own life and her trysts with writing and Hindustani classical music.  Then, in a brief but intense encounter with the creative process, Lakshmi switched from the starkly autobiographical to the writerly mode, and we witnessed the transformation of the material from her life into a story of an unlikely friendship between Ravana and an ageing Sita based on music lessons and an unnamed love.

Surprising connections

As in the previous year, festival director, independent writer and critic Rustom Bharucha kept the scale of the festival intimate and designed its components with a view to enhancing the emergence of subtle aesthetic and philosophical connections. This was achieved not only by a conscious arrangement of performances and discussions but also by the pairings of intellectuals who appeared either together like the IFA’s Anmol Vellani and Malaysian cultural critic Eddin Khoo in two widely divergent talks on the theme of ecology and the Ramayana, or in successive sessions such as Romila Thapar and Ashis Nandy who brought their own sharply differing views on the tricky subject of historicising the epic.

The idea of plurality that revealed itself as the festival progressed managed to shed light on its own inherent complexity. In conjunction with the diverse performances, we were reminded of how difficult it was to form any kind of understanding of old texts and their meanings when approaching them with too orderly or pristine a worldview; the wealth of open ended material emerging from each session, performance and discussion alike was proof enough of the fact that an understanding of plurality could only be possible if we left ourselves open to the necessary chaotic energies that seem to lie at its heart.  

Recharging performances

In the performance section, Ravanama, a solo piece presented by Maya Krishna Rao, was one of the high points of the festival for the way in which it used the actor’s resources, her Kathakali training and a tremendous ability to breathe life and power into an art experience based on a very individual and subjective notion of improvisation. Working with extracts from the Kathakali piece Ravanathbhavam  (The Birth of Ravana), her reading of the Ramayana – particularly the works of Paula Richman and David Shulman – Rao created a work rich in imagination, putting together fragments of stories and retellings focusing on Ravana and Sita,  and unfettered by conventional thinking on structure and storyline. An eclectic music score patching together sounds ranging from Kathakali to pop provided the cue for a series of inspired improvisations. We saw the actor splinter her self as she played off selections of autobiographical material onto Ravana and Sita’s principal narratives and action lines. While doing so, she kept the spirit of improvisation alive by exposing herself and her material to a high degree of dangerous improbability, pulled back each time from impending chaos by a sense of unobtrusive purpose at the very last minute.

While the whole piece was put together from the improvisations that had taken place in her rehearsal room shot on camera, Rao also left small windows open for improvisations on stage. So the theme of the actor and her parts feeding off each other on stage had a real edge. In one section, Sita paints a portrait of Ravana, but when she has painted the eyes she is terrified by the emotions she has uncovered. Does she see herself reflected as a daughter in the pupil o
f his eyes, or is she attracted to a beautiful man? Her adolescent confusion is picked up the actor playing herself who winds away in a different direction but essentially working with the same material and mood as Sita.

Far from being a simplistic confluence of Theatre, Kathakali and the Ramayana, this was a rigorous, intelligent, and for all its perceived lack of ‘structure’, well crafted exploration where in the actor’s words, “I brought in the reality of my improvisations and rehearsals trusting that my audience would make of it their own experience.” This unconventional approach showed us a Ravana and a Sita not tamed by a mere simulation of their written down selves but living, breathing, changing and above all supremely capable of infecting us with their disturbed selves.  Thus, Ravana changed from one who exults in his power to bewilderment and the sad tenderness of a mute lover. Sita’s depiction by Rao appearing as Sita as well as the parallel and charged relationship between the actor and Sita, hint at different times at adolescent aversion, womanly passion and  an unsuspected malevolence lying just below the surface.     

In another strikingly different but memorable performance, leading Thai dancer Pichet Klunchun performed I am the Demon, based on the representation of the demon character in traditional Khon dance. This seemingly spare, clean and modern looking production was anchored in the deep bond with his teacher to whom it was a low key but heartfelt tribute. This was as much an enquiry into the meaning of his dance, the relationship between his master and himself and what constituted a perfect representation of the demon character within the traditions of Thai culture and the contemporary performance stage. The production travelled from its rigorous but exquisitely controlled opening moves – interspersed with video clippings of Pichet’s conversations on dance, over which live action sometimes imposed itself scrambling our perception of the two formats as two distinct entities – before making way for a gradual softening and ending with a sense of inner calm. Purged of the spectacularised pomp that much of Thai dance, driven by the compulsions of cultural tourism, finds itself in today, this was a thoughtful and imaginative way for a traditional artiste to enter a contemporary debate on culture.

Intense, yet slowed down, the Ramayana festivals at Adishakti, Puducherry, offer hope to those who have tired of big festivals which  tend  to regard the arts as primarily a spectacle, investing them  with needless hype and often encouraging the rise of egregious self promotion. To sensitive spectators this ‘noise’ filters through on to the stage and can be quite unsettling. Founder director of Adishakti, Veenapani Chawla and festival director (for the last two years), Rustom Bharucha have succeeded in reimagining the festival as a  way of bringing interested people together around an undiluted cultural experience with opportunities for quiet reflection. In doing so they have demonstrated that the compulsions and limitations of the performance circuit need not hold back creative ventures which energise performers and their spectators in unusual and more lasting ways.

[Devina Dutt is an arts critic, translator and editor.  She has been a business journalist with Business India and is a senior corporate communications consultant in Mumbai. Last year she co-edited and produced Pathfinders, a volume on Indian art and culture from 1950-2010 covering cinema, theatre, film, literature, visual arts, music and dance. She is a regular contributor to the culture pages of The Hindu.]


BBC World Service Drama Disbanded

The BBC World Service stopped the scheduling of regular drama output on its English Language Network as of 31March 2011. A copy of the farewell email message from Marion Nancarrow (BBC World Service Executive Producer, Audio Drama):

From: Marion Nancarrow
Sent: 01 April 201114:01
Subject: World Service Drama (sadly not an April Fool)

Dear Friends

From midnight last night, after 79 years of broadcasting on the network, World Service's regular drama slot came to an end and the team was disbanded.

In its heydey, Drama transmitted 2.5 hours a week. Voices heard across those years included Donald Wolfit, John Gielgud, Rex Harrison, Peggy Ashcroft, Paul Scofield, Trevor Howard, Ian Holm, Judi Dench, Tom Conti, Penelope Wilton, John Kani, Winston Ntshona, Archie Panjabi, Juliet Stevenson, Keeley Hawes, Toby Stephens, Sophie Okonedo, David Suchet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Bill Nighy, Meera Syal, Ed Asner and Calista Flockhart.   Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Day Lewis and Ewan McGregor did their first radio for the World Service!  Plays by Stoppard, Soyinka, Tremain, Beckett, Bennett, Rushdie, Naipaul, Atta Aidoo, Dove, Oda, Agboluaje, Baldwin and Shakespeare have been heard, winning countless Sonys. The hugely popular – and only global – soap, Westway, attracted a diversity of writing and acting talent and won the CRE Award for Best Soap in 2000 (beating Coronation Street!). The entire 7 years of broadcast was repeated on Radio 7.

Recent judges for the international playwriting competition, now in its 22nd year, included Doris Lessing, Lennie James and Kwame Kwei-Armah. Recent collaborations have been with Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Court, King’s College, The Slade School of Fine Art and, of course, the British Council.

Directors Gordon House and David Hitchinson became household names and the department has always shared its expertise with new writers, directors and actors. Westway became a training ground for writers and producers moving on to Eastenders, Casualty and beyond and the department gave advice, support and training for drama projects set up by the WS Trust, including Rruga Me Pisha in Albania, Story Story in Nigeria and Thabyegone Ywa in Burma, as well as to the Asian network soap, Silver Street. We ran writing and acting workshops in Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya, Zimbabwe, across South Africa, Malawi and the Middle East. We co-founded "Worldplay", an annual season of international collaborations with English-speaking Radio Drama Producers across the world. With the British Coun
cil and African Productions, the first ever 2nd language radio writing residency was set up in London. Writers who attended went on to win the Caine Prize, to be shortlisted for the Asian Booker and to have plays premiered off Broadway and at the Royal Court.

And World Drama became the place for new voices – from the Sony Gold winner Michael Philip Edwards’ one man show Runt, about being Jamaican in America, to plays by 10 year olds from Ghana, Kosovo, Singapore and Bangladesh in Generation Next; from 12 Royal Court Young Writers in 12 countries writing online about water in We Are Water, to young people living with disabilities in Uganda in Beautiful Only at Night. Our last 2 regular broadcasts were a play inspired by the work of a theatre company in Malawi who use drama to change attitudes to HIV/AIDS and a Russian playwright's first commission about climate change, written in the Artic! In this way, the network gave a platform and an opportunity to celebrate the diversity, imagination and universality of every country of which its audience was comprised.

Of course, we continue to run the BBC/British Council International Playwriting Competition and that is a wonderful and genuine way to continue to bring new voices to the network. And some ad hoc drama will hopefully continue.

I'm incredibly proud of what we've been able to achieve – and lament what our audience and the upcoming generation of talent will lose – but I'm also acutely aware that none of this would have happened without you – our fantastic contributors and supporters, who gave so much to ensure that only the best work was heard on air.  And that really is the point of this long email: I can't thank you enough.  I hope we will find other ways to bring those stories to the world. 

In the meantime, my warmest wishes, as ever,

Executive Producer, Audio Drama 


Juliano Mer Khamis, Arab-Israeli actor and director and Artistic Director of the Jenin Freedom Theatre was shot dead on 3 April 2011 in Jenin by masked men. Two articles reflecting on the man and his work.

1. Juliano Mer Khamis – Anthony Alessandrini

2. Remembering Juliano Mer Khamis – Max Blumenthal


Issue 19: 15 April 2011
a fortnightly theatre e-journal from the
India Theatre Forum
Vikram Iyengar, Joyoti Roy



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