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From Ramayan to Ram

The Sriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra presents a contemporary interpretation of the well-known epic. The dance drama in its 45th year has shifted to Hindi and focuses on Ram, the paragon of all virtues.

It is universally regarded as one of the world’s most important literary efforts. The Ramayan is a skillfully interwoven plot of a series of extraordinary events and episodes, crammed with adventure and excitement, battles, plotting, abduction, alliance and counter-alliance, deceit, love and faithfulness. There’s also a touch of comic relief with moral credo, climaxing in poetic justice-victory of right over wrong, and good over evil.

Valmiki’s great religious epic is the story of a prince and a divine plan. The epic provides insights into many aspects of Indian culture and continues to influence politics, religion and the art of modern India. Despite the advent of the electronic media, generations continue to adopt the Ramayan as the theme of their artistic creations and means of expressing their inner feelings.

The Ramayan is performed in a myriad ways. In many places the text is chanted in temples in a sing-song manner. But the most popular way is to enact it on stage. However, there are many variations to this as well. At times it is read aloud and actors mime the actions. At others, actors perform live with dialogues and props. And yet another way is to perform it in the dance drama style.

For the last 45 years Delhi’s Sriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra has become synonymous with the dance-drama. The Ramayan ballet is performed through dynamic dance sequences, striking rhythmic patterns of footwork, ornamental hand gestures, facial expressions and body postures in a contextually appropriate manner.

What sets their Ramlila apart from the thousands of others being staged around India is that it relies heavily on a solid foundation of a well-researched script. The idea of evolving a new interpretation of the epic took seed about a decade ago and meant five years of concerted research and effort.

Beginning from October 17, 2001, the two and a half-hour epic performance is being held in the Kendra’s lawns every evening, right up to November 11. This year, however, there will be two major changes in the format. For one, the language has been changed from Avadhi to Hindi so that it can be more easily understood. Second, the title has been changed from Ramayan to Ram.

Besides these two changes, the storyline too has been restructured. The concept of the victory of good over evil has been given a more contemporary interpretation. The new format of presentation is completely state-of-the-art keeping in pace with the advent of the electronic media. Nevertheless, it keeps the sanctity of the Ramayan intact.

Rehearsals for the dance drama began four months in advance in June. They will continue till the completion of the show. This year, 45 dancers participated in the show and 200 musicians were involved with the recording of the sound track. It comprised more than 300 pieces, taking 90 days and two studios to complete the score. Nearly 2,000 studio hours were consumed for the music recording. Says Shobha Deepak Singh, production director and vice-chairperson of the Sriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra: “The characters and incidents in Ramayan provide the ideals and wisdom of day-to-day life. It speaks of family life, heroes, demons, battles and of universal truths.”

But what was the need to change the storyline? Shobha has a ready answer: “We tend to concentrate just on the story telling aspect of Ramayan, entirely missing out on the real meaning beyond the words. It is very convenient not to ask questions for fear of having to look for answers. But I am not such a person. So along with my team I have tried to move away from the routine and tell the story of the Ramayan in an approach as timeless as the epic itself. This year we have tried to excavate the layers of text in an attempt to understand the subtext, because that is the real treasure of the epic. Its intricacies form a vital and sublime core.”

The director says that she and her research team have tried to make the epic more relevant to the current times. According to her such re-interpretations are very important as they make the Ramayan’s appeal contemporary and more and more people can relate to it. “For example,” she continues, “my interpretation is that the golden deer that Lord Rama shot signifies temptation; the Lakshman rekha defines the moral space and is a subtle reminder of the pitfalls that may follow transgressions and the giant Hanuman leap is an indication that if you are focused, devoted and concentrate upon a task enough, you can take on gigantic tasks. Similarly, burning Ravan’s Lanka was Hanuman’s way of charring the demon king’s gigantic ego. These and many more concepts form the backbone of our new presentation.”

As for renaming the Ramayan and simply calling it Ram, Shobha explains: “We have attempted to bring forth the divinity and compassion of Ram and not let it get lost in a jungle of blind faith.” That’s also the reason for deliberately writing a new script and moving from the original language Avadhi to Hindi, which is easily understood by all. This year’s Ramlila is an attempt to present universal truths in a manner that everyone can understand and embrace.

Absolutely devoid of the barriers posed by period drama and language, the performance in the open-air theatre certainly provides an unforgettable experience. The interesting interplay of light and shadow, symbolic sets, excellent choreography, incorporation of various dance forms like martial, folk and classical, eclectic costumes and ornaments designed by Shobha herself, after studying the paintings and sculptures of that time, make this ballet worth watching many times over.

“The endeavour of our presentation is to remind people of the importance of truth and honesty as well as the good values in life which have attained an even greater significance in the world today,” says the director. “In fact every year in our journey into India’s rich past we find more and more contemporary messages for our present world,” says Shobha, summing up the essence of the epic dance-drama.