'Adoring sister, vindictive widow, rebel, spurned lover, beautiful princess, tragic victim.'
When one thinks of Ravana’s sister Surpanakha from the Ramayana, these are not the phrases that come to mind. She is usually described as an ugly, pot-bellied monster who tried to seduce Rama in the forest, forcing his brother Lakshmana to cut off her nose. As per Valmiki’s Ramayana, Surpanakha then goes back to Ravana in Lanka, who, enraged, decides to avenge his sister.
But there are more than 300 versions of the Ramayana across India and South Asia which are in conflict with this narrative, says Kathak performer Ashavari Majumdar, whose unique piece Surpanakha – A Kathak Performance looks at the eponymous character through a feminist lens, using dance, theatre and stand-up.
Majumdar, who performed at Harkat Studios in Mumbai on 24 March, said it was the late Veenapani Chawla, one of theatre’s foremost exponents, who directed her towards an essay by the late poet AK Ramanujam titled Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation. It inspired her to explore Surpanakha as more than Ravana’s demon sister. The essay was her point of entry to understand the complexity of the characters and the shades of grey within the Hindu epic.
“As a kid, I found the Ramayana boring. I only knew of Valmiki’s version and I thought the characters were very dull and goody-goody,” says Majumdar. Chawla, who was curating a Ramayana theatre festival to explore the many voices in epic, had asked Majumdar to create a performance based on it. “She pointed me to the whole scholarship on the diversity of the epic. I had no idea that there were more than 300 Ramayanas in India and all over Asia.” While scouring through literature on the subject, Majumdar came across Kathleen M Erndl’s essay The Mutilation of Surpanakha. “It is a feminist critique, which sees Surpanakha as challenging patriarchy because she lived alone outside the city. Unlike Sita, she has no male protection. To me, it felt like it was a question of female sexuality,” Majumdar says.
Majumdar’s performance, which premiered in 2012, draws on diverse versions of the Ramayana like the Malay Hikayat Seri Rama, Vimalasuri’s Jain Ramayana and the Adhyatma Ramayana, to script new perspectives on Surpanakha, through her relationships with Ravana, Sita and Rama.
“It is also the most popular epic, as even the Mahabharata has not travelled the way the Ramayana has. There is some sort of silence on the fact that there are many versions of the text. Many traditions have made it their own. Buddhists have their own version. There is a Persion Ramayana too. In the Kashmiri version, Sita is a Chandi figure who rescues Ram and is killed by Ravana. There are conflicting narratives as well. In some versions, there is no Surpanakha. There are Ramayanas where she plays a larger role and reappears towards the end as a key figure. For me, it was about looking at relationships and drawing a parallel to contemporary issues,” shares Majumdar, who has trained in the classical dance form under Pandit Vijay Shankar and Pandit Birju Maharaj.
Surpanakha is divided into three sections. In the first part, Majumdar explores the sibling relationship between Surpanakha and Ravana. In the Malay version, Ravana kills her husband. “I wanted to look at it because generally, in literature or performance, the brother-sister dynamic is not explored. Their relationship is interesting as it is Surpanakha who goes to Ravana and incites him against Rama. She plays a key role in the war,” explains Majumdar.
In the second section, the Kathak performer looks at Sita and Surpanakha as two sides of the same coin. She questions the notions of chastity and beauty. “You can look at Sita as someone who follows the rules of patriarchy but was eventually rejected. There is also the issue of the ugly woman and the beautiful woman where in some narratives, Surpanakha was extremely beautiful, while Sita was ugly in comparison.”
In her third and final part, Majumdar draws from the Adhyatma Ramayana to understand the relationship between Surpanakha and Rama. In this version of the epic, Ravana is a devotee of Ram. “If Ravana is a devotee, then so can Surpanakha. If she is a devotee, then the lens through which she views Rama also changes. The attraction becomes spiritual,” she says.
Majumdar’s piece departs from a traditional Kathak dance performance in several ways. It is interspersed with scripted monologues and audience interaction to bring in elements of stand-up. “The Kathak form already shares a lot of similarities with stand-up. Unlike in Bharatanatyam or Odissi, one traditionally interacts with the audience, though it is very casual. As I already came from such a background, I used that in my piece, with monologues.”
Blurring the lines between dance and theatre, she also uses live video projection during some parts of the performance. “In my earlier versions, I used a clip of Ravana to indicate his character. I also used textures and abstract design to add another layer,” she says. The use of video also came with an intention to make Kathak more accessible to wider audiences. “That was something my team and I used very consciously, because people are so visual now. People don’t understand mudras but they will understand a certain visual language. There was a very specific audience for dance who knew what each gesture meant, but we want to expand that,” she explains.
“You want as many people and as diverse a group to watch it. All of us feel traditional forms such as Kathak are under threat and it is important for the wider community — not just the dance community — to understand why it is important to have Kathak, and send your son/daughter to a dance class or Hindustani classical music class.” However, for this particular performance in Mumbai, Majumdar said she will avoid the use of video, since it is in a smaller performance space.
The music and songs used in the show are also unique, as they are written in English instead of the traditional Braj/Sanskrit. The costume design includes an off-shoulder top and a lehenga, showing Majumdar’s innovative exploration of the dance form. “It is during the Sita-Surpanakha section where I have divided the stage into two parts — left and right. Sita is on one side and Surpanakha is on the other. So, one side of my costume is full sleeved, denoting Sita, while the off-shoulder side indicates Surpanakha.” Despite the apparent departure from a traditional Kathak performance, Majumdar rejects the tag of it being a “contemporary” piece.
“I don’t agree with the ‘contemporary’ label because the technique I use to express it, is Kathak. The attitude towards it is contemporary. There are techniques like Ballet, Odissi etc. Similarly, in my piece, the technique is Kathak, but my attitude is actually of an artist who is still exploring. It is not set in stone. I think it is a dynamic piece which is influenced by those watching it and that’s what makes it relevant. My attitude is different from someone who would be doing exactly as their gurus have taught them and who don’t feel the need to do anything different of their own accord,” she says, adding that a body like the Sangeet Natak Akademi could programme the piece in its contemporary dance festivals. However, Majumdar also says there are several senior dancers who feel a performance like Surpanakha is Kathak in the classical sense.
In a bid to take Kathak to a more diverse audience, Majumdar is slowly transitioning from the proscenium stage to performing in alternative and more intimate spaces like Harkat in Versova, Cuckoo Club in Bandra and Si Bambai in Kala Ghoda. “I’m looking at how I can take Surpanakha to different audiences from what I’m used to. I’m also looking at how to take something like Kathak and the Ramayana to younger audiences, or audiences who wouldn’t normally go to an auditorium to watch a dance performance,” she says.
Surpanakha was staged at Harkat Studios, Mumbai on 24 March
Updated Date: Mar 29, 2019 09:35:16 IST