Last night, I went to watch Anita Ratnam's new dance theatre presentation, A Million Sita-s. It was the first performance I managed to attend this Margazhi, and it was so worth shaking myself out of the inertia of staying home.
The presentation tells five stories through Sita's voice, breaking down the traditional distance/ difference between Sita and other characters in the Ramayana. Sita, the narrator, is in exile in Valmiki's ashram and encounters Manthara, Soorpanakha, Sabari and Ahalya. She tells them about herself, remembers her encounter with them and because she has empathy, she shows us the world as they would have seen it.
As Ahalya, she lets you into her feeling of temptation and being flattered, and her anger about her punishment--to turn into a stone till Rama's feet can liberate her. When Sita apologizes to Manthara for the teasing--even pelting with stones--that Dasharatha's sons inflicted on her, a window opens, and then you feel Manthara's sadness and anger... maybe for the first time. In Sabari's devotion, we are all moved--not just Rama. When Sita chats with Soorpanakha, you see them both as sisters. You hear a sarcasm that is never associated with Sita, when she asks Soorpanakha if she knows what the Maryada Purushottaman did. And in her sharing that, you see that they have a great deal in common.
If Anita's performance as Sabari was very, very moving, she was scary as hell as Soorpanakha. I thought for a moment that I would have nightmares, but of course I dreamt of deadlines instead. Anita Ratnam's Soorpanakha would have been a better aesthetic experience!
I am really glad I went to this presentation.
It was beautifully conceptualised, written and choreographed. The music was terrific, and Lakshmi Rangarajan's rendition of the bhajan that comes right after the Manthara segment was particularly beautiful.
Only two things that bothered me a little. The pile of cloth on stage when Anita danced as Ahalya--I kept worrying that she would trip--but maybe this particular stage was really small and that's why. And for the first part of the performance, the person reading out the narrative was speaking too close to the mike, so the sound was jarring and distracted from both the dance and the music, which is one reason I may not have understood the Ahalya segment correctly, actually.
In her performer's note: Anita Ratnam writes, "A MILLION SITA-s is not a feminist bashing of Rama." And it isn't a critique of the epic or the cultural traditions in which it is rooted either. It is simply a very sympathetic look at people in Rama and Sita's story who don't get a lot of airtime or understanding. I am not sure if this is the right way to put it, but it's very much a story told from within... from within this tradition, by someone who enjoy the epic and who enjoys all its characters. It's just a story told from an unusual standpoint within the story. Like a new look-out point in a very popular holiday destination.
This was a wonderful experience and if "A Million Sita-s" is performed anywhere near where you are, you shouldn't miss it.
I saw "A Million Sita-s" on the penultimate day of 2010 and it reminded me of how much joy creative work can give the creator and the person who gets to enjoy the work. Those of us who can be creative in different ways and those of us that can appreciate creativity should never let those parts of us languish on the back-burners of our lives. That's my New Year's Resolution, for sure!