This Diwali, Find ‘Where The Shadow Ends’ In Ramayana With Veena Basavarajaiah’s Rendition Of The Epic
- IWB Post
- October 19, 2017
Have you heard the (imagined?) story of Lord Rama?
Diwali is here; the festival of lights.
We will yet again celebrate the victory of good over evil; mark the return of Rama to his home in Ayodhya after a fourteen year exile; celebrate his homecoming with his wife Sita; the defeat of the Demon King Ravana…
Lord Rama. Evil Ravana. Chaste Sita.
Faultless Rama. Lustful Ravana. Faithful Sita.
“Each and every one of us has been born into a given historical reality, ruled by particular norms and values, and managed by a unique economic and political system. We take this reality for granted, thinking it is natural, inevitable and immutable. We forget that our world was created by an accidental chain of events, and that history shaped not only our technology, politics and society, but also our thoughts, fears and dreams. The cold hand of the past emerges from the grave of our ancestors, grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.”
― Yuval Noah Harari
The adjectives rarely change. It has always been a story of good vs. evil. But who decides who is who?
‘Where the Shadow Ends’ is a dance theatre play produced in association with Kriyative Theatre (India) and in collaboration with Kristian Al-Droubi (Serbia). The play looks at how myths have turned into history and shaped the moral fabric of societies across the world.
The play explores the epic of Ramayana and finds similar stories that exists in Serbia and across cultures. Though the epic acts as the starting point, the play slowly develops into a much more complex layering of socio-political issues of the past and the present. It weaves the narrative seamlessly between the person-hood and the political whilst questioning notions of duty, belief, loyalty, nationalism and patriarchy.
Ramayana has always been ‘read’ in homes. Can it be ‘explored’? Questioned?
The director of the play, Veena Basavarajaiah, an accomplished contemporary artist from Bengaluru, helps me understand the ever evolving perspectives on the story and characters of Ramayana and the consciousness of Sita.
Shreeya: You performed Sita, a contemporary solo, so many years back. You present Sita again on stage. What has changed in your perception, ideas and emotions related to the character?
Veena: The solo I performed in 2009 traced the emotional journey of Sita in Ramayana. It was not a critique but more a narrative work which depicted the story as it is. It was one of my earlier works and it was influenced by my Bharatnatyam training and it’s technique of story-telling.
In 2017, I worked on Where the Shadow Ends which looks at multiple layers of Ramayana. It was a devised play where every collaborator brings in her/his perspective & experience onto the floor and into the play. It is more democratic and less individualistic, which means I have to be more open to different interpretations of Sita across time, cultures and ideologies. In this play, being the director/outside eye I can distance from all the characters, which enables me to look at the work objectively and explore the socio-political layers of the story and its relevance to the contemporary. Also, not all the performers are dancers, which means I can explore different language and performance aesthetics.
Shreeya: Why does the story of Sita recur so often in the modern age? From books to stage adaptations, what about that woman continues to fascinate story tellers?
Veena: It is not just Sita; many characters of the epics continue to inspire art makers till today. Firstly, the quality of writing is so wonderful, these stories are classics and they are relevant today because of their literary brilliance.
Secondly, the story of many women in the epics continue to fascinate artists. The depth of the character, the nuances, the layers and the complexity of the story gives artists of all genres (film makers, writers, dancers etc…) to explore their creativity in full capacity. Besides, these stories are timeless, they had great relevance in the times they were written and continue to have relevance in today’s society.
Veena: The play explores the space between reality and shadows of the past. The narrative travels through myths and history that are common across cultures, and looks at how myths have turned into history and shaped the moral fabric of societies across the world. The term is shadow is used to encompass the liminal space between actor-character, myth- history and performance-real life.
Shreeya: We are nothing without stories. The stories that we tell on stage come from an era gone by. So, does the passing down of the mythical stories become more like Chinese whisper? Each passing down their interpreted version of the story; altering with altering perspectives.
Veena: Every form of art is an interpretation. Even the original work is the interpretation of a thought, idea or some form of real experience. As you remember your own thoughts, you are interpreting it. As someone listens to it, they are interpreting it. When you recall it again, you are interpreting it again.
It is not like the Chinese whisper, stories are more like seeds. You sow seeds; they grow into trees which flower, fruit and produce more seeds. These seeds get dispersed, travel, find new landscapes, adapt, grow, change and continue to give birth to more trees and more seeds. You cannot trace the origin but you know that there is something that connects them all, yet they are all unique in their own way.
Shreeya: During your research did you find similar stories with different outcomes/endings?
Veena: There are hundreds of versions of Ramayana across Asia in South- Asia and Indian sub-continent; versions that are influences by Jain, Buddhist, Islamic and colonial impact. You can also find similarities between stories in Europe like Homer’s Iliad and the Ramayana. We found a Serbian story ‘Baschelik’ which has striking similarities with the Ramayana and we have used it in the play as one of our collaborators is a Serbian actor. The research only reiterated the fact that stories travel and transform with time and space.
Shreeya: Where the Shadow Ends was an International collaboration. Please share something about taking the play to Serbia and its collaborators. How was the story received by a new culture?
Veena: Kristian Al-Droubi our collaborator is a well-know Butoh practitioner and performance artist from Serbia. We were invited by the INFANT festival in Novisad and with the help of the Indian Embassy in Serbia and support from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations we were able to perform in four different venues in Serbia including the Summer Festival in Belgrade.
It was an enlightening experience for all of us to perform in Serbia because unlike many countries that we have been to in Western Europe, Serbia is a developing country with very limited funds for the arts. It was eye-opening to see the effect that past wars had on the people of the nation. The country is also laden with problems of refugees, poverty and unemployment. Their current political scenario is also very similar to ours with people moving towards fundamentalism and orthodoxy. In a country like this the play resonated with them deeply and the questions that we were trying to ask about patriarchy, nationalism and women issues had relevance in Serbia as much as it did in India.
Shreeya: You have worked extensively with actors and ‘non-dancers’ on movement based pieces. How different is their approach?
Veena: When you work with trained dancers then the form of movement become the language of creating work. But when you work with dancers or actors with no formal training in one single form, it becomes important to develop a language that everyone understands using various movement and creativity tasks. One needs to be more empathetic and keep in mind the possibility and limitations of all the collaborators who are part of the project while creating work.
Shreeya: You work with your partner Shreekanth in the play. Does working on stories that involve relationships help you introspect your equations with your partner as well? Do you both draw from your experiences?
Veena: Working with any collaborator is about building a relationship. When I work on a project it is important that every member feels like they are part of a family. There is no hierarchy but deep respect for each other with a sense of ownership and responsibility for the project. It is very easy for me to take creative decisions that are triggered by emotions but Shreekanth is very grounded and he helps me introspect and look at the many layers and complexities in each scene and character. He along with the entire team helps me make wiser decisions as a director. The relationship in the rehearsals space obviously percolates into real life and we are all helping each other grow and evolve as better people and artists.
Shreeya: I haven’t watched the play. But I read a review that said a character Bhumi struggles to adjust in a relationship where the husband is not available for her emotional needs. What emotional needs are these? Does one make peace with it or without it?
Veena: Needs are personal. We cannot categorize a set of needs that are common to all wives or husbands. Also, how one chooses to deal with it also is a personal choice. The play looks more at the female character being aware of her needs and explicitly stating them which does not happen in the epic. The epic focuses more of the duties of being a wife; the play focuses on the complexity of being a woman and her expectations from relationships.
Shreeya: How was the experience of working with a Serbian? Did he have inputs to the story?
Veena: Working with Kristian was very exciting. He was an outsider to our culture and was not familiar with the Ramayana at all. He held a mirror for us to see ourselves in a new light. Many a things about the Ramayana that we took for granted were questioned by him. For example, he simply could not understand why a son had to leave for the forest for 14 years just to keep a promise or why the married couple did not engage in any sexual intercourse in their 14 years of exile. He found the character of Rama very two-dimensional and related to the dynamic and complex character of Ravana. The conversations that he brought to the floor are integrated into the play. In fact the play has scenes where the rehearsals are played out for the audience. This way the process and the questions that emerge in the rehearsal space are part of the story.
Shreeya: Rama is called ‘Maryada Purushottam’ Rama. An uncle once chided me for questioning Ram’s decision with regards to Sita. ‘He is God,’ he said. Can the believers really learn to question?
Veena: Everybody is entitled to freedom of belief. Infact, we begin our play with a prayer offering our obeisance to the ‘idea of faith’. It is when this belief is imposed on another does it get violent. There is a very thin line between faith and fundamentalism. People with strong stubborn ideologies are also believers of some sort. It is important for each one of us to question our ideology/faith, no matter how liberal we think we are.
Shreeya: Do you think leaving the husband and the palace must have saddened Sita?
Veena: You need to watch the play to see how we have interpreted it…
Shreeya: Epics teach the way to be? Set moral standards. So are we really questioning morality? Interpreting the actions of Ravana or emotions of Sita, implies perhaps there are as many ways to be as there are people to see. But would that not lead to a world of complete anarchy?
Veena: The lack of morality does not mean anarchy. Morals are codes; they are just guidelines for people made by people based on experience. They should not become laws that are enforced on people. Would it be possible for us to envision communities where kindness guides people to live together instead of fear trying to control them? There are options… Can we explore them?
Veena: Instead of focusing on theatre or any one particular art form, I would like to throw light on the general state of art in the country. Any form of art is about freedom of expression and I feel that in the present political scenario in our country, this right is deeply threatened. The fear of being attacked for expressing dissent could mean that artists might conform and create mediocre work. If the artists’ voices are not heard it means we are on a path where we will lose our agency. There is a dire need for artists now to create work that questions our contemporary and not limit the world of art to culture and entertainment.
Shreeya: What is next for the team?
Veena: I do not have a team. I do not believe in creating organizations, companies or institutions. It is more meaningful to be part of collective efforts/collaborations where the project brings diverse people together. ’Where the Shadow Ends’ was in collaboration with Kriyative theatre that produced the play. The play also brought together Actor/Researcher Laxmi Chandrashekar, Writer Shreekanth, Actor/Light designer Vinay Chandra, dancer/actor Preethi Bharadwaj and performance artist Kristian Al-Droubi. Mahesha Swamy and Tejar Shankar have rendered music for the work. We are planning to travel to different cities and towns with this work and hopefully leave the audience with questions.
Picture courtesy: Keerthi Basavarajaiah
Where the Shadow Ends:
Design & Direction by Veena Basavarajaiah
Written by: Shreekanth Rao
Actors: Lakshmi Chandrashekar, dancer Preethi Bharadwaj, Serbian performer Kristian Al-droubi and actor-cum-lighting designer Vinay Chandra.
Veena Basavarajaiah is a contemporary artiste from Bengaluru (India). She has worked with renowned contemporary dance companies such as Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company(UK) & Attakkalari (India) and has performed on various platforms across UK and Europe. She has been the recipient of Young Achievers Award in 2007 and is also an empanelled artiste of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations..An independent artiste, she does collaborative work with musicians, theatre, dance companies and multimedia artistes. She is also a dance writer for various online platforms in India and Pulse Magazine (UK). She has done her Masters in South Asian Dance Studies from Roehampton University (UK) . She has published essays on South Asian Dance in various books to her credit. She choreographed a solo for Subhash Vinam Gorania tilted ‘Morphed’ that was funded by Arts Council England. This piece has been performed on various platforms in UK and in the Erasing Borders Festival,NYC.
Veena has recieved mentorship from renowned theatre practitioners like Maya Krishna Rao and Navtej Singh Johar in creating her work titled ‘Maya’ as part of the Gati Dance Residency in 2009. She has worked as an actor with NSD based director Aditee Biswas in her production ‘In-Out-In’, featured at the National School of Drama Theatre Festival in 2010. She has conducted movement workshops for various Bangalore based theatre groups like Our Theatre and Indian Ensemble. She has worked closely with Abhishek Majumdar as an actor and movement director in his production ‘Rizwan’. Having collaborated with many regional and international theatre practitioners, Veena has been exploring a new language in dance theatre through works like ‘Mooki’ and ‘Where the Shadow Ends’. Her theatre-based work has been presented on various platforms across India and received critical acclaim.