Surpanakha, a demon or damsel?

Dance drama

Kathak, being an age-old classical dance form, is not easy to experiment with. Often, when an artiste tries to bring new ‘innovations’ in the dance, he or she  ends up killing its soul.

Theatrical Dancer : Ashavari Majumdar performs ‘Surpanakha- An experiment in Kathak.’

Dance connoisseurs were, however, in for a pleasant surprise recently as they saw young danseuse Ashavari Majumdar perform ‘Surpanakha - An experiment in Kathak’ at the India Habitat Centre.

Portraying ‘Surpanakha’ of Ramayana, she amazed everyone with the thoughtful subject of her recital and its adaptation in this classical dance style.

Ashavari, a 32 year old dancer trained under the legendary Pandit Birju Maharaj and Pandit Shambhu Maharaj, recently received an Indian Federation of Arts (IFA) grant to undertake a ‘New Performance’. Inspired by ‘The Mutilation of Surpanakha’- a book by Kathleen M Erndl, Ashavari decided to depict this much-maligned demoness.

She says, “You know, as children, we are taught only the Valmiki Ramayana. But other than this, there are hundreds of other Ramayanas existing all over the world.

If you take care to read them, you would know that there actually so many ways to look at the characters of Ram, Sita and Surpanakha. Just as we humans have grey areas in our personality, the same holds for these epic individuals.”

“And, among all these, I fell for Surpanakha especially as I found her very versatile. You can see her as a cruel, ugly rakshasi (demoness), or as a poor woman who was punished just for falling in love with Ram. Surpanakha holds a lot of possibilities, and hence she became the central character of my project,” she adds.

‘Experimentation’ was the catch-word of her whole performance. Her unconventional attire, the setting and her dance- all spelled ‘innovation’. She used three mediums of art - theatre in the form of dramatised narration, film- with a video running parallely and Kathak. This formed the mainstay of her whole performance.

Her first piece was a depiction of the relationship between Surpanakha and her brother Ravana based on the Indonesian Ramayan - Hikayat Seri Rama. This version says that Ravan killed Surpanakha’s husband in a battle and hence the demoness courted Ram’s anger to get her brother killed. The footwork in Kathak she did here was remarkable.

Then came the interesting depiction of an imaginary conversation between Surpanakha and Sita. She says that Sita and Surpanakha are nothing but the two faces of the same woman- one coy and demure, the other bold and fierce.

Here, she would put on a mask when depicting Surpanakha and take it off when portraying Sita. The soft sound of the tabla stood for Sita and the more vigorous sound of Pakhawaj reflected Surpanakha forming a Sawal-jawaab tradition in Kathak.

Lastly, Ashavari depicted a fictional erotic relationship between Surpanakha and Ram. Surpanakha is chasing Ram through a forest, and the same is reflected in a jugalbandi between the sound of the tabla, portraying Ram, followed by the chime of Ashavari’s ghungroo, depicting Surpanakha. In the background played Ras ke bhare tore nain.

With the appreciation the audience held for her performance, Ashavari’s first staging of ‘Surpanakha’ was certainly a success. But she says, the larger message behind this production is to be open to all versions of the Ramayan. “

I feel, as Indians, we should be proud that this epic has travelled so widely. When we have so many wonderful versions of this legend, why not read all? Why accept just one?” Why not, indeed!

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