We've always harboured a dislike, even hatred, for Ravana. He is amongst many of our mythological figures who suffer because of this monochromatic vision of ours," says danseuse Geeta Chandran, who had showcased her show Ravana in Chennai and Puducherry recently.
Part of her effort to "free our myths of stigma and burden, and move beyond stereotypes," Chandran is happy that a retake on many of the Indian mythological characters is happening.
"We need to realise that they are not all black or white, but have shades of grey, too. They are a victim of circumstances. So, it's interesting that we're questioning what forces these mythological characters, some of whom are perceived as the epitome of evil, to do what they do, and why."
Talking about Ravana, who, according to the Ramayana, abducts Sita and carries her off to Lanka, this year's Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee for bharatanatyam says, "Our research, and this was a detailed study of Valmiki's Ramayana, revealed that Ravana was a gentle soul, together with being a great Shiva bhakt, poet, veena player, and not many may know that it was he who has created the beautiful Shiv tandava stotram..." Needless to say, some of these dimensions "that many are unaware of or have chosen to ignore" have been part of the danseuse's Ravana, that she worked on with the help of Jain scholar Sudhamahi Regunathan.
It was sometime last year when Chandran, together with a few other dancers, perceived of this work. It was to be part of the show 'Anekanta' that, according to the Jain belief, asserts that there is no absolute truth. She talks about the story of the elephant and the blind men in which, just by touching one part of the pachyderm's body, they start giving their verdict on what it looks like. "While one who touches the tail says the elephant is like a rope, the one who touches its stomach thinks it's like a wall, and so on... All of them perceive it differently and think their version is the correct one. So, the truth is that there is no one or absolute truth, it has many layers," says Chandran, asserting that "Ravana, with his many truths likewise, seemed the most wonderful and appropriate for dance interpretation."
Happy that many other artistes, too, have also been looking at the Lanka king differently, she talks about meeting a Dokra sculptor from Madhya Pradesh whose work seemed to depict Ravana not with the traditional 10, but nine heads. "When I asked him, he said, 'Madam, Ravana woh itne mahaan pandit the that he needed to be given a 360-degree vision.' Moreover, five heads on one side and four on the other disturbs the balance. So, he gave Ravana a face at the back of the head, too. Isn't that view wonderful?" she asks.
Most of her work is based not on conjecture, imagination and personal interpretation, but, as mentioned earlier, on Valmiki's Ramayana.
"We spent a lot of time reading and researching and are not deviating from the original text," she says, remembering how, when she presented her work Kaikeyi, "everyone thought that I was making a case for her, justifying what she did. But there too, my performance was based on what the epic states. How many of us really know that Dasharatha had wronged her? He carried out Rama's coronation at midnight and nobody from her home was invited for it, and this happened because of the king's guilt; he knew that he was breaking his promise to his youngest queen," Chandran informs.
Never seen before
Likewise, Ravana, who has been a victim of selective reading, is already finding many admirers. "Many of my senior students who were part of the research and discussions on the Lanka king found him fascinating, and would often say, 'Wish we had a Ravana in our lives' - since he was such a learned man, a great philosopher and admirer of beauty," she smiles. "And my answer to them would be, 'Well, for that you have to be like Sita'."
Chandran's act focused on the Lanka king, who, after his ritual bath and Shiva puja, adorns himself and goes to meet Sita, whom he is holding captive. And as he sees her, Ravana's eyes get stuck on every detail of her beauty. "When she rejects him, Ravana wonders how if he cannot handle even one part of Sita, will he ever be able to manage to engage the whole," says Chandran, who runs her dance school in Delhi.
And one of the lessons that each of her students learns is to be as engaged and as passionate about bharatanatyam as she is.