Kamba Ramayanam - A dance theatre adaptation
- Shaji Ramanalil, Zürich
e-mail: shaji.ramanalil@gmail.com

May 7, 2013

My love for arts and culture was not the only reason that took me to witness a special dramatic piece recently, but also a good portion of curiosity was behind it. Curiosity was aroused in me by the title of the event, ‘Kamba Ramayanam – A Dance Theatre Adaptation’ with concept, music, compilation, dialogues, choreography, and direction by Sowgandhika Krishnan and I wanted to see the novelty in the much known epic story of Ramayanam. I am not a trained artiste, neither do I know the intricate technicalities of art forms, but I am an art connoisseur, who loves to watch art in its varied forms. In this respect I write this review about the dance theatre production that premiered on 19th April at the ISKCON temple in Zurich, Switzerland.

Sowgandhika    Krishnan is known for her innovative and thought provoking choreography    and presentation besides her imaginative skills of blending contemporary music with mythological themes. She started her odyssey in the vast oceans of classical Indian arts at the very young age of three undergoing profound training with well-known masters in the fields of drama, classical dance, vocal and instrumental music. While inheriting from the stringent schools of “natyam” and “natanam,” she carefully cultured the art of blending the contemporary with the classic and her latest creation was a tribute to the ancient and the modern alike and therefore deserves careful attention.

Watching Bharatanatyam in Zurich, and that too the famed Ramayanam of Kamban in action was a rare treat. What caught my attention was how so many characters from the Ramayana would be portrayed by 3 dancers alone (as mentioned in the flyer) that too with live voices. The program started with a small introduction about the poet Kamban, followed by how the dancers would portray male and female characters with the help of ‘angavastrams’ and ‘dupattas.’ The story opened with the Kathakali style thiraseela to the tunes of Sri Rama Ramethi sung by Anuradha Rao and accompanied on the flute by Arjun Bharadwaj in ragam Keeravani, setting the pace for a crisp performance. The thiraseela is pulled down by the character of Ravan who is introduced in the first scene with a background on how he got his 10 heads. What struck me about this scene was how the adulation of the Rakshasas for Ravan is shown alongside Ravan’s victorious entry into Lanka as the new king. It reminds one of today’s day and age when fans gather to get a glimpse of their favourite stars.

The scene then shifts to Ayodhya, the birth of Prince Rama and follows his growing up years in the song Thumak chalath Ramachandra. The portion where Manthara poisons the mind of Kaikeyi to send Rama to the forest was well enacted by Sowgandhika and Tripti Abhijatha, with the morsing playing in the background. Manthara’s character being introduced with the snake charmer’s ‘magudi’ music was a very nice way to portray a character with negative shades. The character of Shoorpanakha comes in as game changer. While the giddy headed Shoorpanakha in the first part (till Shoorpanakha gets her nose and ears cut) was played by Sowgandhika, the second portion when Shoorpanakha complains to Ravan and fills his mind about Sita is played by Tripti. Both dancers brought an element of continuity to the character of Shoorpanakha, without letting the viewer feel that the character was being played by two different dancers.

The conversation between Sita and Ravan prior to Sita’s kidnapping brings out how beautifully Kamban portrays the spunky Sita. Sowgandhika as Ravan and Dipti Abhilasha as Sita did complete justice to their characters. The kidnapping of Sita by Ravana to the tunes of tabla bols and tabla beats was a well thought of use of the music piece to heighten the overall effect. Rama’s lamentation to Lakshmana about having made a mistake of bringing Sita to the forest and then having lost Sita brings out the human emotions in Rama. The scene was well enacted by Dipti as Rama and Tripti as Lakshmana.  The scenes in Ashokavan with the Rakshasi trying to change Sita’s mind bring in the required element of humor to the serious storyline. While the character of Ravan played by Sowgandhika is the majestic, egoistic and proud character who captures your attention, the characters of Rakshasi and Sita played by Tripti and Dipti respectively hold on to their own making it a thoroughly enjoyable performance. The Rakshasi is a comical character with a mind of her own, while Sita is the proud wife, who is not ready to accept Ravan’s overtures. I specially enjoyed the scene where the proud Sita fires back at Ravan for having kidnapped her like a thief. Ravan is shocked and then angry, while the Rakshasi who is shocked beyond belief that someone could talk back to Ravan, laments that Ravan is now going to kill her since she could not change the mind of Sita. Three different characters on stage, each character thinking and reacting in their own frame, at the same time, but in totally different ways. 

The war scene between Rama and Ravan was well written, well portrayed and well enacted. The portion that lingers on in the mind is when Ravan dies - Rama shows a sense of sorrow at having killed a living being, walks up to the dead Ravan, and folds his hands together in respect to the dead man. Dipti, who played Rama, did a good job. The story ends on the battlefield. The thiraseela was brought again to signify the end of the story; this was followed by the various forms of Lord Vishnu shown by the dancers to the tune of the Narayana Suktam.

The Ramayanam was interspersed with dances – the Shiva Tandava Stotra, the duets between Rama and Sita, the dream dance between Rama and Shoorpanakha, the Rakshasi’s dance in Askhokavana etc. – that were well choreographed and added to the storyline. Special mention has to be made of the choice of music. The two violinists from India, Karthick Iyer and Avaneeswaram S R Vinu, who have contributed their instrumental recordings for the background music need a word of praise here. Their music adds charm to the whole production. Anuradha Rao captivated with her voice and was very ably accompanied on the flute by Arjun Bharadwaj. The duo even lent their voices for various characters.

The live voices, be it Satish Anantharamiah for Rama or Srinivasa Hari Vembar for Ravan, or Veena Prasannasimha for Sita, or Rajan Thambehalli for Hanuman – added a lot of life to the characters. Their contribution goes a long way in making the characters shine. The production used the concept of Sutradhar from Sanskrit theatre, and Charishma Sudheendra as the sutradhar did a fine job. The sense of timing and understanding between the voice artistes and the dancers was good, and that went a long way in making the performance remarkable.

The crew led by Sowgandhika deserves lots of appreciation for courageously taking on this endeavor to live our rich past in today’s largely interrupted and distracted world. It’s bold taking the challenge to depict the epic story of Kamba Ramayanam skillfully blending the vital elements of different worlds holding the audience that was multi-lingual, multi-racial, and multi-cultural beyond all considerations and concerns, from the beginning until the end, just enjoying the show.