The eyes of Sita: 'Sitaparityagam' performed by Kapila Venu
- Shebana Coelho
July 24, 2016
Everything was in the eyes of Kutiyattam artist Kapila Venu ringed in fierce black paint as she emoted a sidelong glance of such sorrow, you felt it pierce straight through you, merge with the sounds of drummers onstage and rise out into the coconut groves and ponds that surround the small theater structure at Natanakairali Arts Center in Kerala. Kutiyattam, literally translated as “acting together or collective acting,” is one of oldest surviving forms of ancient Sanskrit theatre. It features elaborate eye movements, hand gestures and stances, occasional interludes of recited text or song, to the accompaniment of drums. To see this solo performance which was rooted in the tradition of Nangiar Koothu, the female solos of Kutiyattam, was to feel the full living force of centuries-old theatre in the region where it was born.
The story Kapila performed was Sitaparityagam, The Abandonment of Sita, the wife of Rama, the hero of the Indian epic Ramayana. Based on the classic mahakavya (great poem) by the master poet Kalidasa, the play follows the events after the return of the king from years of exile in a forest where he had lived with Sita and his brother Lakshmana. Rama returns in triumph after defeating the demon king Ravana who had kidnapped Sita and taken her to his island. After the return, the rumors begin - how pure could a wife be after being kidnapped by a demon king. Hearing them, king Rama takes his pregnant wife onto his lap and asks what she desires. To see the forest where they lived for many years, she says. He arranges for his brother to accompany her back into the forest. There, Lakshmana, on orders from the king, abandons her.
In an introductory speech preceding the play, G. Venu, the director of Natanakairali, described that unthinkable scene - Sita, heavily pregnant, left in the forest and how at the moment of realizing that she was to be abandoned, she calls to Lakshmana with a message, not for her husband, but for “the king.” She says, ‘Tell your king…how can such an act be worthy of his lineage and education?” Then Sita weeps. The whole forest weeps too: peacocks stop dancing, deer freeze while feeding on grass and the grass falls to the forest floor. The sage Valmiki finds Sita, brings her to his refuge where she gives birth to and raises twin sons. The mother teaches her sons archery. The sage teaches them the story of the Ramayana. When they are grown, they perform in a big festival at Ayodhya where the king sees them. He comes to know they are his sons. He wants them back. He wants his wife back. And after all these years, he still wants her to undergo a purification ritual. But Sita is done with this life, and that husband. She asks the earth that made her to take her. Despite Rama’s orders and pleas, the earth opens and Sita falls into it. Rama faints. Awakening, he takes his sons back to his kingdom.
Kapila Venu was dressed in brilliant red head gear that resembled a two tier turban, long hair reaching almost to the floor, a white sari edged with gold, a mask-like painted face, eyes outlined with thick dark lines, and gleaming red and moist (from a special dye) with tears that threatened to spill and then fell as the performance deepened and widened and sped to its end.
Three drummers were on the small earthen tiled stage with her: two men almost sitting astride large pot shaped drums called mizhavu and another standing with an idakka, a smaller hourglass shaped drum slung over his shoulder. On the right side of the stage, a young woman sat cross-legged with talams, small hand cymbals that made clinking sounds to punctuate moments. Downstage stage center was a vilakku, a low standing oil lamp lit with three flames, the fire that is always a witness to Kutiyattam performances.
Kapila performed in front of the vilakku. She emoted with her eyes, eyebrows, and symbolic hand gestures and stances called mudras as she seamlessly portrayed different characters, primarily Sita, but also a narrator, Rama, Lakshmana, the sage, the sons, the peacocks, the deer. Her stance was both masculine and feminine, animal and nature. She sat on a small round stool or pushed it away to move across the stage, in stylized stances and sharp and flowing narrative movement sequences. Occasionally, she sang excerpts from the text of the play. The almost continuous resounding of drums gave everything a kinetic feeling, even her stillness. If you understood the language of mudras, you could follow the story fully. If you didn’t, a synopsis handed out at the start of the play helped. What you didn’t understand, you felt. The repeated gestures that introduced different characters, you began to recognize.
What lingers for me is the speed with which her eyebrows moved, in rhythm to the drums, as she depicted the king smiling at his wife, the fan-like movements of her hand as the peacocks dance, the soft supple neck of the deer as it eats and then freezes, the deep look of Sita’s sorrow as she realizes she is alone, and the scene where Sita gives birth: the rounding of hands to show her belly, the way she embraces her two sons, the expression of transcendent joy as deep as the sorrow of her abandonment.
Especially remarkable was the scene where Kapila moved across the stage narrating the education of the young sons by their mother in archery.
“Even Sita was a warrior,” G. Venu reminded us at the start of the performance. “The bow that Rama broke to win her hand - that bow Sita could pick up. Even Ravana couldn’t pick up that bow. But Sita could. She learned archery as a child and as a mother, taught it to her sons.” Kapila’s hands mimicked the arrow leaving its quiver, and her eyes followed it in a gaze that gained in speed and reached its target as loudly as sound. And then towards the end - as in the beginning - that sidelong glance of deep sorrow – that gaze, for me, was the heart of the play, that gaze as Sita renounces the world, her sons, her husband, as she welcomes the earth from which she came, from which we all come. As remarkable as the speed and grace of eyes and body movements was the emotional depth of her gaze. There was such precision in it, not a measured precision, but one in which each emotion was so fully felt and manifested that we, as an audience, went to the same resonant depth in our response.
Most of us watching, including me, had been at Natanakairali for over two weeks taking a Navarasa Sadhana workshop led by her father, G. Venu. Every day, through intense eye exercises, improvisations and choreographies that draw on the Natya Shastra, the ancient Indian theatrical treatise and Kutiyattam, we had been studying the nine essential emotions, nava rasas, that the sage Bharata had deemed as essential to the art of theatre and performance. As a performer, how do you feel emotions, how do you manifest them and how do you cause them to be felt in an audience? How do you submit to the depth of emotions and how do you move seamlessly between them?
That night, after Kapila Venu had left the stage, after the drums had died into the dark, and the usual chorus of frogs and crickets had taken over the night, we all sat in silence in the space we eat dinner. Someone tried to speak and failed. We looked around at each other. What could we say? There was only feeling – such wonder at Kapila’s virtuoso performance, such gratitude for the chance to encounter this ancient theatre form, and such grace to see how art becomes the body and the body becomes art.
Shebana Coelho is a writer, director and performer. Her website is shebanacoelho.com