Ekaantha Seetha... A Lonely Furrow 
- Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, Chennai 
e-mail: vasanthi40@hotmail.com 

September 22, 2006 

"Ekaantha Seetha"  a dance drama presented in three parts depicting the struggles of three women - Seetha (Vaidehi), the archetypal, mythical heroine of the celebrated epic Ramayana, Laxmibai, Rani of Jhansi, a historical heroine associated with the beginnings of Indian Independence struggle and Aparajitha (the undefeated one) an iconic figure representing the modern woman, left me puzzled and confused. The production by Cleveland Cultural Alliance was three hours long. The people associated with this production the Dhananjayans as choreographers of the dances, TV Gopalakrishnan as composer of the musical score and Ranjitha Ashok as the script writer are all fairly well known in their respective fields. The dancers were all Kalakshetra-trained or Dhananjayan-trained. Yet, the production dragged on and the audience could feel the tedium and boredom creeping in, in spite of all their good intentions.

Was it the length which was the sole reason for this boredom and tedium? The length of the production per se cannot be considered a shortcoming. Peter Brooks' "Mahabharata" the film was five hours long and yet it kept the audience spellbound till the very end. The Dhrupad recitals of singers from various gharanas are two and a half hours to three hours long, yet, they keep the audience rooted to their seats. So, we cannot justifiably blame the length of the production as the reason for the tedium it created. Of course, the three breaks of ten to fifteen minutes each for costume changes seemed unnecessary and totally unwarranted. In this day and age, can't we find alternatives to circumvent these tedious and lengthy costume changes? Are costumes that important even if it is a period play?

So, I have come to the conclusion that the fault lies in the production itself. It may sound a little harsh when a critic says that the production lacked imagination, innovation and energy in three major spheres concept, execution and the supporting elements such as music, costume, props etc. The title of the production itself lacked authenticity. Ekaanta Seetha lonely Seetha. Was the mythical Seetha ever lonely? Physically, she was always surrounded by men, women and children all the time, wherever she was in Mithila, in Ayodhya, in the forest, even in the Asoka Vana, the garden of the abductor Ravana's abode, later once again in Ayodhya or towards the end in Valmiki's Ashram.  We can always stretch the truth for purposes of interpretation, if the interpretation itself is meaningful and focused. If, in the midst of all the people who surrounded her, wherever she went, she felt alone, the focus should have been on that aspect of her character and situation. Instead, in the dance drama, visually she was always surrounded by men, women and children and at no time could the audience feel her loneliness or aloneness. In fact, even in the myth, except in the end when she decided to call out to Mother Earth to give her a place on her lap, she has never even taken an "independent" decision. She always obeyed the diktats of her husband, without any protest and went wherever the tide took her. She always had people to protect, cherish and look after her. Even Ravana never forced her to be his mistress or wife. So, where and when exactly did she exercise her free will and lead an independent life. Even the all-consuming fire only protected her, proved her worth and brought her back! So, can she be used as an example of a lonely woman who fought all her battles and survived against all odds? Even if the organizers wanted to present such a Seetha, that did not come through in the presentation.

The weakness in the concept grows as the script-writer tries to combine Rani Laxmibai with the mythical Seetha. Rani Laxmibai was indeed an independent woman, a warrior to the core and who protested against the British rulers. She was alone and did her decision-making by herself. Probably the title should have been "Ekaanta Laxmibai." That would have been truer. But, without Seetha to take care of the mythical beginnings, how could the authors have established that women in India were always strong and independent and they do not need any new-fangled feministic theories to assist them! Again, in this production, Rani Laxmibai's aloneness and independence in decision making was not brought out. Instead, she was saddled with an adviser, Gul Muhammad. Again, apart from paying lip service to her warrior-like qualities, nothing was done to focus on the theme - the loneliness or the aloneness of the woman in her journey of life and the courage with which she faces this loneliness.

The third segment was probably the weakest conceptually. "Aparajitha" (the undefeated one) is indeed a high-sounding title. All of us know that women have always been the backbone of Indian families. There is nothing unusual about that. But, no one has ever asked them, whether that kind of importance was what they wanted. This great strength, the ability to tide over all crises, the responsibility of keeping the family together has been invested on them by the patriarchal world which finds it convenient to create this image of the indefatigable woman. She is not allowed to make mistakes; she is not allowed to be weak or even pursue her own dreams or desires; her role is cut out for her; even when she pursues an alternate career, it is done only after fulfilling her duties to home, family, the private sphere. So, she has to be a "superwoman" all the time. 

Left to herself, she might want something else... to indulge in her dreams, to have her own space at least some times, to make mistakes and be forgiven for them without too much of "hoo-hah". In other words she does not want to be a "Goddess" or a "model woman" all the time. So, the title "Aparajitha" to signify a modern woman who is fighting for her independence, space, expression of free will etc is not apt. Most of the time, the pressures of the world and the diktats of the patriarchal world keeps her down. She may not even achieve the liberation she craves for. It is only a spirit or yearning for freedom and the determination to fight for that freedom that marks her as different from the earlier woman. So, if the purpose of this section was to stress on the lonely struggle of modern women, the focus should have been on this yearning for freedom and self-expression and not a hollow emphasis on being undefeated. All these subtleties were, of course, overlooked in this segment of the production. So, the concept was weak not coordinated or coherent.

Ostensibly this production is all about praising the woman who single-handedly achieves a great deal. But, visually and conceptually, the main protagonists in this production were always surrounded by men who acted as mentors, Gurus, advisers etc. Nowhere does the woman stand alone or fight for her rights. In fact, all along she is propped up by the presence of the male. So, even ideologically this cannot be called a woman-oriented production. Of course, we would not dare to call it a feministic production! Because in the preview written in one of the local dailies, one of the choreographers, Shanta Dhananjayan had openly declared that they did not visualize this as a feministic production! Now, this is another hypocrisy which we have to question. Why this shying away from or openly opposing feminism, when that ideology also has been propagated to take care of women's rights? Feminism is not a monolithic ideal. It can have various strains and various sub-ideologies. As a matter of fact, each woman can have her own individual brand of feminism. No one or no idea prevents that. But, to dismiss feminism in toto and then declare that this product is about empowerment of women seems a contradiction in terms.

As regards the execution, the dance was a mixture of movements from the classical dances of Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, Kalari (Kerala martial art), folk dances etc. But, at no point could one appreciate the specificity, totality, strength or vibrancy of any one type of movement because they were mixed willy nilly and lacked the refinement and sophistication that a real innovative, experimental work demands. There was nothing exceptional about the quality of dancing; in fact, it seemed repetitive and at times amateurish. The classical can be made exciting and adventurous if it is imaginatively harnessed to reflect modern thoughts or ideas. But, that requires a great deal of research and imagination. In this production, one did not feel the presence of sparks of such an exuberant and excited imagination. There were some scenes which were obviously done to attract the popular imagination such as the arrival of Ganesha, the drunken scenes during and after marriage and even the photographer's antics. True, Bharatanatyam allows for Natyadharmi and Lokadharmi enactments, however they have to be chosen judiciously and done elegantly.

The music score of TV Gopalakrishnan was a great disappointment. It was obvious, loud and cacophonic; but it did not convey any atmospheric effects or mood changes. The same has to be said about the costumes devised by Lakshmi Srinath. The dancers seemed to be weighed down by the sheer volume of clothes. Couldn't Lakshmi have thought of costumes that did not require so many changes? In this respect, the production seemed very antiquated and outdated. The props again were not very inspiring or path breaking.

In short, for a viewer who patiently waited for three hours and went through this production, which incidentally is going to the land of dreams, the United States of America, where 28 showings have been scheduled, a feeling of sadness and depression creeps in. Is this all that we are capable of? For the kind of money spent, for the kind of publicity whipped up, for the sheer artistic effort expended for months, is this all that could be mustered? The time has come to go through a serious reevaluation.

Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan is a Chennai based art critic and a regular contributor to narthaki.com