Images of strong womanhood - A production goes awry
- Ketu H. Katrak, University of California, Irvine

October 19, 2006

"Ekaantha Seetha... a lonely furrow" was performed on October 15, 2006, at the Irvine Barclay Theater on the campus of the University of California, Irvine. The audience was constituted of a prominent number of Indian-Americans usually eager to patronize the classical arts of their homeland. However, they also remain lulled into fulfilling memories and nostalgia for the old desh, hence often, they are uncritical consumers of replays of traditional epics. In this evening' performance, there was the added elan of linking the ancient to the modern around the theme of woman's strength. Shakti as an integral and indomitable part of the female principle is a commonplace in classical Indian dance. Here, the choreographers, the Dhananjayans from Chennai, collaborating with the Cleveland Cultural Alliance, attempt to connect this legacy of shakti as embodied in the mythic example of Sita (also called Vaidehi as in this production) to other historical figures from Indian history and into contemporary times. Unfortunately, the connections remain glib. Not that the contemporizing of epics is always an unsuccessful venture; however, in "Ekaantha Seetha" the producers' agenda is contradictory. On the one hand, they assert woman's strength as epitomized in "epic, history, and modern times" along with an uncritical glorification of "following traditional values" however positive or negative these may be in enabling women to be autonomous individuals within both ancient and modern patriarchal society.
The Barclay is the kind of mainstream theater that showcases "national" troupes that erroneously homogenize complex cultures as in shows such as "Dancers from China." "Ekaantha Seetha" was marketed as a display of "Indian dance and culture" along with the enticing feminist thrust of the narrative. The audience is faced with a somewhat idiosyncratic genealogy of female strength moving from Sita to 19th century Rani of Jhansi, to modernity. The trope of "trial by fire," literalized in Sita's case, is metaphorized in later times to demonstrate troublingly, that women are adept at struggling and rising above the flames, and that indeed, they show their true mettle under fire.

The program notes state that "all the episodes - Vaidehi, Rani Lakshmi Bai and Aparajitha - have defining moments of Truth, Realization, Determination, Transformation and Resolution." This litany of philosophical concepts remains just that - their translation into movement vocabulary of Bharatanatyam works unevenly. The program notes also claim that "India's 'everyday' woman has all those extraordinary qualities of Vaidehi and Laskhmi Bai - latent, yes, as do so many others. They too rise to today's challenges and make bold choices, all the while respecting tradition. They epitomize dignity, grace and courage." This interpretation basically glorifies tradition, even when they suppress women and in Vaidehi's case, force her to seek refuge in Mother Earth, give up her earthly life, away from her sons, and escape from Rama's constant testing of her fidelity.

The show, which premiered in Chennai in September 2006 is now traveling in North America. The version at the Barclay Theater with 17 artists was a 3-hour long production, divided into three segments across time - Rama's doubting Sita's chastity and requiring her, for the sake of his people whom he believes over Sita, to undergo the fire ordeal. Sita's virtuous body is overdetermined. Not only is she upheld as the embodiment of Indian womanhood - self-sacrificing and chaste - but now, there are further overlays on Sita, as in the continuation of her strength in the Rani of Jhansi and in modern Aparajitha. Rani Lakshmi Bai was a valiant warrior who fought the British in defense of her own people and principles. Next, the segment on Aparajitha uses the translation of her name, namely, as one who cannot be vanquished, to navigate her through her self-doubts and emerge with strong belief in herself and her convictions. If names could win us women all the battles we face in reality, life would be much easier than it actually is. Aparajitha faces many doubts from her community about her desire to be literate and learned. Her own mother would rather have her daughter's female body groomed for marriage and procreation rather than as a thinking and questioning individual.

The thematic links between Rama's doubts about Sita's chastity, and Aparajitha's struggles with self-doubt until she can vanquish her own mental demons and believe in herself were presented with some theatrical flair in the production values of literalizing the demons with appropriate costumes and lighting, along with a gallery of striking masked gossipers.

This production makes a valiant attempt to use Sita metaphorically for other strong female icons. However, neither the leaps across time, nor the selection of certain figures over others is successful.

Overall, the production for all its effort was disappointing at best, and troubling in its stances on woman's strength that remained in the realm of glorification. The injecting of "reality" along with contemporary colloquialisms and humor in commentaries by Ratna Kumar as the mother in the Aparajitha section came across as labored and cliched although the audience was clearly enjoying this display of how elder female patriarchs often embodied in mothers, grandmothers, or mothers-in-law uphold patriarchal structures in socializing their daughters. The goal of presenting woman as strong and self-motivated, having agency and power were more stated than actualized via movement or music.

The wise male guru understands Aparjitha's desire for learning, and even in the face of the mother's objections. While the mother, inscribed within a patriarchal frame would be judged harshly if her daughter steps out of her traditional role, the male guru would face hardly any social censure. He can be both the savior who initiates her into learning as well as the one who helps her to overcome her doubts. There is no critique of the societal doubting machine; Aparajitha must simply abide by the guru's imperatives to stop her doubts and step out fresh and self-believing once again.

Sita's autonomy is ultimately circumscribed by Rama's patriarchal order, more than that of an individual man, but rather that of the king of Ramarajya, and as a deity. The Sita myth has deep, even subconscious hold among Indians and among the diasporic Indians (of various communities including Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians) who inculcate these essentialized and unquestioned values on their children, often eager students of Bharatanatyam in California. The ascribing of Sita-like qualities to other figures and even into contemporary realities of female lives comes across as detached and discontinuous—the production remained in three separate parts and did not come together in theme, movement, or music. Further, Sita's own autonomy is so compromised that to uphold her in some simplistic way as a model hardly works for the historical and modern figures that follow. Myths can be creatively "contemporized" (as in contemporary dramatic versions of ancient Greek dramas); however, the troubling aspects of female representations in Valmiki's Ramayana (different from other folk versions where Sita is much more assertive and outspoken as discussed by historian Romila Thapar in her essay, "Traditions Versus Misconceptions" in Manushi) remain just that. The Vaidehi story is used as an easily available peg on which to play out the burdens of modernity. At one point in the narration, Vaidehi is even described as "a single mother," and this modern phrase hardly rings true in that ancient context where Sita remained under male protection, if not Rama's, then the guru's, and her sons'. The feminist agendas in the production remained half-baked at worst, and in the imaginative arena of myth at best.

The translation of abstract and philosophical concepts onto the body had some sections with gripping movement choreography, as in the masked dancers, or the whirling ones spinning gossip, though the movement was by and large pedestrian and predictable. The recorded music was a patchwork of different compositions, unevenly successful, sometimes not professionally cued to begin on time with the dance movements. The musical experience as a whole did not work coherently over the entire program. There was no organic thrust to the music that sometimes worked as background rather than as energizing the dancers to the musical movements. Sanskrit texts cast the characters and the stories in the remote past despite the insistence on modern relevance of the content. The use of Hindustani for the Rani of Jhansi segment was refreshing. However, the overall recordings had unnecessary lags, and shifts from abhinaya to nrtta were often discordant. The periodic appearance of Shanta Dhananjayan and Ratna Kumar as choral figures seemed redundant since they acted out what the voice-over was stating clearly, informing the audience about forthcoming scenes.

Overall, a disappointing venture. Productions like these evoke a new and disturbing resurgence of Orientalism, even a neo-traditionalism asserted unequivocally for an Indian sub-continent with a diversity of religions and ethnic groups. If ultimately, the message of woman's power is so important, one must ask, why return over and over to Sita, in myth, or in modern times, who in order to demonstrate her purity, and for the satisfaction of a patriarchal order, resorts to self-destruction? Does Sita have other choices? Or, does this kind of female courage necessarily have to end in the death of the exceptional woman? Are there options that would support continuing to live and continuing to challenge a patriarchal order, even in the midst of a suspicious and hostile community? I think this production had a long way to go to address such concerns that face women globally today. If there are lessons to be learnt from epics, as is their goal, let us take away not a naïve valorizing of female power, but rather, a questioning of the self-destructive choices, and that ultimate cost of life to be paid for female autonomy. And let us be ever vigilant rather than naïve about the systemic and structural power of patriarchy that makes it extremely difficult for women to make positive choices and to fulfil their potential by living with dignity and grace.

Ketu H. Katrak, originally from Bombay, is currently Professor in the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. Her research interests include literary and cultural expressions among the diasporic Indian-American community.