Performing the Ramayana Tradition
Enactments, Interpretations, and Arguments
- ISBN: 9780197552506
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: July 2021
The Ramayana remains a mainstay for understanding South Asia from popular culture to politics. Paula Richman has done much during her career to show the tradition is not a monolith, starting with her pathbreaking 1992 book Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia (University of California Press, Berkeley). This volume appeared in the wake of the politically polarizing events of 1991, the ensuing saffronization of Indian public culture and popular mobilization under the banner of Shri Rama. In response to these movements, scholars sought to provide counterpoints to instrumental reductionist appropriations of the Ramayana.
In Performing the Ramayana Tradition: Enactments, Interpretations, and Arguments, Richman joins forces with Rustom Bharucha, who has published extensively on performance and the politics of culture during the same politically tumultuous time. As is apparent from the title, the volume is part of another scholarly trend, one that foregrounds performance over text. The latter became manifest with Anuradha Kapur’s 1990 work on the musical drama tradition of Ramlila and Philip Lutgendorf’s on recitation cum exegesis of Tulsidas’ famous Hindi Ramayana. Richman and Bharucha’s collaboration on this volume of edited essays represents simultaneously a culmination of these research directions, and a corrective, steering towards a more balanced representation beyond the more extensively studied Sanskrit and Hindi Ramayanas.
Appropriately enough, this illustrated volume grew out of a series of Ramayana festivals organized by the Adishakti Laboratory for Theater Arts and Research in Pondicherry from 2009 to 2011. Building on those performances and ensuing discussions, the scholarly essays in this collection are complemented with scripts and interviews with theater directors, playwrights, and performers. The performative traditions featured range from the better-known classical Sanskrit-based Kutiyattam and Kathakali in Kerala and North Indian Ramlila, over Hindi street theater of Jan Natya Manch in Delhi and hinterlands, to the more neglected Brajbuli Bhaona from Assam, Kattaikkuttu, and the newly emerging Nangyarkuttu of Tamil Nadu and Talamaddale from Karnataka. This represents the diversity of Ramayana performative traditions, each itself constantly being reinterpreted and challenged. The volume abundantly demonstrates ongoing innovation as circumstances and individual performers change over time.
The volume is divided in six parts, which I characterize as: beginnings, caste issues, portrayal of the anti-hero, gender issues, conversations, and meta-performance. First, the editors brilliantly orient readers with the broader contextual and theoretical perspective, attentive to emic categories. Each of the following chapters contributes new material, starting with the “abbreviated Ramayana” text used to instruct acting students in a famous Kutiyattam school near Kochi in Kerala.
The part on caste discusses Dalit narrations that contest Rama’s punishment of the Shudra Shambuka, who had challenged orthodox religious restrictions . The variations on this theme range from Dalit poetry to plays printed in pamphlets distributed at festivals to open-air performances designed to trigger political action. The director Sudhanva Deshpande shares his experiences as a political activist by staging such plays with his famous street theater group.
The section on the anti-hero foregrounds the potential of Ravana’s character for challenging the political status quo. Richman shows the input of patrons and audiences, comparing a late 1700s Kathakali play produced under tyrannical local rule with a popular Tamil play from the mid-20th century, when anti-Brahmin Tamil assertiveness was strong. Similarly, Bharucha demonstrates audience influence on the process of production through a conversation with the performer-writers Vinay Kumar and Maya Krishna Rao about two eclectic avant-garde plays (one with a Michael Jackson scene).
In the section on gender, Kattaikkuttu specialist Hanne de Bruin comments on what happens when Ramayana characters are transposed into a dance drama genre usually dominated by Mahabharata demonic heroes: when invited to produce a Ramayana play for Adishakti, the director P. Rajagopal decided to cast female performers in the lead roles. In another essay in this section, Mundoli Narayanan tackles the question of the gradual disappearance of women from the genre of Kutiyattam but documents a more recent return of Nangyar women to the stage in a new sister-genre, Nangyarkuttu.
The section on conversations features interviews with Kutiyattam artists Margi Madhu Cakyar and Indu G. about the intense learning process involving actors’ notebooks to become the composite persona on stage: at once actor, character, and narrator. David Shulman elaborates on the individualization process taking place in such practices, which he contrasts with the generalization postulated by Sanskrit theorists. One important insight here regards the co-constitution of drama text and actors’ notebooks. Similar dialogic forces are revealed (in an interview with the abbot of an Assamese Vaishnava monastery, Narayan Chandra Goswami) to be at work in Brajbuli Bhaona, which draws on the works of the 15th-century saint Sankaradeva. In his contribution, Kannada writer Akshara K.V. illuminates how in the Yakshagana-offshoot Talamaddale, actors and audiences take delight in improvised argumentation around “fissures,” or conflicts within Ramayana, which are likewise based on varied sources.
The last part looks at the interpenetration of the stage and “real” life. It features Urmimala Sarkar Munsi’s journey “becoming Rama,” a soul-searching autobiographical account of repeat-performing the role over a quarter century in a production staged by the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre in Kolkota. A more anthropological exploration is undertaken in Bhargav Rani’s chapter on the ludic everyday occurrences that take place in between the action at the Banaras Ramlila.
Apart from the masterful introductions and conclusion, there are several further features that render this reader-friendly volume perfect for teaching. The inclusion of translations of several dramas makes scripts available for students to perform or draw inspiration from for creative writing. The parts on caste and gender are important for integrating diversity into the curriculum. A glossary and list of performance traditions are useful appendices, though one wishes the latter were accompanied by a map. Another desideratum would be a list of dramatic recordings, including online ones, to truly fulfill the title’s promise. Still, this volume provides much food for thought, material for stimulating discussion, and directions for further exploration and research.
Heidi Pauwels is professor of Asian Languages and Literature at University of Washington, Seattle.Heidi PauwelsDate Of Review:March 22, 2023