Across the stage, the dancer Anita Ratnam engages the sparkling, magical butterfly in conversation, one beautiful day in the woodlands. She trails after the butterfly from branch to branch, and they talk to each other. It turns out that the lovely butterfly is really Manthara. When she appears in her human form in the story of Rama and Sita, Manthara is a quite different, unattractive creature, physically disabled as a hunchback, with a conniving, manipulative personality.
Drawn to Manthara in her form as the innocent butterfly, Anita expresses her understanding of the pain that Manthara must feel in her human form, when she is the brunt of jokes and even has stones thrown at her by village boys.
On Saturday, February 9, 2013, Anita Ratnam gave the complimentary performance “A Million Sitas” at the C.P.R. Centre for the Arts, as part of the Ramayana Festival being held at the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, in Chennai, during the month of February.
One of the outstanding performers of Indian classical dance, Anita Ratnam has a Ph.D in Women’s Studies from the University of Madras, and has had a four-decades long, brilliant career in theatre and television, in the U.S., in India, and in a dozen other countries.
Her dance performances focus on the woman as a pivotal force in Indian myth and legend – and as a vital force in today’s world, no longer to be veiled or suppressed, but to be acknowledged and valued. Myth is central to the process, and Anita calls myth “the deeper truth.”
Sita and Rama are embedded in the Indian consciousness. For five thousand years, every Indian woman has felt an inescapable connection with the role of Sita, who on a straightforward level, is the wife of Rama in the Hindu epic poem, the Ramayana. From the time they are tiny tots, all Indian children, both boys and girls, are surrounded by the enchanting songs and stories of Rama and Sita.
The story of the Ramayana turns on the fate of Sita, who is abducted by the demon Ravana and in the end, after many twists and turns, is rescued by her husband Rama. When they return home, he is crowned king.
Of course, in India, nothing is simple. At the beginning of the story, Sita, portrayed as the obedient, faithful wife, chooses to go with her husband when, through no fault of his own, he is banished into the forest. As well as being a faithful wife, however, Sita is far more than that; she is a strong, dynamic woman, with her own wishes, thoughts, and views. She is very learned and, although quite young, is a scholar. She is an environmental and animal advocate long before there was such a thing, appealing to her husband to give up hunting and to protect and respect the forest animals and their habitat. Ultimately, she is a Goddess, whose true place lies in heaven. She is absolutely central to the Ramayana; without Sita there would be no story.
The performance “A Million Sitas” touches on many of the female roles in the Ramayana. All are intertwined with Sita – she is part of them, and they a part of her.
Usually the character Surpanakha is portrayed as an evil demoness who falls in love with Rama and makes inappropriate advances first to him, then to his brother Lakshmana. Offended by her behavior, Lakshmana attacks her, disfiguring her face, and she flees back to her home in Lanka (Sri Lanka), complaining to her demon brother, Ravana, who then kidnaps Rama’s wife, Sita. In “A Million Sitas,” Anita reveals a radically different view of Surpanakha.
Anita’s dramatic portrayal of Surpanakha, wearing a black cape and an elegant mask, with long painted fingernails, shows us a tribal woman from a matrilineal society. For her there is nothing remotely shameful or inappropriate in the advances she makes to Rama and Lakshmana, which are, in her world, entirely normal and natural. Instead, it is the brothers’ brutal response that is shocking.
In a series of profoundly beautiful dance scenes, allowing the characters to shine in a new light, Anita dismantles the centuries-old patriarchal cast that has grown up around the Ramayana story, showing us the women in the story as they may originally have lived—and revealing the shining hero and Goddess Sita in her myriad forms of “a million Sitas.”
Photos: Sharon St Joan
Top photo: Anita in conversation with the butterfly (as Manthara)
Second photo: Surpanakha
Third photo: Anita Ratnam with Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Honorary Director of the C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation
To view the website of Anita Ratnam, click here.
To visit the website of the C.P Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, click here.