The suitor, hoping to wed Janaka’s daughter strained and struggled, then struggled and strained, groaning all the while, as he tried in vain to bend the gigantic bow in order to win the hand of Sita, Janaka’s daughter. Finally he gave up, and wobbled off the stage, mumbling, “I didn’t want to get married anyway!”
The hero, Rama, a resplendent blue figure, stepped up to the bow. Not only did he lift it, but he held it aloft, and with a resounding crack, Rama broke the bow! With this astounding feat, Rama won the right to marry the beautiful Sita.
500 children cheered, watching the marionettes wide-eyed in amazement as they enacted the age-old story of Rama and Sita, at the C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation in Chennai, India, presented on Saturday, February 16, 2013, as part of a month-long celebration, the Ramayana Festival. Children from the Grove School and the Saraswati Kendra School, both run by the C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation, as well as other children, attended.
T.N. Shankaranathan, now 85 years old, his son Murugan, and six others make up the marionette troupe that brought so much life and magic to this spectacular performance. They traveled to Chennai from their homes in Kumbakonam, bringing with them their elaborately costumed and beautifully crafted marionettes, each over two feet high. They are part of the few-thousand strong Sourashtrian community, descendants of people who left Gujarat 400 or 500 years ago. To escape the threat of forced conversion to Islam, they traveled south to Tamil Nadu, settling near Madurai. Most were weavers, and some remain weavers even today.
Many decades ago, T.N. Shankaranathan and two of his brothers along with their families were taken in and looked after by a well-off family from Kumbakonam, and there he learned his craft from the famous puppeteer, Mani Iyer.
He and his son Murugan, along with Vasan, one of the C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation officers, sang the music for the performance, which was dramatic, plaintive and joyful in turn. All was whimsical, sprinkled with many comical moments, and with an underlying thread of a deeper meaning.
The show was entirely in Tamil. One of the marionettes, a clown, spoke a few profound words at the beginning, “We are all marionettes, attached by strings that pull us this way and that; we are dolls, and it is our duty, while we are here in this life to do as much good as we can.” Of the history of marionettes, he said, “We are not one hundred years old, or even four or five hundred or a thousand years old. Marionettes are as old as the stones of the earth.” He gave an ecological message too, about protecting and caring for the earth, the animals, and plants.
As the marionette play began, following the Ramayana story by Valmiki, the old and very powerful rishi, Vishwamitra, is asking the King Dasharatha, to allow his son Rama to go with him, to be trained as a warrior and then to do battle with the horrid demoness Tataka. Reluctantly, the king consents and Rama, with his brother Lakshmana, sets off to be trained in warfare by Vishwamitra.
The demoness Tataka is killed by Rama, the only hero who is strong and righteous enough to kill her. Her son Maricha is chased away, to live, then to die at Rama’s hands much later in the epic. A pale, skeletal ghost appears too, looking appropriately terrifying and is also dispatched with.
After Rama breaks the gigantic bow, which is Shiva’s bow, King Janaka gives him the hand of his daughter Sita in marriage, and there is a scene of great joy and celebration as the two are happily wed. Rama and Sita exchange garlands and are given long beautiful stoles. The marionette story ended here on this joyous occasion, though this is just the first chapter of the traditional tale.
The captivating story of Rama and Sita, one of the most enchanting stories in the world, is performed and read not only in India, but wherever Indian traditions and stories have spread over the centuries, especially throughout Southeast Asia. As an avatar of Lord Vishnu, Rama is worshipped by hundreds of millions of Hindus.
Earlier, on February 1 and 2, at the Ramayana Conference, put on at the C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation, a mountain of evidence was presented by scholars in support of the view that the story, long considered by western authorities to be a myth, was based on historical reality, and that Rama was not a myth, but a historical king of early India.
This marionette troupe is the last one remaining in the state of Tamil Nadu. They carry on a lovely, meaningful tradition, handed down through many generations.
Photos: Sharon St Joan
To visit the website of the C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation, click here.