The making of SMV’s The Ramayana

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SARASA KRISHNAN reflects on SMV’s latest stage production and what it meant to the team that put it all together

The evening performance ended in hushed silence. The audience sat entranced, many with tears welling in their eyes, hearts touched. They rose to show their appreciation with a thundering applause. It was the presentation of The Ramayana, a production of Saraswati Mahavidhyalaya (SMV) Perth on 11 and 12 July 2015 at the John Curtin Performing Arts Centre in Fremantle.
The level of excellence belied the fact that it was a production of the students of the institution, and not by professionals.

The mood behind the event

Sharmila Radhakrishnan, one of the teachers at SMV, observes, “As a production, Ramayana has a deep significance to all of us at SMV. Initially staged in Kuala Lumpur in 1992, it subsequently toured the region where it received rave reviews. More importantly, it left an unseen lasting impact on the Institution. The seeds for the future were being sown. Senior teachers that were seen (in cameo roles) played main roles back then. Younger teachers were mere children having a merry time jumping around as part of Hanumans’ monkey battalion. It was a magical time.”

This sentiment echoes through to the many teachers, and volunteers involved. “Such productions may be considered a window into a new world. A world of dance and music, early morning practices, late night practices, overnight practices, costumes, set design, props…. the list goes on. During this time, the entire institution (students, teachers, parents and community members alike) morph into a frantic state of ‘existence,’ says teacher, Aarthi Paranjothi.

Kamalesh and Mayuri, volunteers for the institution, explain. “Each of the persons selflessly played their part in marching towards the same one goal, to do their very best”.
“Then amazingly, the hard work and effort comes to fruition and a point of equilibrium, on day of the performance. We then realize that every step of this amazing journey was already fulfilling, and that the performance itself is an automatic outcome of so many minds coming together”.
In an unseen way, this type of activity has a significant impact on all involved. Elements of serve, love and give are put into practice and entrenched further within the psyche of the institution.  The spirit of unity, teamwork and human camaraderie become centerpiece.

Sukhi Krishnan, the director of the institute disclosed, “The Ramayana was special, not only because we are sharing a legacy, but also because each and every participant (including the teachers) have become students, exploring and learning something new. From stage management to set design, script writing to lighting design, dancing, acting, marketing, promotion; all participants in this production are tried their hand at something new, something different.
The affirmation of the institution, “Where knowledge is there not to be possessed but to be shared, in an organic holistic environment”, rings true here.

The story within the story

The unintended tragedy of The Ramayana continues to be the popular and simplistic condemnation of Ravana as the quintessential villain, set up as the southernmost counterpoint to the Perfect Man, Rama of Ayodhya.

But is he merely what he has been reduced to, by those who would prefer a black and white world of polar opposites – of dashing heroes and dark villains?
Can any man or woman be merely one or the other? Why do we not, even during moments of quiet reflection, recognise the reality of virtue co-existing harmoniously with the vile?
Why do we not recognise ourselves as continually evolving amalgams of Rama and Ravana?

These then are the questions posed by the dying anti-hero of our story.
He asks:
“Wait why do u rejoice in my death. Why am I ridiculed and remembered as evil. You do not even know me, yet you judge me…
Rama the Noble King, Rama the Perfect Man. Did you really know him? Yet you idolize him as the Maryada Purushotamma… What manner of perfection would punish a woman, like that which was meted out to my poor sister, Surpanakha? And his responsibility as a husband? Hah! So called Kshatriya Dharma!
I am Ravana! King of Lanka… A good man and the greatest worshipper of Lord Shiva. A sc
holar unsurpassed, I have mastered the 4 Vedas and 6 Shastras… Hence my 10 heads…
Now, with utmost humility, as a man who is far from perfect, pray, tell me what is there to ridicule here?
Look at Lanka, my prosperous kingdom and its even more prosperous subjects. Hanuman, the monkey reduced it to all but ashes… and yet he is god and I, the villain…
I never touched beautiful Sita… I respected her. But will you ever believe me?
Yes, I have elements of anger, hatred, jealousy… and most of all greed. But is that so wrong? Look at all of you here..
You recite Raam… Raam… But are you not just like me?”
Thus the story of Ravana is also OUR story, the constant conflict and struggle within our minds; the demonic and the divine residing within us. And so, Ravana is us, Ravana is every person, well on our way to becoming the divine Rama.

The painting

As part of the journey to performing The Ramayana, all cast and staff of the production were involved in creating a painting depicting the story. By using an ancient tradition of likita japa (writing the mantra) an immense painting, formed by 19 different canvases, was created by visual artist and teacher Sarasa Krishnan.

Displayed in the foyer of the venue, the painting depicted a pivotal moment in the story, when Sita (symbolic of a pure mind, devoid of desires), momentarily forgets her divine purpose and desires to possess the illusory golden deer, Maricha. The golden deer is the illusory power of Ravana, the ten headed, conflicted Brahma-Rakshasa King. He is the adversary of Rama.

As part of the SaHridhaya series of paintings by the artist, all participants were invited to scribe in their own inherited ethnic language, the Naama Ramayana, the story of Rama’s life on earth.
A unique creation, Naama Ramayana is scribed in Sanskrit, Hindi, Japanese, Chinese, Marati, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Singhalese, English, Russian, Gujarati, Konkani and more. Thus, many scribes, many minds… one heart…

Sage Bharata, the author of Natyashastra, an ancient treatise on theatre, clearly states that the most important aspect of theatre is to produce “rasa”, a deep sense of satisfaction and joy in the hearts and minds of the audience and artists.
Without doubt, on both nights of the Ramayana performance, this was certainly and amazingly achieved. It was a feast for the senses in every way.

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