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  Life   Art  21 Mar 2017  And the rest is herstory

And the rest is herstory

Published : Mar 21, 2017, 12:18 am IST
Updated : Mar 21, 2017, 6:40 am IST

Dancer Anita Ratnam talks about her journey of retelling the role of women in epics and history.

Dancer Anita Ratnam
 Dancer Anita Ratnam

When she makes the point that without Sita there is no Ramayan, we ask her if she is seeing her as the protagonist. She is certainly a catalyst, is her answer.

Acclaimed dancer Anita Ratnam says that all her works for the last 25 years have been women-oriented and examine women in history and epics and how they connect with present times. Her solo production, A Million Sitas, staged recently in the city had the female protagonist of Ramayan as the central figure and also featured four other pivotal female characters from the epic –– Ahalya, Manthara, Surpanakha and Mandodari. Speaking to us, the Chennai-based artiste says, “I’ll call Ram a prince and not God, as Ramayan’s genesis was more a human story. The Ramayan is one of those stories that different people remember differently as throughout India, it’s told very differently. And this story has lived through ages in the form of written text, folklores, enacted performances etc. As a woman and as an artiste, once in a lifetime, you must take up the theme of Sita and ask questions about why she was this paragon of virtue and yet unjustly treated. Why are those aspects never discussed?”   

She adds, “Ahalya, Mandodari, Manthara, Shabri, Suprnakha, Sita... all of them became pawns in the hands of men. But you still remember them well from the Ramayan and don’t remember as many male characters. Women in the epic are full of life and I wanted to give voice to their presence in the story. I’m part of a larger collective movement where there is re-excavation of the role of women in the epics written by men. For instance, Manthara is portrayed as evil but isn’t she an astute politician as well?” she asks.       

Ratnam and her team went through various versions of the epic before beginning the production and the research went on for a year. When it premiered in 2010, the production was more like a traditional dance recital which could be staged in an auditorium. Over the years, it has changed into more of a story-telling format and can be performed in informal spaces as well.

Ratnam, whose  career has witnessed over 1,300 performances in 37 countries, is currently developing a separate production on Ahalya and a short work on the novel Lanka’s Princess.

Discussing more on the various versions of epics, she says, “In south India, Ravan is as revered as Ram. Our Ramayan is completely different.”

At this point she mentions how actor Kamal Haasan got into trouble for reportedly saying that Panchali was used as a pawn while the men gambled. Did she ever feel any reservations about including certain elements in her piece? She says, “Nobody bothers about dancers. What filmstars think and feel is given more importance, more so in south India where cinema is like religion. But there is a greater concern about freedom of expression. As artistes are today exploring new ideas and themes, they are also looking at if they will be colliding with certain firmly held beliefs. I’m one among the multitude of artistes resisting power, patriarchy, oppression and cruelty. Governments come and go, but artistes continue. Art always needs to move people.”  

‘In Delhi people often leave the concert in 20 mins’
It’s not just concerts that bring Anita Ratnam to Delhi. Her connect with the city is much deeper. Talking about the art sensibilities of Delhiites, she shares an interesting observation. “Every capital of the country has a heightened sense of ego, be it Washington DC or New Delhi. There is something about being the nerve centre of the country. There is an air in Delhi which says we live in a city where the nation’s fortunes are decided. I live in the southern most state where the phrase ‘Dilli abhi door hai’ manifests physiologically and emotionally. For many years our state government has not been in sync with the central government. We don’t look at Delhi for dispensation of favours, especially in art and culture — a sector we think we are the leaders in. Delhi has varied audiences – a dedicated audience each for talks, parties, theatre and so on. Here, I feel there is a pressure of being seen at certain events, sometimes three in an evening. Many a time, people get up and leave the concert in 20 minutes because possibly they have to be somewhere else unlike in south India, where art lovers have the stamina to sit and enjoy a three-hour long classical recital. There is a burning desire to succeed among Delhiites. Also, it is a city of migrants and thus, made of multiple cultures. All this creates a kind of impatience in the residents. I’ll not call it disrespect though.”  

She also loves to visit Delhi because here she gets the chance to wear her winter clothes, something she can’t in Chennai. “I have been coming to Delhi for 40 years. I love the changing seasons. Also, I am a foodie and I have so many favourite addas in Delhi where I like to eat out. The city is also a great place for shoppers. So, apart from the fact that many of my family members are based here, I’ve many more reasons to look forward to a Delhi visit. I wish I could perform more often in the national capital. It’s my second home.”

Tags: ramayana, anita ratnam