Learn about the many worlds of Surpanakha through this dance work
A contemporary dance work based on kathak includes a stand-up comedy style narration, and tells the story of the mythological character from multiple perspectives
"I Know it's all about inner beauty, but I think I am lucky I am beautiful. I mean... have you seen my brother?" quips Ashavari Majumdar, speaking into the mic, before she portrays a sequence of sibling rivalry between Surpanakha and Ravana with swift kathak movements. You wouldn't mistake her attire for anything but a kathak costume; complete with ghunghroos, churidar and a flowy kurta, matched aesthetically with an off-shoulder top. There's the tabla, sarangi and other musical accompaniments, but there are no Braj or Sanskrit songs. That's Majumdar's idiom of kathak — contemporary and accessible.
This weekend, the Auroville-based artiste, empanelled in the Indian Council for Cultural Relations as a soloist, is bringing Surpanakha to Mumbai. And as an extension of her work towards taking the classical dance form to new audiences, she will present the piece at two intimate performance venues. But the Ramayana hasn't always been her favourite read.
"I found it boring as a kid. I felt it was very moralistic and the characters were one-dimensional," recalls Majumdar. But then the late theatre personality Veenapani Chawla introduced her to Paula Richman's book, Many Ramayanas. Majumdar found it fascinating that there are more than 300 versions of the epic in India. "The Tamils see Ravana as a hero. Then there is a Kashmiri version where Sita is a Chandi figure who destroys Ravana; the Buddhist, Jain, Bengali and Maithili Ramayanas are all diverse and almost in conflict, as are the Thai, Cambodian, Russian and Tibetan versions," she says, adding, "Surpanakha interested me because I came across an essay which looked at her from a feminist point of view; about how she was this figure who challenged patriarchy, wandering alone in a forest, while Sita was protected by her husband."
That was Majumdar's entry point into the story of the mythological character, often reduced to Ravana's sister, who invited the wrath of Lakshamana, who in turn, chopped off her nose. As the artiste delved into the multiple versions of the epic, she also came across many iterations of the story of Surpanakha. She perused them, and then created her own script. The 50-minute performance is divided into three segments, exploring Surpanakha's relationship with Ravana, Sita and Rama.
About giving the proscenium a break, Majumdar tells us, "Such venues invite an audience that already knows the language of mudras. But the idea is to take kathak to people who may not necessarily seek to watch it. That's why the piece is not dance, stand-up or theatre, but all of these put together." Much in sync with the multiplicity she aims to celebrate in Surpanakha.
ON February 9, 7 pm; Si Bambai, Fort (entry free)
ON February 10, 3 pm; The Cuckoo Club, Bandra West
Entry Rs 400
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