‘Aham Sita’ by Gowri Ramnarayan and Vidhya Subramanian

On April 2, 2016, Yuva Bharati got us an audience with the women of the Ramayana in Palo Alto, California. Gowri Ramnarayan and Vidhya Subramanian’s Aham Sita – I am Sita- was a side-by-side presentation of thought provoking dramatic narrative by Gowri and evocative Bharatanatyam by Vidhya. The entire prose narrative and the song selection was by Gowri; choreography-in-verse was by Vidhya. It was a joy to watch and welcome Vidhya back to her original home base after many years.

Aham Sita took a not-often-seen step, at least in dance theater circles, in raising questions and making questionable some of Ramayana’s characters (pun intended). Seen from the lens of a person-first, it shows Ramayana’s wife-of-the-hero, if not as the heroine, as at least a player with a voice. Urmila gets a voice too, if only to lament that she is the other Janaki, Maithili, and Vaidehi in shadow; Ahalya shares her side of the story; Shurpanakha talks about the elusive joy of revenge, and Mandodari of the futility of being the one that “counts the most.”

Gowri and Vidhya are high caliber artists and it was a charged presentation, never a dull moment. Gowri’s spoken words were the bold, staccato outline to Vidhya’s nuanced, colorful, and fine brushstrokes. It was a canvas rich in research, introspection, and evocation. Gowri was powerful, Vidhya was exquisite.

But like the Meenakshi in the show, at the end, “Why do we not feel satisfied?” Was it the telling of the story or the aftermath that left a vague unease? One realizes that it was both. As regards the theme, the goal was clearly to get us to pay attention to the sides of characters never heard before. This was met- through prose and verse. That was the expected unease.

The unexpected unease was with the purpose of the dancing in Aham Sita- it is undefined. There are two tracks running in parallel: One is Gowri, drawing unusual character studies. The other is Vidhya, performing expressive Bharatanatyam to beautiful, only somewhat related songs. It was a showcase of both talents, but individually.

Gowri’s theater, for the most part, raised the hard-hitting questions through hard-hitting personalities. A dancer of Vidhya’s caliber was certainly required to hold her own with Gowri. Otherwise, the movement section of the production would have fallen flat. The song-dances are beautiful, but was that the intent? As the director, did Gowri intend to have dance as eye candy? Or was it an oversight?

Subliminally, the dance section showed that life goes on for Sita and other characters, despite the reactions they incite in other people. That would be one way to define its purpose, and it is one way to use Bharatanatyam in the narrative. But the role played (in most parts) by the verse was simply to provide a soothing …what exactly, backdrop? vignette? diversion? That it lags so severely behind in the philosophical quotient is disappointing and more importantly, distracting. The audience cannot grapple life-defining questions and enjoy tenuous connections to poetry alternatively.

The point is, if dance is going to occupy so much of stage time, then it must measure up intellectually. Was it a case of not knowing how to use dance? Then why reserve so much time for it? It is a sub-optimal use of the narrative real estate to merely include rather than integrate the song and dance. If the songs are simply too good to be excluded, then make the flow smoother by having the songs lead up to Ahalya and Shurpanakha speech segments, each.

One could even conclude that it is too much of a good thing. A sad but corrective measure would be to remove Kahan ke pathik and Ramamani out of the narrative. On the positive side, there was a lot that really worked in the show, an account follows- read it on narthaki.com!

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