Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts and Research

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over one year and six months

Principal Investigator: Rustom Bharucha

From 2008 to 2011, Pondicherry-based Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Arts and Research undertook a project titled ‘Pluralism and Performance: The Many Voices in the Ramayana’. Centred around the Ramayana, the project brought together practitioners, experts and academics in an attempt to throw new light and generate new knowledge and creativity on the epic text and its various manifestations. Over three years, Adishakti organised the annual Ramayana festival that gave birth to new thought and rich material around the epic. Encouraged by this, Adishakti and its Ramayana Festival Director Rustom Bharucha began to work on a larger research project on the performative dimensions of the Ramayana in the Indian subcontinent, in collaboration with scholar Paula Richman. The present project is a crucial segment of that larger project.

This grant supports Adishakti to undertake a textured, contextualised and in-depth study of diverse constructions and reinventions of the Ramayana through seven performance traditions. It aims to study how the Ramayana gets constructed and reinvented within specific ritual, social and performative contexts of contemporary India. The principal investigator for this project will be Rustom Bharucha. Arguably, there is no epic in the world that has lent itself to as much variation as the Ramayana, says Rustom in his proposal. Its inherent pluralism is widely accepted. The purpose of this project is therefore not merely to affirm that the Ramayana thrives on diversity but ‘to question how and why it continues to mutate through its multiple retellings in radically different ways in specific contexts determined by caste, religion, social status, economy, region and the impact of modernity and secularisation.’ What is it about the text that lends itself to unending constructions and interpretations? Although this question has been examined widely by scholars of South Asian Studies, Rustom observes that it has not been addressed with adequate rigour in the field of theatre and performance studies.

In addition to this, Rustom also sees the need to acknowledge that in an age of intensifying sectarian tensions and threats to liberal and pluralistic readings of ancient texts, the Ramayana has also become a conflict zone. Confronting this situation, this project also attempts to work against the denunciation of the Ramayana’s manifold interpretations by communal forces. Instead, it will probe specific constructions of Ramayana performance texts at micro levels, revealing that the text, even in its most canonical versions is not fixed or immutable. In other words, for Rustom, the Ramayana becomes a site for studying how the act of performance can alter and transform normative meanings of the epic through processes of construction / reconstruction and invention / reinvention. 

In order to understand these processes, Rustom chooses seven Ramayana performance traditions – 1) Nangiar Koothu, a highly stylised one-woman performance tradition of Kerala. Here, the focus will be on a particular performance representing the relatively marginalised character, Mandodari, as ‘reconstructed’ by renowned performer Usha Nangiar.  2) Improvisatory interventions by contemporary artists Maya Krishna Rao and Vinay Kumar. With these performers, Rustom will study the ways in which the artists have ‘reinvented’ the Ramayana through highly provocative scenarios, especially in Maya’s ‘Ravanama’ and Vinay’s ‘The Tenth Head’. 3) Yakshagana of Karnataka, studying the process of ‘invention of tradition’ in the work of Keremane Shivananda Hegde’s Sri Idagunji Mahaganapati Yakshagana Mandali. Here Rustom will look into the crucial differences between two models of inventing tradition by Shivanand’s father Keremane Shambhu Hegde and Shivarama Karanth. 4) Monastic devotional tradition of Sattriya in Assam. Here the focus will be on the play by Shankaradeva called ‘Rama Bijoy’, where the marginal character Viswamitra is portrayed as being idiosyncratic and satirical, thereby enabling an understanding of the ‘inner mutations of traditional forms’. 5) The shadow puppetry tradition of Ravan Chhaya in Orissa to understand ‘the contemporary in tradition’. 6) At the Kattaikuttu Gurukulam in Tamilnadu, Rustom will study the form to understand the process of transmission of traditional performance skills to young people and the institutional structures of creative education and pedagogy. 7) Mewati Jogi, the oral narrative tradition of Rajasthan which offers a subaltern take on the Ramayana by bringing down big heroes of the epic to ordinary peasant-like characters, whose wisdom mirrors the resilience and survival strategies of low-caste communities. 

Parts of this study are already underway. Rustom has been working closely with the artists/ groups he has identified. With this grant, over eighteen months, he will travel to the seven locations, complete the interviews with the performers and gurus and consolidate the research. The translation will be facilitated by local experts and scholars whose voices will also be crucial to the project.

The final outcome will be an essay that will subsequently become part of the larger book on Ramayana in performance. Alongside this, Rustom will also make a series of presentations in different academic and performance forums in India on the primary insights of the project.