SITA, as the title suggests, takes as its central focus the character of Sita in the Ramayana. The performance comprises five vignettes, each based on a painting by Raja Ravi Varma — one of the most celebrated artists in Indian art. The artist is known for his realistic paintings of scenes from epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
As a foreigner to the cultural context of these epics and Bharatanatyam, I appreciate the overall concept of SITA. Each short dance piece inspired by the respective painting worked for me as a succinct movement re-telling of each scene from the Ramayana. SITA deviates from a conventional Bharatanatyam performance which usually includes more virtuosic display; here the stories and abhinaya are the focus. Rather than bravura dancing, the movement leans more toward hand gestures and facial expressions, reminiscent of mime in the Western context.
Indeed what struck me significantly about this work was the realism of the facial expressions, which helped me to interpret the narrative more easily than the heightened, stylised nature of classical dancing usually would. During the post-show Director’s Circle, Artistic Director Aravinth Kumarasamy discussed the realism that is characteristic of Ravi Varma’s paintings. Ravi Varma broke new ground in his depiction of the scenes from the great Hindu epics in a naturalistic way, humanising the characters and making them more accessible. We see this theme carried across to the dancing in SITA, where the realistic portrayal of emotions makes the characters easier to identify with.
The music for the piece, composed by Rajkumar Bharati, and directed and mastered by Sai Shravanam, is an actor in its own right, helping to “paint the picture” by conveying mood. Each segment is brought more alive by the contrasting emotions conjured up through the music. For example, the sense of youthful joy in the first scene, “Sita in Mithila” where she first meets Rama, and the sadness and betrayal in “Abandoned Sita,” where Rama orders that she be taken to a forest and left there while pregnant.
This made-for-screen work is Apsaras Arts’ first venture into using CGI technology. To their credit I couldn’t tell – in each scene the dancers appear against the background of the actual painting by Ravi Varma, and the live bodies and virtual background blend seamlessly. Animated transitions between scenes show empty picture frames filling up one by one with the paintings, an effective visual and thematic device tying the work together.
The juxtaposition of the two worlds, that of Ravi Varma’s paintings and the Ramayana narrative, makes SITA certainly more interesting than a straightforward recording of a performance on a stage. Beyond this, however, it also allows me to contemplate the paintings while the performers are busy telling the story – a meditative experience that gives me the choice of what to reflect upon at any given moment.
Created during the COVID-19 Circuit Breaker lockdown in Singapore, the large team working on SITA across Singapore and India deserve the applause that they received at the end of the screening. It is itself a work of epic proportions in our strange contemporary context. They successfully brought together numerous elements that would make it a challenging project, even if with a face-to-face working format.
As Aravinth enthuses during the Director’s Circle, after nine months, finally seeing an audience present and hearing them applaud is something special. Although the work is in a recorded form and could easily be shared online as with so many other filmed works, the creative team made the decision to hold a face-to-face screening. I applaud this decision, both literally and metaphorically. Experiencing the work in person, in a shared space with other supportive audience members, certainly felt more meaningful than if I had been at home, staring at the dancers trapped with their emotions behind my computer screen.
Apsaras Arts Dance Company presented SITA – Selected Paintings by Raja Ravi Varma at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Sunday 20th December 2020 (2PM, 5PM, 8PM).
Jocelyn Chng is a freelance educator, practitioner and writer in dance and theatre, and has written for various platforms since 2013, including The Flying Inkpot and Centre 42. She holds a double Masters in Theatre Studies/Research, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Education (Dance Teaching). At the heart of her practice, both teaching and personal, lies a curiosity about personal and cultural histories; writing about performance allows her to engage with this curiosity. She sees performance criticism as crucial to the development of the performance landscape in Singapore, and a valuable opportunity to contribute to ongoing discussions about performance and society.