Apsaras Arts Dance Company presents in-person screenings of Sita – Selected Paintings by Raja Ravi Varma at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Sunday 20th December 2020 (2PM, 5PM, 8PM). Tickets are on SISTIC.
Confession: I have been in the dark about Sita, consort of Rama and incarnation of Lakshmi (Goddess of spiritual and material wealth in the Hindu pantheon of deities) for a very long time—more specifically, since my late teens. “Why Sita?” I never really understood who she was, and continued to wonder at my own relationship to this character. My puzzlement remained even as I waited to reconnect through Zoom with Aravinth Kumarasamy, Artistic Director, and Mohanapriyan Thavarajah, Resident Choreographer, of Apsaras Arts Dance Company respectively. I left the meeting with this realisation: If not for this candid conversation with the both of them, I, honestly, may not even have cared enough to know more about Sita- the Ramayana’s main female character.
Aravinth recounts that he was most likely four years old when he was totally wonderstruck by the iconic image of Saraswati (Goddess of learning). Saraswati had been immortalised by the inimitable brush strokes of the late Indian painter, Raja Ravi Varma. He was a prolific artist, a creative force to be reckoned with in colonial India. Much like his paintings, his legacy still lives on today. A legacy that shows no signs of fading at all. The immense influence of Raja Ravi Varma’s mythological subjects in popular art is impossible to ignore and has only grown unchallenged over the years. Apsaras Arts Dance Company’s “Sita-Selected Paintings by Raja Ravi Varma”- the institution’s first digital dance-art film, produced with the capabilities of chroma key and green screen technologies under stringent lockdown conditions, is not only a strong case in point but a feat in and of itself.
I am informed by Aravinth that the selected paintings by Raja Ravi Varma, which essentially serve as reinterpretations of mythology, offer fascinating glimpses into the inner world of Sita. But only if we allow ourselves to view this heroine through his erudite lenses and journey with her. As for Apsaras Arts’ digital presentation, it is an unfolding of Sita’s life in episodic fashion. The film is facilitated by the paintings which mark flashpoints in her life, delved into deeply and dynamically through dance. When I enquire more about Priyan’s choreographic process, I learn that it is the emotional qualities evoked by these visually arresting narratives which have guided him as a choreographer and a dancer.
Indeed, Sita- Selected Paintings by Raja Ravi Varma is premised upon the emotional climaxes captured within these painted stories. Raja Ravi Varma’s extensive knowledge in Hindu mythology, scriptures and texts coupled with his masterful manipulation of oil paint had greatly enabled him to create captivating works of art. They especially pierce the psyche and consciousness of learned aesthetes fluent in Hindu narratives. In his depictions of Sita, a sustained sense of drama and shades of melancholy are evident, even when Sita’s face is not explicitly shown.
Jatayu Vadham, a painting completed in 1895 and one of the works curated in this production, is proof of this. It shows a chaotic scene from the Ramayana where Ravana has cut off the wing of Jatayu (a demi-god vulture), who had dared to intercept his abduction of Sita. Ravana’s visible expression of rage and ruthlessness is juxtaposed against a helpless Sita who has covered her face in shock and extreme disbelief at the unfortunate turn of events. Though her face is not apparent, her body posture is able to convey the gravity of these sentiments.
I am clearly in the company of men from the past and present, who have had considerable access to and instruction in subjects that I am unfamiliar with. As unbelievable as this may sound, I was actually seventeen when I was introduced to the character of Sita in an extremely flippant, light-hearted manner for the very first time in my life. Unlike many of my peers from a similar cultural background, I was not raised on a diet of mytho-religious texts such as the Mahabharata or the Ramayana,just to name a few. Learning Bharatanatyam, which in itself felt like an anomaly to me, was my gateway into entering the world of Hindu mythology. However, despite having gained an entry point into this realm, I was not particularly driven by the need to revere nor reflect deeply upon these characters.
On hindsight, this indifference or disregard can be attributed to a number of factors. Ranging from my lack of exposure and awareness in general, and immaturity, to something as seemingly harmless as how the characters were even fleshed out for me, as I began to encounter them through dance. This was precisely the case in my maiden brush with Sita as a naïve, uninformed adolescent.
I was tasked to play the role of Sita during a school performance – as part of an arts education programme. Someone needed to fill in that position quickly and I happened to be available. There was no rehearsal and I clearly remember being instructed to hold a couple of hand gestures, smile sweetly at first, and then, look upset and “allow” the villain, Ravana, to abduct me. He was not going to carry me off and so, it was best that I literally ran along with him and exited the stage. Partly relieved that there was not going to be any touching involved in this abduction nor any real dancing for my part, I thought of Sita to be nothing more than a mildly comical accessory.
My subsequent interactions with Sita in other dance numbers played out in the form of a condensed one-liner. She was typically described as someone who was untainted by blemishes, with a skeletal reference to her character, which frequently suggested that she was merely the languishing wife of Rama, held captive in Ravana’s Ashokavanam (the grove of Ashoka trees). Sita was simply somebody I could not relate to. I saw no need and sought no knowledge to acquaint myself with her any further. My rash and reductive assessment of Sita earned her the label of a damsel in distress in my subconscious.
Consequently, for nearly two decades, I have had no solid conception of Sita and all that she possibly represents in this fantastical narrative. This, in spite of how her story has effectively captured – and continues to ignite – the collective imagination of many art-makers and their audiences spanning centuries.
Admittedly, some parties, motivated or perhaps, inadvertently restricted by the milieux of their time, may have been less progressive and discerning than others in their presentation and perception of these stories. This has inevitably made the story of Sita, often depicted as the ideal woman, problematic on many fronts.
There are multiple versions of the Ramayana of which Valmiki’s seems to be the one that is most commonly referred to. Analyses of his rendition in academic literature reveal a disturbing trend whereby Sita’s virtuosity is inextricably linked to her vocality. The active female voice is silenced. The less she spoke, the more virtuous she remained. Fortunately, I sense more than a glimmer of hope in the dance company’s visualisation and conceptualisation of Sita when Aravinth poses a rhetorical question. “If Sita were to write an autobiography, what would she say?” I glean that it is this question, and Raja Ravi Varma’s portrayal of Sita’s defining moment in the painting, Sita Bhumi Pravesh (Sita’s rejection of Rama and her return to Mother Earth) which have greatly fuelled Aravinth in this dance-art film. He wants to shine a spotlight on Sita’s private struggles, holding space to showcase her unyielding strength, and even make redemption on her own terms, possible.
Aravinth has picked out lyrical content written in the first person narrative of Sita from the Tamil version of Ramayana – the Kamba Ramayanam, and has sought collaboration with acclaimed musical stalwarts such as composer, Dr Rajkumar Bharathi, vocalist, Bombay Jayashri Ramnath, and lyricist Niranjan Bharathi to give voice to Sita. After all these years, I finally want to get to know Sita. More importantly, I wish to hear her speak and witness her being stirred from within to dance her truths.
My participation in this meaningful exchange with Aravinth and Priyan on the making of and inspiration behind this dance film has impelled me enough to make space for Sita to emerge from the shadowy recesses of my mind and her innermost thoughts to come to light. “Why not Sita?” I ask myself now.
Watch in-person screenings of Sita – Selected Paintings by Raja Ravi Varma at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Sunday 20th December 2020 (2PM, 5PM, 8PM). Tickets are on SISTIC.
This post is sponsored by Apsaras Arts Dance Company.
Ranjini Ganapathy is a trained secondary school teacher by profession. Upon leaving the service from the Ministry of Education in 2012, she continued to teach History, Social Studies, and English as a facilitator of enrichment programmes in schools. A former company dancer of Apsaras Arts, she is committed to critiquing and appreciating the popular and problematic narratives of Bharatanatyam in an attempt to better understand her relationship with the art form. As a Brisbane-based creative arts educator, she integrates her passions of crafting and dance into her language lessons. She is also a volunteer tutor teaching adult migrants English.