Bhaskar’s Ramayana Pilgrimage Continues…

Posted by on Oct 24, 2013

Bhaskar’s Ramayana Pilgrimage Continues…

As our troupe has embarked on a great journey of their own to Wellington, New Zealand, we can’t help but look back at the journey this tale has taken in our company.

The Ramayana is one of the greatest and most famous hindu epics. It is a tragic, exciting, story of love, loneliness, fear, treachery, beauty and hope. Even Hollywood deeply references it in, A Year of Living Dangerously starring Mel Gibson, and A Little Princess, a 1990’s children’s film.

Through the life of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy, this epic has taken not one or two, but many reincarnations. We will chronicle the journey of the Ramayana from three of our choreographers: Mrs. Santha Bhaskar, who has choreographed several versions of the Ramayana, Mrs. Ambujah Thiru, who retaught one of Mrs. Bhaskar’s choreography in 2012, and finally, Ms. Meenakshy Bhaskar, who has choreographed the latest version of Bhaskar’s Ramayana and who is now in New Zealand, along with some of our dancers, presenting the latest embodiment of this story.

Mrs. Santha Bhaskar

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“Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Pahimam”

This was one of the first chants my mother taught me when I was little or, I should say that I grew up with this chant.

As a family, we recited this when the sun set; in front of an oil lamp. This was a ritual and tradition in our home. At that age, or even later, I did not understand why I was chanting the mantra.

“Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Pahim”

In school, I studied the Ramayana story as a part of the school’s curriculum, but even then it was not a deep study of the mythology. We simply understood that Rama was the 7th Avathara of Vishnu, the god who preserves and protects. We learned about the author of the Ramayana, a hunter.

A sage told the hunter to recite “mara mara mara mara…”,  and that if he repeated this many times it would become:

Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Pahimam”; The most powerful mantra.

This hunter meditated for years and years and was eventually covered by an anthill. When this hunter finally emerged from the anthill, the same sage that told the hunter to chant, visited him. The sage then named the hunter, “Valmiki”, derived from “Valmikam” which means, anthill.

Valmiki’s first poem, or sloka, was my inspiration for my first dance production in the 1980’s for Radio Singapore at Victoria Theatre.

“Ma Nishada Pratistham Tvamagamas­aasvati Samaa Yat Krauchamithrunaadekam Avadhi Kaamamohitam” 

He was beside the River Ganga and he heard the sweet chirping of birds. He discovered the two krouncha birds, male and female, romancing. That was a beautiful scene for him. He kept watching them. Then suddenly, he heard a loud cry of pain and noticed the male bird had fallen to the ground and was bleeding. A hunter shot an arrow at the bird. Valmiki was devasted and furious.

His first utterance was this:

“Not only human beings, but even animal couples should not be hurt or disturbed when they are romancing, being Kaamamoham. You have done a sin by killing him.”

This was Valmiki’s inspiration to write the Ramayana epic.

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“Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Pahim”

My thrist to know more about the Ramayana epic became intense and I read the original translation of the Ramayana epic a few times.

Sita was my daughter Meena. The choreography was simple and using Bharathanatyam techniques, a language familiar to me. The lyrics I used were from Rama Nataka Keerthana in Tamil. To choreograph Sita Swayamvara was challenging and a beautiful experience because of the time limit of 30 min and because we used a lot of props for scenes.

“Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Pahim”

Years later, I attended a poetry reading session with Mr. Simon Tay, the Singaporean poet who wrote Sita’s Complaint. Mr. Tay wrote this poem after watching an Indonesian, Wayang Kulit, or Shadow Puppet Performance.

Attending this local poetry reading session at the Substation motivated me to choreograph this poem into dance. This was my first experience choreographing an English poem into Bharathanatyam. It was performed at the Substation with solo and duet dancers. You could call it a work in progress.

“Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Pahim”

I finally developed this into a 40 min piece as a dance drama using the English poetry recitation to link the scenes. I liked the idea of viewing the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view. It was exciting and exhilarating. The building of the bridge, the sethu badhanaa, and Ravana’s dance with 10 dancers representing his 10 heads and 20 hands, his might, and valour were choreographed for this poem and it was presented for a dance festival at Victoria Theatre.

I received a lot of criticism. I was told that I was offending Rama’s image as a god by portraying Sita’s complaint from HER point of view but to me it was the opening of a window as a choreographer to think differently.

This production, with a slight twist in the script travelled to Camdodia with the title, “Parinama” at the doors of the great Angkor Wat. We performed this with a live orchestra, and added original Valmiki slokas in with Simon Tay’s English poem. It looked very different from the earlier production.

“Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Pahim”

In 1997 on August 9th, at the Substation for the Asean Museum we did a production of a dialogue between Anasuya and Sita. I added some theatre techniques into this. Anasuya says to Sita, “I am very happy to see you. You are a “pativrata” (chaste woman). You will attain great fame because of your devotion to Rama.” Here, Sita feels embarrassed by the praise. I really like the scene, and the expressions.

“Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Pahim”

Fast forward to three years ago, we presented a different segment of the Ramayana at the Peranakan Museum. This time focusing on Ravana and Jatyu’s fight. It was choreographed and presented with the Rama Nataka lyrics. I had always wanted to  choreograph this because the language of the author of the Rama Nataka, Arunachala Kaviraya, was so simple, classic and inspiring.

Reproducing the Ramayana epic is always a joyful, thrilling, and through provoking experience. It can always be retold in a million different way. I never want to stop thinking about it or choreographing it!

“Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama Pahim”

Mrs. Ambujah Thiru

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Ramayana has been a production that I have done through various stages of my life. Each time I took part in the production, I learnt something new and evolved from being just a student of dance. I evolved to become a performer. From a performer, I matured into a nattuvanar and now a choreograher. Each time I have undertaken Ramayana and became inspired when I have been presented with different roles and challenges. However, the beauty of the epic only continues to become increasingly captivating as new ideas have brought forth a renewal of performing and portraying the epic.

Sampoorna Ramayana Sep 2012

 

Sampoorna Ramayana Sep 2012

 

Sampoorna Ramayana Sep 2012

 

Ms. Meenakshy Bhaskar

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From my younger days, watching my mother choreograph in the living room of our home captivated me.  Majority of her dances were thematic, usually an item of the Bharathanatyam repertoire, a mythology in dance drama, or a spiritual song.  It was usually something that touched her spirit. She listened to the music over and over again, made notes, closed her eyes and swayed.  Then opened her eyes and made the movement.  It looked so easy.  Something about the way she looked when she closed her eyes captured a spot deep within me.  But as a 6 year old, I could not comprehend the meaning of that look.  The swaying I took to mean she was dancing in her head.  Fascination.

Attending University and studying choreography under my talented, and loving teachers, Susan Gingrasso, Linda Caldwell and Karen Studd, whose choreographies were abstract, interesting and so new to me, opened up a whole new world to me.  My mind was opened to so much.  Despite the direction, I still did not understand nor could I recreate the “feel” my mother radiated when she choreographed. Finding that “feel” would be my obsession for the next decades of my life.

Thematic pieces are easier.  As are non-abstract.  If you know the story well, and you know how to tell a story, it works to your advantage.  When I was asked to choreograph and lead this group to Wellington, New Zealand, indignantly, I asked a question back. BAA had just completed it’s run of Ramayana in Singapore in 2012, so why not take that? That was still fresh in everyone’s mind.  That choreography was completed, music and all; not to mention that it was an Epic choreography of my mother’s, Santha Bhaskar.  The response to my question was we could not take a cast of 20 plus dancers.  The musicians and the dancers involved in that piece were busy with other productions and commitments that coincided with this tour.  I was going to have to work from scratch and 28 days to conceptualize, visualize, compile and create.

Ramayana is a favorite epic among the Hindus.  I would probably have wanted to present a feminist viewpoint, or totally taken Ravana the demon’s side in presenting the case.  I could not.  This had to be a traditional presentation of the popular story where Rama was God.

About 2 weeks before I left the US, I was at the Siddhi Vinayaka Temple in Sacramento, California, for a friend’s puja. There, that Hanuman’s statue called to me.  The eyes of the statue seemed real: kind, gentle and loving.  I sat there, the chanting at the puja moving away vaguely distantly and questions about who Hanuman really was came to me.  He haunted me for days, and on the plane to Singapore, I decided how to start.  The start is always the most difficult for me.  What would it be like to have been the son of Vayu (the wind God) and a monkey princess?  What would it be like to be able to fly?  What would it be like to be so devoted, how innocent his heart must have been? With these questions rising inside me, I landed in Singapore, with half a suitcase of CDs and ransacked everyone’s collection of CD’s and closed myself out and just listened to music.  One of these occasions, I found myself completely absorbed in the music and dreaming, me dancing, lost in some unknown space and caught myself swaying.  I knew I was on the right track. I “found” the “feel”.  Pure rapture.

The result of three and a half weeks of labor, sacrifices from BAA dancers, dancing late into the night, trying out new movement ideas, expressional ideas and breaking away from norm is that we now have Ramayana NZ.  To the brave dancers who whole-heartedly surrendered their bodies to me, I thank you!

Working with Sand artist, Lawrence Koh has been incredible too.  We have worked separately. Apart for a few Facebook messages, my scene and music break down notes and one vague half hour meeting, we have been working separately.  We know what we each will bring something to the table. But we each have no idea what the other brings to this.  Neither of us has seen the other’s work. I am excited to see how it all blends. I am thrilled to share this with you.  I am inspired to close my eyes and create once more.   I hope you enjoy Ramayana as much as I have.  Creating it has been an insightful choreographic journey of self-discovery: uncomfortably relieving.

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