Beautiful, noble, heroic, righteous – the characters who people India’s classical dances generally tend to fit into these categories. Men and women in grey to black shades, caught between right and wrong, strong but vulnerable and imperfect bodies are harder to come by.

Ahsura, A Ramayana Triptych, performed at the recent Margazhi season in Chennai, was an attempt to look at epic figures who were flawed, conflicted and enigmatic. Ahalya, Shurpanakha and Ravana – whose names made for the title’s acronym – are almost never seen in classical dances, except in passing and as a means to extol the virtues of the gods and demi-gods. The exception to this are Kathakali and Koodiyattam, Kerala’s Sanskrit theatre, in which anti-heroes have meaty roles.

In Ahsura, the three solo character sketches by dancers Anita Ratnam, Geeta Chandran and Sharmila Biswas are formatted in different styles and musical settings: Ratnam’s Ahalya came alive through contemporary choreography and designed sound; Chandran used a verse from Valmiki Ramayana to speak of Ravana’s angst; and Biswas’ Shurpanakha was rooted in Odissi with lyrics drawn from an Odia Ramayana.

Photo credit: Ganeshramalingam.com
Photo credit: Ganeshramalingam.com

The misinterpreted king

“In our selective reading of Ramayana we usually forget that Ravana was a great connoisseur of art, an aesthetician, a veena vidwan [a veena player], and a scholar,” said Chandran. “Even as he holds Sita prisoner, he asks himself why when every aspect of her is so beautiful he is so rivetted only by her looks. He wasn’t the devil king. It is our understanding of him in dance that is limited.” Chandran had first presented Ravana in her 2017 presentation, Anekanta, on the importance of multiple realities.

Chandran’s Ravana is clad in black kanjeevaram with a regal, masculine drape. There are none of the caricaturish markers he usually comes with – the crown, the many heads or the vibhuti on the forehead. And though Ravana rarely features in the Bharatanatyam cast of characters, she has given him a gait, gaze and stance that sticks strictly to classical vocabulary.

Part of her Ravana is also Chandran’s effort at creating a dialogue between the two fragmented fields of dance – classical and contemporary – “The two simply don’t talk to each other. Ahsura showed how we can collaborate with respect.”

Victim of her circumstances

Ratnam’s Ahalya was dressed in a gold sheath, the skin that was famously worn by iconic American modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham to show a grieving body in her iconic dance Lamentations. “Ahalya was a trophy wife of a great rishi, obedient, flawless, learned but ignored,” said Ratnam. “For that one moment of love she was punished with a curse and lifetime spent as a stone – while the philandering god who seduced her escapes. Ahalya didn’t really have a choice in anything – who she became, married or loved.”

Photo credit: Ganeshramalingam.com
Photo credit: Ganeshramalingam.com

In the epic, Ahalya is the exceptionally beautiful and accomplished wife of sage Gautama. Indra, who covets her, arrives one dawn and using the dark as cover, takes the form of her husband and makes love to her. When Gautama catches the ‘adultery’ on his return home, he curses her to turn into a stone. She is redeemed only when Ram touches her stone form.

Ahalya is an interesting character for modern writers and artistes to explore because she goes from an exalted figure to a subject of pity in an instant. Telugu feminist writer Volga has raised questions about the many assumptions we make about her and abiding puzzle of all times: did Ahalya know that Indra had come disguised as her husband?

“For me Ahalya has always had shades of grey,” said Ratnam whose work A Million Sitas also featured Ahalya and the other women characters.

A shamed woman

Sharmila Biswas’ Shurpanakha has been something of a character in progress for the last two decades. She started off as a part of a dance drama choreographed by Biswas, and became the centrepiece of a solo performance.

Shurpanakha was Ravana’s sister who, bewitched by Rama’s looks, proposed to him when he was in exile. He rebuffed her and pointed her to his brother Lakshmana. Irritated by her persistence, Lakshmana chopped off her ears and nose, setting in motion the story that ends in a war.

Photo credit: Ganeshramalingam.com
Photo credit: Ganeshramalingam.com

“Shurpanakha usually makes an appearance in classical dances in the delineation of navarasas [the nine moods] – as a character to be sniggered at in hasya [comedy],” said Biswas. “And I started thinking – how did she feel about her situation? What is her side of the story? The first time we hear of her, she goes from being a victim to a vamp but she was also a cherished princess once, a woman who could laugh at herself and whose only fault was that she was too direct. Here was a woman who was vilified for proposing to a man she found attractive.”

The dancer used tribal Odiya dialect of Sabar to emphasise the subaltern nature of her character – interestingly, in koodiyattam, too, Shurpanakha speaks a colloquial Malayalam while the other elevated characters around her stick to Sanskrit.

Biswas says she sees Shurpanakha as a madhyama nayika, or a middling character – not righteous but not base either. “We are all madhyamas, aren’t we? As we go through the roller-coaster of life we are sometimes wrong and sometimes right. Like her, we are all regular women.”