“Pathire, chundari, angu chelloo. Pathire, chundari, angu chelloo....”
Spat out in cold fury, the words sound like an incantation: “When I go to this man, he tells me to go to the other. But the other sends me right back to him.”
Shurpanakha is recalling the mortification of being tossed from Rama to Lakshmana and back, the object of derision for declaring her attraction for the princes. As pride, hurt and rage spill over, her palms start to beat an ominous tattoo on the stage floor. Shurpanakha has started planning the story of epochal revenge.
In the popular Ramlila plays of North India, this is usually a scene packed with the most comic possibilities. What could be more hilarious? An evil ogress propositioning a handsome Kshatriya warrior, a widow wandering the forests alone desiring a married man, and a woman who actually refuses to be put in her place. The violent comeuppance – having her breasts and nose mutilated, makes for slapstick material.
But in the classical theatre arts and ancient texts of Kerala, Shurpanakha is not a cardboard vamp. In Koodiyattam, Kerala’s ancient Sanskrit theatre tradition, she is a full-blooded being who dares to question the status quo. Unlike the pure heroic characters of Ramayana, Shurpanakha’s grief, bereavement, envy, desire and anger are raucous. And it is not just her. Ravana, Duryodhana and Karna – all grey epic characters – are allowed splendorous detailing in Koodiyattam as well as in Kathakali, the classic dance form.
Shurpanakha gets an entire act in Ashcharyachoodamani, a 10th-century play based on Ramayana that was written by Shaktibhadran, a Sanskrit scholar from Kodungalloor in Central Kerala. The sixth act of the play, Shurpanakhankam, is dedicated to her journey to Panchavati in search of love, her tragic passion for Rama, the jest between the brothers at her plight, and the final horrific act of violence.
Shurpanakhankam, which was written for Koodiyattam as a single act that spans six days, was recently staged at Delhi’s India International Centre. Seasoned artist Margi Madhu, founder of the Nepathya Centre for Excellence in Koodiyattam, who played her on most days, says that Shurpanakha – and not the divine triumvirate – is the centrepiece of the play.
“Shurpanakhankam allows us to read her in many ways – you can see her in the Dalit perspective, as the oppressed,” said Madhu. “Even if she was a rakshasi, it presents you with the question – was it not against Rama’s ethics to have a woman disfigured? Throughout the play, there is a tone of hasyam or humour in how others speak of her and with her. Could the character have been used to critique the privilege of the upper castes? Remember Koodiyattam played out in temples, so this approach towards her played out in a very pious setting, among the believers.”
As a subaltern character, Shurpanakha gets to speak in Malayalam in a Sanskrit play. Her dialect is colloquial, likely the tongue of the low-caste, perverting the idea of a pure language. Bhadre, or gentlewoman, becomes pathire; sundari, or beautiful, becomes chundari; and sukham, or joy, becomes thukham in her speech as she cradles her outlandishly large breasts. The rules of polite society don’t work for Shurpanakha. Earlier in the play, though, when she takes the form of Lalitha – demure, virtuous and pretty with big eyes, long hair and fair skin – to tempt Rama, she speaks Sanskrit.
“I came looking for a husband. None of the gods and demigods appealed to me. And not for me those unkempt sages with their eyes closed and lost in meditation,” she says, clearly not seeing herself as undesirable or unequal.
“If you are looking for a radical, subversive treatment of a woman character who is really powerful, then it is Shurpanakha in Koodiyattam,” said David Shulman, a scholar of Indian studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a passionate connoisseur and supporter of the theatre tradition. “She is truly ill-treated in a sadistic fashion and the results are both tragic and violent. Most of what the other characters say on stage ring hollow before her arguments.”
As Shulman says, other characters pale before this anti-hero: Lakshmana is impetuous in his fury and righteous indignation, Sita experiences pangs of conscience at having to watch a woman being humiliated but cannot do more than protest feebly, Rama alternates between condescension and contempt. The woman who until an hour ago, as Lalitha, was being respectfully addressed as bhadre and sundari by the brothers, now gets taunted by Lakshmana: “Tishtha, tishtha! Pishitashane! (Go, go, you eater of flesh),” he screams at her as she refused to let him subjugate her in battle.
“Kerala’s literature and performance arts have always had a penchant for anti-heroes,” said Sudha Gopalakrishnan, Sanskrit scholar and founder of online arts resource Sahapedia that brought Shurpanakhankam to Delhi. “Shurpanakha is shown in a sympathetic light with the maximum opportunity to present her point of view. And note that Rama is not valourised.”
At the end of the play on its sixth and final day, Shurpanakha gets her grand exit. Her tussle with Lakshmana has ended and she staggers in, her clothes clammy and clotted with blood, the breasts and nostrils reduced to gaping, raw wounds, howling in pain and protest, swearing revenge.
Interestingly enough, this act referred to as ninam (where a wounded actor appears drenched in blood) in Koodiyattam and Kathakali, sets the stage for yet another fascinating work on Shurpanakha. Written in the 16th century by Narayana Bhattatiri Shurpanakha Pralapam or lament, is a three-page monologue for Shurpanakha described as niranunasika prabandha – a composition without any nasal sounds because she has lost her nose.
The text, which seems a continuation of her finale in Shurpanakhankam, is her rant in brother Ravana’s court in Lanka. She protests the injustice she has suffered, berates her brother’s inaction and ends with a sly description of Sita’s beauty. This is what many scholars and commentators consider the critical spark that lit the fire of the ensuing battle.
“She is about resistance and about questioning all current streams of thought on what is right and what is wrong,” said Gopalakrishnan. “Both Kathakali and Koodiyattam, and the many points of interaction between Kerala’s classical texts and performance practices, bring this forth.”
Fifteenth-century writer Punam Nambuthiri’s famous Ramayana Champu, written in a mix of Malayalam and Sanskrit, imagines Shurpanakha’s melancholic thoughts as she watches the two brothers in exile: “When there is this ocean of beauty in this world, why couldn’t my ancestors create me in this mould?” and soon after: “Why was so much beauty bestowed on two men who have abandoned all to live in forest?”
The Shurpanakha trope – fearsome demoness turns temptress using magic, but heroic figures see through her, and she is punished by having her breasts and nose lopped off – is also repeated across epic interpretations in Kathakali. In Krimeeravadham, written by 18th century king and scholar Kottayam Thamburan, the rakshasi Simhika takes the form of Lalitha and makes friends with Draupadi with the intent of harming her to avenge her husband’s death at the hands of Arjuna. But Draupadi is alarmed by this overture. Soon her husbands return and Simhika is punished – by having her nose and breasts cut off. In Narakasuravadham, also written for Kathakali, the ogress Nakrathundi falls in love with Indra’s son, Jayanthan, who punishes her impudence by slashing her.
In Koodiyattam, Shurpanakha is fearsome in battle as well, giving it as good as she gets: “See, she is jumping up to the sky, goes around the earth, runs away, leaps, then stops and acquires a huge form. With her nails resembling swords, she splits the congregation of clouds.”
As the play ends and a wounded Shurpanakha flees to Lanka for sanctuary, Sita, Rama and Lakshmana heave a sigh of relief. The evil has passed, we are safe, they say. It won’t be long before they realise that the disaster has only begun, unleashed by the woman they have been mocking.