Sita might be a character mentioned in a centuries-old epic, but she is very much relevant even today, says renowned dancer Anita Ratnam. “She has never really disappeared from our conscience. We still use the phrases Agni Pariksha and Lakshmana Rekha that are attributed to Sita. We see them being used in politics, social commentary, and when people are challenged,” says the dancer, who took the timeless icon of womanhood as the central character to weave a famous production called A Million Sitas that has been performed on several stages over the years.
After debuting in one of the city sabhas back in 2011 during the December season, the production has evolved to soak in more theatrical elements and use of props, and now, it is all ready to be staged in Malaysia as part of the Naga Women 2015 festival. “I have made the production more universal rather than just using carnatic music,” says Anita, who will be performing in two centres – Kuala Lumpur and Penang.
A Million Sitas was recently staged in Kolkata to rave reviews, and will also travel to New York in May as part of the monthly Epic Storytelling Event, after Malaysia. “I am going to be adapting the production slightly differently for each country. For example, in Malaysia, I will be wearing the Malay headgear. I will also be learning a few Malay words in order to be able to interact with the audience, and try to personalise and universalise Sita’s character,” she says. In New York, there would be no headgear, and the performance would adopt a more simple approach, she says.
Anita says all the dialogues have been taken from the various versions of Ramayana that she researched for six years. “I went for the non-regular versions of Ramayana — Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu, Himachal and Jain renditions of the stories. There are more than 3,000 versions of Ramayanas, not just the ones by Valmiki, Kamban or Tulsidas. In some, Raavan is the hero, in some Sita is the nature, a leaf; if you go to Cambodia, Rama and Sita are brother and sister. The versions keep changing, adapting to our times,” she says.
A Million Sitas will bring in a connection between Sita and four women – Mandodari, Shoorpanaka, Manthara, Ahalya – who have been crucial in her life. Mandodari saved her life, Manthara was the reason that Rama went to the forest, Ahalya is a symbol of what happens when you are very beautiful yet completely neglected and Shoorpanaka was a bold, passionate and honest women who suffered the consequences of being so, she explains. “It is a piece about women voices coming together. It doesn’t insult or give any kind of negative views on Rama, it is just that when you evoke the female voice, you see the story in a new light. It gives flesh, voice and a contour to these women, who are considered slightly dubious shadowy figures, who have got some kind of black mark. The point is it is not a black mark, it is the way society thinks that women need to look and behave,” she says.
Going beyond Bharathanatyam
A Million Sitas doesn’t limit itself to one particular dance form. Instead, Anita elaborates, “My performance is a form called New Bharatham. I have taken all the physical vocabulary from the various styles I have studied — kalari, mohiniattam, kathakali among others — and made it my own. This is not something I can teach, it has grown organically within me, with bharathanatyam as my base.”