When north marries south

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It’s rare to find a spectacular musical show on the great epic Ramayana following Goswami Tulsidas’ text in the Kerala-based Mohiniyattam style. And that’s what eminent danseuse Mom Ganguly has been doing these days with her team of young talent to lend fruition to her aesthetic vision. On board is the mentor-guide bhajan samrat Anup Jalota, whose legendary devotional renditions still keep ringing in the ears of avid listeners.

Together, the duo is brainstorming over a project to churn out a delightful musical titled, The Ballads of Sree Rama.
It is probably the first time in history of Indian dance-drama that the eventful tale of Lord Rama, written by the iconic 16th-century Hindu Indian poet-saint, reformer and philosopher Tulsidas in his immortalised magnum opus — Shri Ramcharitamanas dohas — will be celebrated through a South-Indian dance format. It will be an eclectic mix of the Awadhi storytelling from North India with a classical dance form from the Deccan region. The fluid, rich, dramatic content of a Mohiniyattam musical will further catalyse the presentation. Thus, there will be an interesting marriage between two different musical traditions and cultures co-existing within India to showcase a pan-Indian audio-visual piece.
To the uninitiated, sage Valmiki had originally composed the epic in Sanskrit, which was restricted to the Brahmin class and the royal patrons. The high-flown language never reached the common masses for their knowledge and assimilation. So, being a great devotee of Rama, the ruler of Ayodhya in Hindu mythology and the seventh avatar (reincarnate) of God Vishnu in Hindu religious scriptures, Tulsidas retold the Sanskrit Ramayana in the vernacular Awadhi dialect during the reign of Emperor Akbar, thereby aiding the parable of Rama to percolate down to the grassroots. The ice thawed with the language barrier being instantly broken. From the chaste Sanskrit verses usually read by the erudite Brahmins, the lingo now became supple and more colloquial in tone for the less literate folks to grasp conveniently. It also gave an impetus to the Hindu religion, especially in the northern parts like Lucknow and Delhi in Uttar Pradesh or even the central zone of Madhya Pradesh, plus in the eastern part of Rajasthan, where the divinity of Rama is being widely worshipped. The music that emanated from this text as an integral offshoot further boosted the cult pioneered by one of the proponents of the Bhakti movement — Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
“We have decided to adopt this particular gem of Indian literature as we feel the text is already penned in a ballad format. So, translating the same on stage in a musical pattern won’t be much of an inconvenience to me as a choreographer,” said Ganguly, the creative director of Kaishiki Arts and Research Centre.
Music per se is a community pursuit in villages, emphasises Ganguly. “Local people gather under a tree or in their courtyards to indulge themselves in dance and song, depicting scenes and episodes from the eternal epic. Crossing the linguistic obstacle that was prevalent before, the human form of Lord Rama at once came to be noticed and eulogised, more so with his laudable exploits on earth as an able king to his subjects and the rare feat he achieved as a warrior on the battlefield. For the past one year, I’ve been thoroughly studying and continuously researching on this area and the theme has grown on me,” she says, on her present pre-occupation. With singer-composer Jalota’s tight grip over the epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and his understanding of their ingrained subtle nuances, Ganguly fathoms he is the right choice for the job of a sutradhar (narrator), thereby connecting important links and the nitty-gritties of a fabled literary script.
It is true, that managing the entire expanse of Rama’s life and his brave conquests will be a bit unwieldy on stage. So, the script has been carefully dovetailed to include only the most significant and relevant chapters from the total sapta kandas (seven cantos) of the Ramayana to be rendered in a short, compact capsule. “We’ll just incorporate a matrix of highlights to unfold the crucial incidents, some intriguing, unknown facts and events in a one-and-half hour-long recital,” assures Ganguly.
Knowing the musical compositions like the back of his hand, Jalota in his mellifluous voice croons the lines: “Ho, Raghukul Reet Sada Chali Ayi Praan Jaye Par Vachan Na Jayi...Jai Jai Ram”.
Adding further, he shared, “This venture is really exciting and challenging for me. We have already begun our journey and am enjoying every moment of it to seamlessly put together this production for the discerning audiences by this year-end in December.” Jalota promises to appear in the character of Goswami Tulsidas and sing live on stage, which is going to be an added bonus for the viewers.
With intentions of launching the colourful spectacle on a lavish scale, keeping in mind all the logistic concerns, Ganguly informs that a crew of 24-25 members, including the technicians will take part in the endeavour. “We are planning to stage the first show at the fall of 2013. Whether Kolkata, where I hail from, will be our first destination or not, is still not known. But, I would love to open the musical in Kolkata as I belong to this place. Besides, the other three metros will follow on the schedule as the talks are already underway. Also, states like UP, Gujarat and MP, where Lord Rama is religiously worshipped will be tapped into,” she revealed. This apart, plans are afoot to fly the production abroad as well. “We are keeping an eye on the African countries, Europe, USA and the south-east Asian belts,” she added.
While Mohiniyattam will be the main dance form to forward the plotline, an array of fight sequences will be portrayed through Kaladipayettu and Chhau as well.
Slated for a graphical representation with explicit backscreen projections, Ganguly aims to blend in new-age technology with traditional art forms. While costumes will be designed by Niloy Dasgupta, the creative head of OVM (Odissi Vision Movement), the voice-over for the commentary will be rendered through a narration by Nivedita Bhattacharya. The script will be drafted by Ganguly, exchanging notes and discussions with Jalota and of course, the musical scores will rest on the shoulders of the ace bhajan maestro himself, since he is already attuned to the notes of such mythological sagas.
Jalota’s involvement will be complete justice to the production, feel the organisers. “We would definitely not move away from the sahitya (literary context), as that will tantamount to tampering with the subject. But, having said that, dance has its own idiom of expression and Mohiniyattam would certainly bear its signature touch,” explained Ganguly. The ballad will be executed in two versions — one for the Hindi-speaking audience and the other for the English-speaking audience.
A troupe of 15 dancers, including both men and women, besides six musicians will pitch in their skills for this production. Also, a company of live artistes from Kerala, Kolkata and Delhi will travel around for the show. “This is going to be an attractive spectacle, wherein people would get to watch a modified, contemporary format of the Ramayan in a live Ramleela premise. Condensed into a couple of hours stage-act, the key conceptualiser’s challenge will to be to show an ocean inside a small pot,” declares Jalota.
Riding high on reliving the epic in a magnificent style with a grand modernised narrative structure, The Ballads of Sree Rama claims to captivate audiences through spell-binding and panoramic audio-visual effects. “With all our concerted efforts, we hereby pledge to mete out a pan-Indian essence to a wide cross-section of viewers, transcending several geographical boundaries,” sums up Ganguly.

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