It is not Rama, Ravana or Sita, but less-heard women from the epic, including Urmila, Surpanakha and Mandodari, who will narrate their stories in the upcoming theatre performance, ‘What She Said’, by JustUs Repertory.
These women are brought to life through actors Sunandha Raghunathan, Akhila Ramnarayan and Aarabi Veeraraghavan — making the play the 13-year-old theatre group’s first with an all-woman cast. The artistes will assume the voices of the hunchback Manthara (maid who convinced Kaikeyi that the throne belonged to her son Bharata), the nose-less and ear-less Surpanakha (sister of Ravana), Urmila (sister of Sita, and wife of Rama’s brother Lakshmana), Mandodari (the queen consort of Ravana), Tara (the wife of monkey king Vali, and later the wife of his brother Sugriva) and Shanta (Rama’s elder sister). “All the characters seen onstage react after bearing witness to cruelty — be it Rama being exiled, Sita abducted or Ravana killed. Their voices of helplessness are post hoc musings,” remarks Sunandha.
Aham Sita, a previous dance production that she had worked on led her to this play, Gowri tells us at a rehearsal ahead of the performance. “The dance production was about Sita, but it had other women characters like Ahalya and Urmila, set the stage for her. Sita left my mind, but the women kept haunting me. I kept thinking about the situations in which the women found themselves, and the anger and sorrow they had to face to survive,” she recalls. Working with mythological characters, however, brings her queries from the audiences if the original Ramayana by Valmiki also contained similar elements, notes Gowri. “This is my Ramayana. And only the outline of the play is the Ramayana. The anger, resentment and sorrow that the women characters feel can be seen in our contemporary world as well,” she clarifies.
She did not want to iconise the characters and instead viewed them as ordinary human beings, the playwright says. “The opinions of these women characters in the play are not mine; that is the way I see them reacting to the situations they were in.”
Bharatanatyam dancer and actor Aarabi says the characters allowed her to know herself and the women around her. “These women are from myth, but they could be anyone. Gowri akka used to give me examples from real life while playing the roles, so the story becomes one that I can relate to,” she says, adding, “Unlike playing the role of Sita, wherein a certain kind of body language is expected, these women are less-known. So, it is like a blank canvas while enacting them.” The six scenes of the play, interspersed with music and physical movements, will also showcase interactions among the female characters. “There is solidarity between the women who have faced tragic incidents. The play is about trying to put yourself in others’ shoes,” points out Akhila.
What She Said will be staged on December 8 at Rukmini Arangam, Kalakshetra, at 6 pm.