Shobana, the renowned classical dancer and actress, was in Ann Arbor yesterday for a performance organized by AID. I’m not sure what the predominantly south-Indian audience expected, but Maya Ravan – a twist in the tale (details here), was anything but a traditional dance-drama. “Fusion” is a convenient short-hand at best – the performance included dances set to flamenco music, Rahman’s Vande Mataram and Chinnamma Chilakamma (from Meenaxi).
Shobana’s interpretation of the Ramayana from Ravana’s perspective (details here) was interesting overall, and while the show may have been too “filmi” for the purists in the audience, I enjoyed it and was *really* kicked to see Ravana dancing on stage to the song chinnamma chilakamma…thithli daboch li maine (literal translation: i’ve captured a butterfly) celebrating his abduction of Sita!
While I enjoyed the show for the most part, there were two moments that were disturbing. To be sure, Maya Ravan did re-cast Ravana in more sympathetic terms and reminded the audience that there are always many ramayanas. The re-interpretation also took on one of the most important parts of the Ramayana – Rama’s refusal to take Sita back because she had lived in another man’s house, Sita’s trial by fire, and her eventual banishment from Rama’s kingdom. I was hoping Rama would be taken to task, but it wasn’t to be. Rama is let off the hook and remains a noble figure. Lakshmana, his younger brother, is portrayed as the one responsible for casting aspersions on Sita’s chastity (Ramayana from Sita’s perspective here).
And the other moment involved an opening dance set to Rahman’s Vande Mataram. The piece could easily have been commissioned by the Indian government as part of the India Shining campaign! And what’s worse, not only did the dancers reduce contemporary India to cricket, beauty pageants, and call centers, they mixed in the sound of machine-gun fire and evoked a sense of nationalism that was way too limiting and conservative.