How can art resist the threat and blandishment of commercial gain? Can art make us more compassionate? These are the questions that excite playwright, journalist and composer Gowri Ramnarayan, one of the most powerful forces in the performing arts in India. As Artistic Director of the JustUs Repertory in Chennai, Ramnarayan is revitalizing Indian theater with ground breaking interpretations of modern classics and creation of new work that is relevant and where artists feel safe to take risks and push boundaries.
Ramnarayan’s latest works Yashodhara and Night’s End will be staged under the title Unspoken Conversations. The production features a cast of artists from India, along with local dancers Mythili Prakash and Sheejith Krishna, actor Akhila Ramnarayan, vocalist Amritha Murali and the playwright herself who serves as sutradhar and guide through the narratives.
In a kingdom nourished by the Ganges River, Prince Siddharta Gautama slips out of his bed chambers never to return for several years. He leaves behind his wife Yashodhara and son and embarks on a spiritual quest. Bharatanatyam dancer Mythili Prakash offers a moving portrait of a grief stricken Yashodhara abandoned by her husband and searching for answers within the palace walls. In Yashodhara, Ramnarayan explores the nature of relationships, their fragility and what makes them endure while Amritha Murali’s music poignantly depicts the pains of change. Equally compelling is Night’s End, a powerful drama about uplifting faith in the human spirit. Krishnan Nair (Sheejith Krishna) is a Kathakali dancer who works as a forest guard. His encounter with the tiger hunting tribals, the poaching mafia and romance with Chandini (Akhila Ramanarayan) is the setting for this work. The tiger, the tribals and the artist are affected in profound ways by forces of globalization. Using Hindi, Pali, and English narration, Ramnarayan’s unconventional production transcends boundaries and genres while maintaining her unmistakable voice.
You have said that myths have multiple layers; archetypes are continually reinterpreted, revalued. What does this mean for you?
Gowri Ramnarayan: With a myth we understand a whole nexus of emotions and thoughts intuitively, instantly. And they are universally so recognized by the collective unconscious, as well as the individual respondent. The meanings shift and gain new significations with the needs of each age.
Indian classical performing arts has always been about the Gods. What compels you to make a departure in “Night’s End?”
GR: Theater is not God-centric. To do theater is to protest against the establishment and all conventional thinking. I have written and directed several plays about contemporary times, including Water Lilies— which is set in three different places in the United States—a park in Columbus, Ohio, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, and Washington airport on 10/11. Even if I deal with the gods and heroes, it is only to raise questions about our lives today, to reflect my fears and anxieties.
What does the tiger represent in “Night’s End?”
GR: I don’t know about “represent.” To me the tiger images majesty, beauty, mystery and wonder. Things that are threatened, things on the brink of extinction. It can be that inspirational source of creativity within every one of us—something that awes and terrifies, but also nourishes and charges human imagination. So I ask, is the tiger safe in the forest? Can tribal and other marginalized people balance their way of life against the intrusions of the modern world? How can the oppressed—in any and every part of the world—assert their rights?
You are often described as an “intelligent dancer.” What does that mean to you?
Mythili Prakash: Intelligence in dance and choreography means the ability to investigate. The incredible scope of bharatanatyam and rigorous training process gives the dancer enough and more to work through in the practice of the form. But after a certain point, the dancer must begin to probe deeper, to uncover multiple resonances in choreography, and to develop a finer awareness of body, and sensitivity of mind. Having the opportunity to closely worth with and observe “intelligent artists,” constantly inspires me to strive to work toward this intelligence.
You are a solo dancer who choreographs on your own body. What did you learn about collaboration in this production?
MP: For the first time I had a director “directing” the choreographic process. It was refreshing to come to rehearsal with a blank slate. It takes trust and a kind of surrender to allow the creative process to develop in a way that is outside your comfort zone. To me the creative process is personal, almost intimate, and sharing it with someone requires vulnerability that I found liberating. Our focus was not on product but on process over many months. Collaboration is tricky and I am grateful for a director who gave me the freedom to question, challenge and open to finding the shared spaces.
Saturday, May 10, 4 p.m. Plaza Del Sol Hall, California State University, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge Tickets: $55, $35, $22 (students with id). (818) 677-3000. www.shaktibharatanatyam.com.