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Warrior. Smart. Luminous. Strong. Best mother. Great lover. Strategist. Honest. Almost perfect. Fierce. Enacte’s Vinita Sud posed a 1-minute challenge to Drs. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Anita Ratnam to speak phrases and words that brought Sita alive for them. The quest to find Sita united the speakers and the audience through an evening that explored the all-too human goddess who continues to have an enduring impact on the soul of India. This is just the kind of event that explores artistic and intellectual horizons that Enacte aims to bring to Bay area audiences. Dr. Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee talked about the process of writing her new book – The Forest of Enchantments and Dr. Anita Ratnam is all set to present A Million Sitas on Saturday, November 9th. Her production is being co-sponsored by Enacte, Indiaspora and Laya Dhwani Academy of Performing Arts.  https://www.eventbrite.com/e/a-million-sitas-tickets-69455486229 

Through the evening, we learnt about how both of the artists have journeyed to find Sita for themselves. Looking back at her early days of training in Bharatanatyam under Guru Adyar K. Lakshmanan, Dr. Anita Ratnam in her opening remarks said, “A popular compositionJanaki Ramana in Bharatanatyam refers to that Lord Rama who married Sita and then the whole composition goes on to only describe the greatness of Rama. Other compositions like Seethamma Mayamma and the innumerable compositions of Saint Thyagaraja celebrating his ishta daivam Rama form a big part of the cannon of Carnatic music. Given this oversized impression of Lord Rama and the primacy with which he has been celebrated, it takes more for an artist to find Sita and to tell her story.” And, that’s exactly what Anita has done – she has delved into various versions of the Ramayana including contemporary voices to find her own “voice” to bring alive Sita’s story. Her production A Million Sitas brings that unique  “voice” to the stage. And, through her production, Sita’s story has resonated with women all over, she said. In Durban, South Africa women who watched the production insisted that Sita’s story was an African story, she shared, expressing awe at this resonance. 

Dr. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni spoke about how she had been blessed years ago by elders with the words – “May you be like Sita.”  “This invoking of Sita’s name made me bristle as a young girl,” she said, “because I associated Sita with someone who was meek and humble. The research that I have done over ten years looking into the various versions of the Ramayana – Valmiki to Tulsidas, Kamban, the Bengali Krittibasi to folktales from around India all point to someone far different – she is the one who displayed enormous strength, making critical decisions in her life while standing by her principles.” Her book, The Forest of Enchantments is told in the voice of that strong Sita. The book has seen strong demand all over, thanks to readers’ ongoing quest to find her story through the written word. I have written a review of the book here.

Dr. Anita Ratnam pointed out a crucial point of difference between the written word which is frozen in time to the multi-layered ever changing nature of a live performance. She confessed that her production A Million Sitas has been staged about 40 times now, and each time there is some ephemeral quality that has shifted within her and onstage that makes the process of creation and performance something that is vulnerable and accessible. “Mythological fiction is the genre that is the fastest-selling genre in India because all of us want to recover or learn about these characters. Modern women relate to her – she was a single mother at a time when there was no term for women who lived a life like hers. And, in her life, she faced moments similar to that experienced by women today where the glass shattered and try as you might, when one attempts to put it all back together, it can never go back to what it was before. These emotions make her accessible to all.” 

Watch this production onstage this Saturday. Details are here. 

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is a writer with India Currents magazine.

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