Dhananjay Motwani, as Lord Ram, and Anoushka Dave as Sita, in Naatak’s “Ramayan” on Sep. 5, 2022. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

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PALO ALTO, CA – Naatak, the Bay Area’s premiere Indian theater company celebrated its 100th show Sept. 4, featuring Goswami Tulsidas’ Ramayan — otherwise known as Ramcharitmanas — a more devotional version of the Ramayan.

The landmark show is being performed through Sept. 25 at the Cubberley Theater here. It is presented in Avadhi (a dialect of Hindi) with super-titles in English. Ramayan was adapted for the stage by Sujit Saraf, who is also directing the production.

The show is produced by Soumya Agastya and features music by Nachiketa Yakkundi.  

Sujit Saraf, Co-Founder of Naatak, opens the show by addressing the audience at Cubberley Theatre on Sep. 5, 2022. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

“Yesterday was our opening night and we received a standing ovation to a crowd of around 350. We have around 50 people in the ensemble cast of dancers, musicians and actors on the stage and about 30 people have helped put the show together,” said Saraf.

Reminiscing about selecting the Ramayan, the director said: “We needed a suitably large story for our 100th production, since our epics encompass a full range of human emotions. They are imaginative in the storytelling, like an army of monkeys marching to fight a ten headed demon King.”

“We have grown up with our epics and these are part of our consciousness. It seemed appropriate that this great Indian epic mark our 100th production,” said Saraf. 

A young Ram, played by Sanjhbati Ray, age 10, and a young Lakshman, played by Vihaan Ailiani, age 11, in Naatak’s “Ramayan” on Sep. 5, 2022. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

The Magnum Opus was presented in 100 minutes — a herculean task of tight direction in its own wake.

“Personally I grew up in a very, very religious home in a small town in India and my mother used to recite Sundarkand (fifth chapter in Ramayana where the adventures of Hanuman are narrated ) everyday and it was natural for me to select Ramayana as the 100th production for Naatak,” said Saraf.

The show began with eight dancers in a very well coordinated routine introducing Shiva and Parvati, their unusual wedding and the telling of the tales of Lord Ram by Lord Shiva to his wife. 

The timeless stories of the epic include the birth of Lord Ram and his brothers, their early education, marriage, and exile from Ayodhya. Sita’s capture by Ravan and the epic battle between Ram and Ravan were covered with directorial dexterity and deftness.

Richa Pareek as Kaikeyi and Sharvari Dixit as Manthara in Naatak’s “Ramayan” on Sep. 5, 2022. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

Newcomers and veteran Naatak performers alike joined this production, like Sharvari Dixit who plays Manthara and the role of Sagar, the ocean. She has been with the company since 1995. “I started as an usher,” says Dixit, who soon started singing and composing for the playhouse.

King Dasarath, played by Ajitesh Gupta, collapses after Ram is banished to the forest in Naatak’s “Ramayan” on Sep. 5, 2022. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.
Mona Sheth as Shurpanakha, in her first performance for Naatak, in the “Ramayan” on Sep. 5, 2022. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

“I couldn’t imagine a grander story than the Ramayan,” said Saraf. When explaining this version of the Ramayan in an after show Q&A, he said: “If I were to go to Tulsidas and ask him why didn’t you include this [piece], he’d say ‘who cares?’” 

Neeraj Chawla, as Hanuman, has his tail set on fire by Rajiv Nema’s Raavan during Naatak’s “Ramayan” on Sep. 5, 2022. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.
Lakshman, brother to Ram, is believed to be dead in Naatak’s “Ramayan” on Sep. 5, 2022. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

Naatak was founded in 1995 by students at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University. It has grown to become the most prominent and largest Indian theater company in the U.S. 

Naatak has a roster of more than 1,000 performers, drawn primarily from the tech industry in Silicon Valley. The arts organization has been declared Best Live Theatre in Silicon Valley by the San Jose Mercury News for seven years in a row beginning in 2015.

“I am a theater artist and I understand the limitations of my art and its reach. I have no complicated pretensions around what Naatak can do to change the world. The plays that we do can provoke a conversation, and incite a bit, but I am not an activist,” said Saraf.

“I want Naatak to continue doing beautiful plays and act as a platform of creative expression for the Indo American community. Naatak is the pride and joy of our community and we hope to continue being that,” said Saraf, noting that next year’s six productions will be announced in October.

Anoushka Dave in her fifth year with Naatak plays the role of Sita, in the “Ramayan” on Sep. 5, 2022. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.
Ram, Sita and Lakshman return home after defeating Raavan in Naatak’s “Ramayan” on Sep. 5, 2022. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.
Soumya Agastya, in her 18th show as a producer, takes a bow for Naatak’s “Ramayan” on Sep. 5, 2022. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

This story was produced in partnership with CatchLight as part of the CatchLight Local Visual Storytelling Initiative. To learn more about this collaborative model for local visual journalism, sign up for CatchLight’s newsletter.

Sree Sripathy

Sree Sripathy is a writer, photographer and disability advocate based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a 2022 CatchLight Local Fellow and part of the California Local Visual Desk program. Sree also...