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The return of Ram

The return of Ram

Author: Nirmala Ravindran
Publication: India Today
Date: January 26, 2009
URL: http://indiatoday.digitaltoday.in/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=25413&sectionid=25&Itemid=1&issueid=90

Introduction: New interpretations, serials, plays and even politics ensure Ram and the Ramayana stay embedded in the Indian psyche.

As one walks through the narrow lanes of Mylapore, Chennai, the lilting melody of P. Susheela's voice crooning, Raman ethanai Raman adi… (Ram, there are so many Rams my dear) drifts onto the streets. From the film Lakshmi Kalyanam, this song continues to symbolise the role of Ram in the popular imagination and in the arts, endlessly fascinating poets, dancers, musicians, scholars and filmmakers.

If Rajkumar Santoshi's Rs 100-crore adaptation of the Ramayana, starring Ajay Devgan, is on hold, Mani Ratnam's bilingual Ravana in Tamil and Hindi, starring Abhishek and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Govinda, is on a roll. Soon India will have both a Bollywood and a Hollywood version of the epic in hitech animation.

Maya entertainment will produce the Indian version, Ramayana-The Epic directed by Chetan Desai. Due for an early 2009 release, the film has Manoj Bajpai, Juhi Chawla and Ashutosh Rana lending their voices to the characters. The Hollywood version from Liquid Comics and Mandalay Pictures, Ramayan 3392 AD, is a 21st century reimagining due for release in 2011.

It is this universal fascination for the exotic Indian story that led Ruhaena Mubarak, a Russian contemporary and movement artist of Lebanese origin to India. Mubarak is working on a solo piece, with live music, based on the Ramayana. "I was first introduced to the Ramayana in Thailand and needless to say, it is very different from both Valmiki's and Tulsidas' version. So, I decided to search for my own Ram, through movement and music."

What is it about a story that has been told a million times and can be told anew? Ram remains a character waiting to be unravelled repeatedly.

"He is much more than the Ayodhya temple, a bunch of right-wing goons and the Ram Sethu," says Indian studies scholar Mani Iyer. Something that former Karnataka chief minister Veerappa Moily would agree with. His five-volume Kannada epic Ramayana Mahanveshanam is probably the most complete exploration of the subject.

"My aim was to explore the Ram Tatva or the true principles of the story from a secular and modern point of view," says Moily. Steering clear of the machinations of politicians, novelist Devdutt Pattnaik finds nothing controversial about the epic or its immortal hero. "Controversial to whom? Politicians, media or the common man?" he says, as his book, The Story of Ram, hits the stands across the country.

A recent adaptation of Bhavabhuti's Ramayana by Delhi-based theatre director and puppeteer Anurupa Roy's About Ram, was a dramatic amalgamation of movement, music, animation and puppetry funded by the India Foundation for the Arts.

About Ram brought out subtle shades of grey in the otherwise laudatory tale of Ram. "The challenge for every artist or writer is to find something new in this 3,000-year-old epic, told over and over again. We are all seeking something new that has not been explored before," says Roy of her version that is about the "journey inside Ram's head".

The performers that keep switching from actor to puppeteer lend their skills along with Vishal Dhar's brilliant animation creating a near-perfect ambience on stage. Even Hyderabad-based Padmashree awardee and famous dancer Ananda Shankar chose the Ramayana as her subject of performance at the Natya Kala Conference in Chennai last year, where she was the convener.

With two new TV serials, and dubbed versions in at least four languages, four new plays, three new novels and a whole gamut of dance, movement and music-based recitals all inspired by this story, it seems like it won't be just politicians chanting the name of the Lord this election season. The children's magazine Chandamama just released 12,000 copies of the new 425-page graphic illustrated version of the epic, which sold out in weeks and has gone into reprint. No matter how the story be told, the devout need no reason to think of the Lord.

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