Ramayan, Naatak's 100th Production
Updated: Sep 24, 2022
During the pandemic shut down, I had watched a few of Naatak's zoom plays. Ramayan was my first live Naatak play in a theater since the shutdown. I saw the performance on Sunday Sept 17 at the Cubberley Auditorium in Mountain View, CA.
What was different compared to the “before times?” First, everyone in the audience was masked, thank heavens. Second, there is no paper program. The pdf which I received later, is elegant and colorful, with photos from the show as well as thumbnails of the previous 99 plays by Naatak.
I have written previously about this epic in a review of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novel “The Forest of Enchantments,” the Ramayana told from Sita’s perspective, for which the author derived inspiration from the Krittivasi Ramayana, steeped in Bengali customs and Bengali cuisine. Naatak’s play was a rendition of the Tulsi Ramayana, Ramcharitamanas, written by the 16th century poet Tulsidas in Awadhi, a regional language accessible to all people, not just the Brahminical elite well-versed in Sanskrit.
I believe I purchased the very last ticket for that show and ended up sitting in the second row. I craned my neck to glance up at the supertitles every so often to not miss the meaning of the lovely verse. This is a story well-known to anyone of Indian origin, so it was not difficult to follow along.
No surprise, Naatak put on a terrific show. To my astonishment, the actor who played Ram (Dhananjay Motwani) is quite a hottie. This modern Ram clearly hits the gym on a regular basis, displaying rippling muscles, six pack and all. His body had been smeared with some sort of paint, ostensibly to make it more luminous. It was an attractive effect.
Raavan was played by the captivating Rajiv Nema. He’s played a don in the past, for example, Bhai in Naatak’s Rashomon, and is as gripping, even terrifying as Raavan as he was as Bhai.
Hell had no rage like Shoorpanakha (Mona Sheth) scorned, as Ram and Lakshman taunted and then disfigured her. (And look where it got them all. In the end, things turned out ok for Ram and Lakshman, but poor Sita. She paid for it more than most, didn’t she?) The wily Mandodari is played fittingly by Prema Shetty.
Ajitesh Gupta, clad in feathers, commendably depicted Jatayu, the beloved, brave vulture king who gave his life trying to save Sita (Anoushka Dave) from Raavan. Neeraj Chauhan was a terrific Hanuman, swinging his mace and his powerful, expanding tail.
There were several children in the production, and that offered much amusement, especially to a little audience member seated in the very front, who chortled with delight as his contemporaries leaped about on stage as soldiers in the Monkey Army and the Demon Army.
It seemed to me that the music and dance routines have taken on more of a prominent role, which is just wonderful. The music, under the direction of Nachiketa Yakkundi, was as always, moving and beautiful. Compared to previous shows I’ve seen, there were more musicians, this time on both sides of the stage on the proscenium, not just one side. It was lovely to hear a range of voices and instruments.
The dance routines were captivating. The colorful costumes, expressive faces and gestures of the dancers, merged with the mellifluous music to produce a breathtaking effect.
Tulsidas opted for a happy ending: Ramcharitamanas ends with Rama and Sita, reunited, returning to Ayodhya for the reign of Ram Rajya, a time when Ram ruled according to Dharma, and all was well in the world. So does Naatak’s play, ably directed by Sujit Saraf. This production is a fitting commemoration of 27 years of South Asian theatre in the US.