For hundreds of years the story of Ram, the seventh avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, has remained a family favorite. Ram’s journey as told in the text of the Ramayana is the embodiment of chivalry and virtue. For centuries, entire communities would gather to witness the story of Ram told through the expressive art form of Bharatanatyam dance.
In the past, this performance could last 14 days, with a different story being told each day. However, if you don’t have 2 weeks of free time at your disposal, then you’re in luck.
Mandala South Asian Performing Arts presents “Diwali: The Story of Ram” on Oct. 8 at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance. The story will be told in one evening-length performance and combines classical Indian Bharatanatyam with other dance disciplines, world-renowned Rajasthani musicians, and a backdrop of digitally animated paintings. “Diwali” represents the day that Ram returns to the kingdom of Ayodhya where the citizens welcomed him by lighting thousands of glowing oil lamps. It is currently celebrated on Oct. 24 in a similar fashion by people of different faiths all over the world.
Of course, you can read about the story of Ram in the text of the Ramayana, but the tradition of gathering to see the tale told through Bharatanatyam dance dates back to before the written word was made widely available, and there is a difference.
Pranita Nayar, Executive Artistic Director of Mandala, in a recent interview with See Chicago Dance illuminated the difference between reading about the history and experiencing it firsthand. “A dance brings the story alive in a visual representation,” said Nayar, “It’s not just the body movement, but it is the costuming, it’s the lights, the music… it is a complete sensory experience; it is a visceral experience.” Nayar expresses her appreciation for seeing dance live and with others, and said that “It is important to sit with the community, with a group of people, and see the same story repeated again and again. Reading is a quiet activity. Going to a show is a communal effort, and especially after coming back out of the pandemic COVID, where we’ve all been alone and lonely, it’s important to gather again and celebrate.”
In a new twist, animated paintings will be projected as a backdrop with which the performers can interact. The paintings — each one depicting scenes from the story in miniature, enlarged for this performance — come from Mewar (Udaipur), a region in the Southern part of Rajasthan in Northern India and were commissioned by the Maharaja of Mewar in the 17th century. To use these historic paintings as a backdrop, much less to have them animated and interactive, is, according to Nayar, “the first time in Indian dance in Chicago [sic] that one is experimenting with it.”
Associate Artistic Director of Mandala, Ashwaty Chennat, expressed the challenge Mandala faced working with interactive projections. “It’s kind of like if you were in Hollywood, on one of these big Marvel movies, and you work with green screen. You don’t actually see what it is you are interacting with until the whole thing comes together.” Chennat likens the rehearsal process to that of being a collage artist, with the big picture only being realized in the final product. “We don’t have music now — we’ve been dancing based on story, beats and breathing together — and we’ll get the music and animations later and then we’ll weave it together in real time, because that’s what performers do.”
Despite this new technical aspect, the artists at Mandala are keen to maintain the integrity of traditional Bharatanatyam. “We are focusing a lot on the mudras that I use in classical Indian dance,” said Nayar, “because it is the mudras, the hand gestures, along with facial gestures, that bring out the narrative of the dance.” But Nayar also has an eye to innovate, saying that “Our dancers are highly trained in the classical form [of Bharatanatyam] and in ballet. They are able to move the practice of Bharatanatyam into the 21st century and make it more palatable for the audience. It is important to move forward.”
Other forms of dance are also being incorporated into the performance, and Chennat expressed excitement about one part in particular, the epic battle between Ram and Ravana. “I’m most excited about the final battle scene, because we have all of these movement artists — capoeira, contemporary, ballet, house, breaking — interpreting the battle through their own movement styles. Seeing that exploration is very exciting!”
Chennat is adamant that this conglomeration of styles is an attempt to create a work that is a living, breathing embodiment of the city and its various cultures and art forms, and said that “We’re trying to create a version that is relevant to Chicago. We think it’s important to draw upon the cultures here and to create together. That’s how we continue to find relevancy with other cultures in the diaspora.”
It is this combination of tradition and innovation that makes performances like “Diwali: The Story of Ram” so important, because it is only through change that the past stays alive. “200 years ago, there was no electricity in India, they were dancing by the lamplight,” exclaimed Nayar, “Then they came to the auditorium stage where the music was amplified, then they moved on to recorded music… we do our best to stay current and find what attracts the audience without undermining the art.”
To Chennat, a multi-cultural, multi-artist influence is unavoidable and appreciated, and said that “with globalization and having access to Youtube, I think there is more encouragement for people to be experimental with traditional arts. The variations on costuming, jewelry and other people’s interpretations of the dance and the stories... Nothing is what it once was.”
From India to Thailand, from Bali to Chicago, now is your chance to take part in an ancient tradition but with a modern twist. “Diwali: The Story of Ram” is an old tale that still has lessons to teach us in the present.
“Diwali: The Story of Ram” will be presented on Oct. 8 at 7:30pm at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St. For tickets, please visit MandalaArts.org.