An interview with Anurupa Roy, director of About Ram
1st May 2008
by Venetia Ansell
Where did the concept for About Ram come from?
Vishal Dar and I got talking when we were both in Indonesia about a puppetry-animation tie up. The real impetus was watching a Balinese performance of the Ramayan, which was totally different to the Indian versions – I became much more interested in the epic and started to look at the different versions of the Ramayan.
Which text or interpretation of the Ram story did you decide to use?
I finally decided upon Kirtidas’ and Bhavabhuti’s versions – although in fact the show draws on several influences outside these two texts as well. Both these are derived texts based on only part of the Ramayan – the last sequence when Ram and Sita return to Ayodhya. They’re returning home triumphant after 14 years of exile. They enter the grand palace that Lakshman has built them and survey the beautiful scroll paintings on the wall which depict episodes of their lives. Sita pauses in front of Ravana’s image and suddenly doubt strikes Ram – did Lanka change Sita? Our entire show is derived from this one doubt. It’s a very human love story turned sour.
Can you describe the figure of Ram in ‘About Ram’?
The show begins with Ram sitting at the seafront looking across to Lanka in utter despair – he cannot cross the water to Lanka; he is powerless to do anything. Our Ram is a very human Ram, not an about-to-be deified Ram. And we focus on his mental torment, his struggle to decide what to do when he begins to doubt Sita, and his loneliness. In this version Ram leaves Sita. He is walking towards her but at every step Ram heads emerge pulling him in different directions.
Can you describe the type of puppetry you use here?
There are three puppeteers for each puppet, and all three of them are visible. They don’t hide, they’re part of the show. We used an adapted form of the Japanese bunraku (a very structured form which gave rise to Noh and Kabuki theatre in Japan). Having three people means the puppet can be moved a lot more, allowing it to simulate swimming for instance. I see the puppeteers as an extension of the puppet and the choreography we developed has them do a ‘group dance’. A central theme in all our work is to explore the relationship between the puppet and the puppeteers.
And why the use of animation with puppetry?
Animation tends to be seen as divorced from the theatre. Vishal Dar worked with an Andhra shadow puppeteer to develop animated characters – these were made in parts and scanned in to the computer and then reassembled. Almost like real puppets in fact but these are layered images, almost 3D. We wanted to see how far can the collaboration between these two art forms can go. There are three animation sequences: memories, Sita’s beautiful prison-garden and the story telling episode. Using animation gives a lot more scope for showing the inner workings of mind.
Is ‘About Ram’ intended for children or adults?
We never dreamed of it as a children’s show originally, but at the premiere in Delhi children loved it. In India it’s a universal story for all ages, and different people like different parts. Children love the Hanuman bits; while adults relate to the loneliness that’s portrayed. Although one 7 year old boy asked to be brought back to a second performance just to watch the ending again, I think he related to Ram’s loneliness.
How do you think ‘About Ram’ would be received in the West?
Ram and his dilemma and his struggles have universal appeal. The religious text is very different, and I, even as an Indian, don’t relate to it. In fact, the televised Ramayana didn’t attract me as a child – Ram was just too good, how could I relate to that? We’re taking it to Israel in July and hopefully Spain later this year, with Switzerland on the cards for next year. We performed it in Taiwan last year and the audience surprisingly liked the slower bits, especially the ending. It’s impossible to predict the reaction in each country.
How does ‘About Ram’ relate to the original Ramayana?
The primary thing we wanted to draw attention to was the fact that the Ramayan has no ‘original’. Tulsidas and Valmiki’s versions are seen as the main ones but in fact there are millions of versions. In the Sri Lankan one Ram is the hero. There is no one, correct, original version. The second thing we wanted to do was to involve young people, get them interested in this rather than thinking, ‘Oh no, the Ramayan how boring!’ We wanted to make them look at it afresh.