Monday, January 24, 2005

(T) August 24, 2003 - Lights, Shadows, Action!

I WAS indeed privileged to have the opportunity to watch Ravana Chhaya, possibly one of the oldest types of shadow puppet theatre still alive today. It was strange how I could relate to its old age and yet enjoy the performance with child-like fascination.

The art form from Orissa (north-east India) almost became extinct in the middle of the last century due to a lack of proper recognition and patronage. It has survived thus far through the efforts of two very dedicated men: Guru Kathinanda Das and his disciple, Guru Kolha Charan Sahoo.

In the 1930s and 40s, Kathinanda worked at getting royal patronage for the art and introduced new methods and techniques. Kolha Charan, as he's popularly known, joined the effort while still in his teens, becoming a disciple and putting up shows to earn money to support the art. Kathinanda died in 1952, and Kolha Charan has continued to dedicate his life to the revival of Ravana Chhaya.

The humble – really humble: his faded orange garb actually had little holes in it when I saw him! – and unassuming man now directs Ravan Chhaya Natya Sansad, the organisation that promotes and teaches the art form. He has performed all over India as well as other parts of the world and has received numerous awards for his efforts.

The Indian High Commission invited Kolha Charan and his four disciples (Sri Sibaprasad Das, Sri Khageswara Sahoo, Sri Hemanta Kumar Sahu and Sri Sudarshan Pradhan) to Malaysia last Sunday to perform the epic Ramayana. They performed at the Temple of Fine Arts in Kuala Lumpur. It was a wonderfully communal setting with kids sprawled on the mat to watch the hour-long performance. (The full-length Ramayana usually takes 21 days to complete!)

It was amazing how the simple play of light, shadow and movement, accompanied by singers and music, could engage the senses of fascination and excitement – and give the expensive high-tech animations of the Disneys and the Pixars a run for their money!

Scholars regard shadow puppet theatre as the forerunner of the cinema. Indeed, the white silk screen set on stage did resemble a cinema screen; the wooden frame that supported the screen and was wrapped in black cloth formed a square cubicle in which Kolha Charan sat with his assistants.

The guru still insists on using a castor oil lamp as it gives the right form to the light and density of illumination from behind the screen. The shadow play began when he lit the lamp.

Two performers stood at the side of the stage to sing and play the music instruments. One played the khanjanis (tambourine) while the other switched between the ramkhathi (two pieces of wood stroked together) and cymbals; both sang. The mood of the music was light and yet exciting, and the tempo was always very fast. The combined effects of the percussion instruments and the singing created an ambience that took one back to the jungles of India.

At the beginning of the play, the shadow of Lord Ganesh and Lord Sri Rama appeared. This was to pay obeisance to their deities. The story of Ramayana was then unfolded in six kandas (chapters).

The Adya Kanda recounted the birth of Rama and his three brothers, Lakshmana, Bharat and Satrughna, and Rama’s subsequent journey with the sage Vishwamitra. The Ayodhya Kanda included the episodes of Kaikeyi, the banishment of Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana, and their meeting with Surpanakha. The Arnyaka Kanda depicted Maricha in the guise of the golden deer, the luring of Sita from the magic circle, and her abduction by a disguised Ravana. The Sundara Kanda replayed the adventures of the devoted monkey King, Hanuman, who goes in search of Sita. The Lanka Kanda depicted the fight between Lakshmana and Indrajit, and between Rama and Ravana, followed by Rama’s victory. In the last chapter, the Uttara Kanda, Rama, Sita, and Laskhmana return to Ayodhya triumphant. It also recounted Sita’s banishment and the birth of Lava and Kusha in the hermitage of the sage Valmiki, the composer-poet of the Ramayana.

The epic was filled with valour and victory, chastity and charity, and ideals of morality and goodness. The timelessness of this tale is built on the strength of its themes of human behaviour in times of trials and tribulations.

The puppets were introduced by moving them upwards from below the screen. More often than not, the protagonist puppets would have a place on the right side of the screen (from the audience’s point of view), slowly moving to the left, whereas the antagonist puppets would start from the left and move right.

Sahoo explained that Ravana Chhaya is unique compared to other shadow play theatre in that we can see the colours of the shadows – mainly red and black. The deerskin creates a reddish effect while the sambar (stag) skin creates a black impression on the screen. The colours can be used to identify the characters – for example, Rama and Sita are red, and Ravana and Hanuman are black – and to create two-dimensional special effects. One such instance was the scene where the hermit tried to lure Sita out from a hut. Two puppets, a hut (black shadow) and Sita (red shadow), were cast against each other to show the effect of Sita sitting inside the hut. In this sense, the master puppeteer was flexible enough to use not only one but two layers of shadow.

If you think acting is difficult, consider bobbing around pieces of dried, preserved skin to tell a convincing story! But with a little suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience and the understanding that the puppets are symbolic representations of real characters, it can be done. That much was certain judging by the way the kids squealed with delight whenever the bad guys lost. It was certainly not difficult to lose oneself in the story, especially when it was subtly interlinked with religious ethos, mythology, rituals and culture.

All these are documented in the book that Sahoo wrote and published entitled Ravana Chhaya: Shadow Puppet Theatre of Orissa – Its Origin, Existence & Development. And much to my delight, he gave me a copy! I do not profess to be an expert in the art of puppetry or other traditional art forms. Rather, I am just passing on the little nuggets of knowledge that these people, who have dedicated their lives to preserving their art, have so generously given. But, sadly, I have come to realise that some art forms are dying not because of a lack of effort to preserve them, but because they are no longer a vital part of life, having been reduced to mere entertainment.

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