Ravana, the legend untold | Sunday Observer

Ravana, the legend untold

Wikipedia page on Ramayana states that it ‘is an ancient Indian epic poem which narrates the struggle of the divine prince Rama to rescue his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. Along with the Mahabharata, it forms the Sanskrit Itihasa.’ However, we constantly forget that it forms our, Sri Lanka’s Itihasa (history).

Providing an alternative to Valmiki’s Ramanyana written around 500 BC, the University of Colombo, along with Bhadraji Mahinda Jayatilaka and Thanuja Bandula of Ranara Academy evoke a part of history that is forgotten; Lanka’s legend of its own son, told at its own pace.

Instead of portraying Ravana to be the 10 headed villain, the ballet opera ‘Ravana the legend untold’ performed by students of the University of Colombo present a grand king, a kind, intelligent man, widely respected, and who detested fighting. Someone compared to a thousand suns.

In the script written by Jayatilaka, Ravana does bring Sita to Lanka, to avenge Lakshman for hurting his sister Surpanaka. Ravana treats Sita well, teaches her skills, and at the end tells her that she is his estranged daughter who was asked to be murdered as, according to the prophesies, had she lived, she would tarnish her father’s good name.

Thus, Ramayana got another interpretation: Valmiki’s and Bhadraji’s. Based on his own book, Sri Ravana Puwatha, Bhadraji Mahinda Jayatileka writes the script, basing his characterization on his research into the pre-historic era based on archeology, and ancient palmyrah-leaf manuscripts. “You get part of the story from your research and you fill the gaps with various possibilities that you want to present”, he explained.

We live in an era where mythology and reality have vague boundaries. Recently, a US TV Channel showed images produced by NASA that ‘Ram Setu’ between Sri Lanka and India could, in fact, be far away from mythology. The 30 mile long rocks that were found in between the two countries are dated to be 7,000 years old, though they are sitting on 4,000 year old sand, implying that those rocks were placed on the sand, and a geologist named Dr Alan Lester was quoted in the TV promo saying, the stones were brought from afar and set atop the sandbar island chain.

In this context, rethinking Ravana story, Bhadraji not only reinvents Ravana, but also presents his brother Kumbhakarna in a different light; not as the lethargic prince who sleeps for six months a year, but as an agriculturist, an intelligent man who meditates, and acts reasonably.

In this portrayal, Rama is respected too. “There are those who revere Rama and Hanuman as Gods, and their sentiments are respected. We just want to give a voice to Ravana, without branding him as a villain, and explore other possibilities.”Jayatilaka said, he was travelling in India, when he learnt a folk story among the Brahmins that said Sita is indeed Ravana’s daughter. “And still we can’t talk back? Defend our side of the story?” he questioned and explained that we Sri Lankans have many stories of our own to deal with; Seetha Eliya, Ravana Ella, Yak Gala which later became Haggala, “I just connected these dots”. If the sati pooja in Ramayana is contested, other aspects can be too.

If you wanted to see the epic battle between Rama and Ravana, this production disappoints you. The battle takes place between Meghanada, Ravana’s son, and Rama, similar in age, brothers in law according to this version. Ravana stays out of the battle. “I maintained in the story that Ravana detested fights. He is a healer, a vegetarian, and says, he doesn’t want to take another human being’s life, and walks away from battle,” Jayatilaka explained.

Renowned Angampora practitioners such as, Ajantha Mahanthaarachchi have stated that according to the traditional stories they grew up with, the roots of Angampora dates back to the era of Ravana. The ballet opera incorporates it in Ravana’s introductory dance, where Angampora movements are used. The 10 headed demon that was stigmatized for millennia, danced freely, away from judgmental eyes, loudly performing another side to the famous Ramayana. Mandodari, wife of Ravana, is presented as a strong, independent woman, a mother, who tries to balance this turbulent situation. She compares herself to mother earth, saying all those who fight are her children, therefore, she bears all the pain. Similarly, Prof S. Maunaguru of the Easthetic University, an authority on Sri Lankan Tamil drama and theatre, produced a drama titled ‘Ravanesan’ wherein Ravana was portrayed in a different light, and Mandodari is brought forward as a strong woman that people would remember. ‘Ravana the legend untold’ further establishes that portrayal of Mandodari, apart from the little of her that is mentioned in Ramayana.

To create this mighty production, the University of Colombo called Thanuja Bandula of Ranara Academy who composed the music and choreographed the ballet opera. “We didn’t have many facilities, but we managed to do it somehow under strenuous circumstances. The University administration and the students placed their confidence in me which was my strength”, she said.

The oriental touch was brought in through the costumes, while following ballet and opera traditions in dancing and singing. A pinch of realism, and a handful of mysticism, merged well in the ballet opera. “Nobody knows that history, so I wanted to maintain that sense of curiosity,” she said, and thanked Jananatha Warakagoda and Hasantha Jayalal for their support in instrumentalizing the music that she had composed, along with the support given by her students at the Ranara Academy.

“We are told, when Vijaya arrived, Kuweni was weaving clothes, which meant there was already a civilized community that lived in Sri Lanka. There were parties, where people played musical instruments. So, we can say, the local communities were familiar with music, back then. I wanted to bring out that history in my music,” she explained.

The Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo, Prof. Lakshman Dissanayake said, the prime objective of the production is to bring out the artistic abilities of the students. “The students who performed the ballet opera are all amateurs, learnt the ABC of Opera and Ballet while practising for this production”. This, he said, is a contribution to art and humanity; the first Sinhala Ballet Opera produced by a local university.

The chief architect of the production, Prof. Kokila Lankathilaka said, it seems unfair that Indians celebrate a festival annually, where an effigy of Ravana is set on fire, while not allowing the other side to tell their version of the story. “It is not written history, and is based on the evidence available, we can have our own version of the story,” she said. Therefore, when the Ministry of Higher Education granted funds to uplift the aesthetic skills of university students, it was her idea to perform the story of Ravana, while developing an identity for the University of Colombo in Sri Lankan drama; in ballet opera style.

Thus began seven to eight months of practice.

There were 23 students from the Medical Faculty, six from the Law Faculty and four from the Science Faculty, who said in unison that when they joined practices, they didn’t know what the story was about, but once they learnt that the story is about Ravana, that too a different interpretation, they were intrigued and wanted to continue with it. Most of the main characters, including Ravana and Sita, are medical students with little background in dancing, drama and singing.

In addition to listening to Bhadraji’s stories, they did their own research, and shared stories they found.

Attending lectures from 8 am – 4 pm (senior medical students, amidst their clinical appointments) they would gather around 5 pm every day for practices which sometimes went on till 2 am or 3 am.

There have been days when medical students would take part in protests against SAITM and join practices in the evening. Their commitment and dedication should indeed be praised. The students who deal with science and logic the whole day, while the troupe grasped mythology, the research presented to them, and embodied it and performed.

“We enjoyed the rehearsals, made new friends who later became a family, and at the performance, we experienced the magical magnitude of it.” This sentence sums up the enthusiasm with which the students expressed themselves about the whole experience.

Ravana, the new interpretation, lives on, as they plan to continue with their performance.