An epic retelling

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All set to be staged today at Reis Magos fort, ‘Forest Tales: A Sitayana’ by California-based educator and performance artiste, Anuj Vaidya, is a sci-fi eco-feminist retelling of the Ramayana set against a modern backdrop, finds NT KURIOCITY

ANNA FERNANDES | NT KURIOCITY

One of the world’s oldest epics, the Ramayana is a tale told and retold. And in Anuj Vaidya’s richly rendered retelling, Sita begins as a million microbes in space brought down to Earth in order to bring water to a parched Earth. Centuries of evolution turn her into a forest and when Rama, the heir to a large business corporation, strums the string of Shiva’s bow, the forest is enamoured. This sci-fi eco-feminist retelling of the Ramayana, ‘Forest Tales: A Sitayana’ presented by Thus. and TIFA Working Studios will be staged today, December 13, 7:30 p.m. at Reis Magos fort, Verem.

“The Ramayana is a story that has political, cultural and religious resonances across India. It bookended my childhood and kept reappearing in my life in many ways. I was always amazed to see how a story that has been retold so many times can have such an emotional impact on its audience,” says the California-based educator and performance artiste. Speaking about the project that has been in the making for seven years, he adds that he decided to recast the story in a way that was relevant with issues plaguing society today.

‘Forest Tales: A Sitayana’, is loosely inspired by ‘Kanchana Sita’, a 1977 Malayalam film by G Aravindan, based on a 1961 play by Malayalam playwright C N Sreekantan Nair. Initially imagined as a film, the project intended to extend the ethos of ecology into artistic practice by finding human-powered energy solutions for the production, and “create a film that was off the grid”. “However, I soon realised that the most ecological film is the one that never gets made. We don’t really talk about the material-impact of the cinema industry but it is one of the most polluting industries with a huge carbon footprint,” he adds. Staged in two acts, the project now exists as a performance of the film, wherein, in lieu of making the film, elements of cinema are re-enacted.

He explains: “In my first performance, I staged a film shoot. But rather than having cameras, the audience was invited on stage to become the camera. They were given viewfinders and they had to capture the shot through the viewfinder and hold that particular shot in their memory. Everyone was then blindfolded and led through a visualisation where they had to reimagine the rest of the scene together.” The project, therefore, is as much a reimagining of the Ramayana as it is a reimagining of cinema itself.

At its basis, the project aims at making a green statement by emphasising the interdependent relationship between nature and culture. The performance also enters the queer discourse by freeing Sita of gender before she takes the form of a woman, while the allusion to ‘Om Corporations’ symbolises the commercialisation of religion. Additionally, the project also merges the concepts of science and religion. “Science and religion are the biggest storytelling traditions of our times. They both shape the way we see the world and tell us about how we came to be and where we are going.

The project merges science and religion as well as avoids binaries of casting one character as bad and another as good.”

The iteration of the project at Reis Magos Fort, Verem culminates with what Vaidya calls “speculative cinema”, wherein the narrative is formed through the collaborative effort of the audience. Audience members, therefore “become-sprocket” and participate in an embodied ‘motion-picture’, in the process of co-creating a cinema that exists in the audience’s collective imagination.

At its heart, ‘Forest Tales: A Sitayana’ is a story about ecology. “It’s really a chance for all of us to remember that there is no god or scientist that is going to save us, the problems around us are ones that we have created ourselves and it is up to each one of us to rise to the gods within us in order to become the change that we want to see,” he says.

The performance has been staged in Delhi, Pune, along with California and other venues in the US. “The response has always been one of empathy, of understanding and appreciation. Humanity is facing an existential threat. In the face of such dire circumstances, the performance urges us to rise up and be the best we can be,” he says. Future iterations of the play will draw attention to issues of Aarey and the Delhi Ridge, among other forests of India, adds Vaidya.

(‘Forest Tales: A Sitayana’ will be staged today, December 13, 7:30 p.m. at Reis Magos Fort, Verem. Fee: `200.)