Thanks to the controversy generated when the University of Delhi unjustly dropped it from its syllabus five years ago, A. K. Ramanujan’s essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” had placed in the public eye the academically known fact that India possesses multifarious variations of its mythological tales. Manoj Mitra stitched a handful of Jain and southern Rāmāyana lore into Bhelāy Bhāse Sitā, now staged by Sharabhuj. These include Surpanakha angered by Ram-Lakshman’s depredations in her forest domain and her appreciation of Sita’s empathy for nature; the familiar Maya Sita interpolation; and, most unusually, Ravan sending Sita back to Ram, who commands her to return to Lanka because he must win her heroically through battle, so she has to drift back by sea – hence the play’s title. Mitra should write a note for interested viewers, identifying the specific sources of these episodes.

The director, Tarun Pradhan, emphasizes the wrongful treatment of women. He applies the Bengali folk styles that Sarabhuj excels in – Chhau, martial arts, masks, Pat painting, stilts (for Jatayu) – integrated with contemporary design, like the irascible rishi Sharabhanga in a quadriplegic cart, to create an eclectically entertaining effect. The characterization helps, running counter to stereotype: Ram as mercurially volatile and violent, Ravan (enacted with Jatra looks by Surajit Sarkar) as rather overwhelmed by events and far more desirous of attaining Indra’s heaven than anything else, Mandodari as a tired and exasperated homemaker. In such performatory circumstances, Sita (Shalini Kundu) conforms too much to the model of innocence personified, breaking out of those shackles only midway. To fit his vision, Pradhan should make her more empowered from the start.

Continuing by means of epic female archetypes the theme of women oppressed, a modern avatar of the heroine of the Mahābhārata takes the spotlight in Ayas’s Yājnaseni Ājo, written and directed by Paramita Chaudhuri. The protagonist, who has returned from higher studies abroad to become a journalist here, finds that conditions have hardly changed since Draupadi’s age, when her domestic worker faces a village kangaroo court that sentences her to sexual assault by the local men. In her own home, too, her mother suffers from her father’s patriarchal attitude. Draupadi appears to her, inspiring her not to give up. The small, young group puts on a spirited performance led by Chaudhuri herself in the main role as the committed fighter for the cause.

(From The Telegraph, 16 July 2016)