There are umpteen stories and versions of Ramayana and dancers often bring it out in their own style and dance forms. Bharatanatyam exponent, guru, curator and choreographer Jyotsna Shourie is one artist who often comes with unique shows and unseen twists to old fables.
She believes that dance has encouraged her to delve into our literature and mythology, taught her to appreciate classical music, to express her thoughts through abstract movements and mime, to pen lyrics and narratives, but most of all she enriches her students with an abiding love for dance which will stay with them throughout their lives. Dance, she believes evolves every day, that is why her shows and performances are always exceptional. I spoke with the creative Jyotsna Shourie about her new production Unmasked. Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us more about your training and background?
I started my journey into Bharatanatyam at the age of six at the Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharatanatya Kala Mandir, Mumbai under the mentorship of Guru K Kalyanasunderam and did my arangetram at the age of 10. I am greatly indebted to my Guru who diligently taught me all that I know about this classical art form. My family background is a mixed one, a Punjabi father and a Malayali mother whose sisters were accomplished dancers and singers at the time. So I was introduced to dance at a very early age and grew to love it. I have now been involved with this art for over six decades, first as a student, then performer and subsequently as a teacher and choreographer and now as a mentor of the arts.
Tell us about your dance company and all the mega productions you have done in the past?
While in Delhi I set up my own dance school The Dance Centre where I personally train many budding artists. I also ventured into the world of conceptualising and choreographing thematic performances. Some of these were contemporary in nature like The Sound of Music, the film of yesterday in Bharatanatyam with Hindi lyrics to the well-loved songs, then Alice in Wonderland, the Birth of Jesus, which we have performed throughout Delhi as well as in Rome, Florence and the Vatican City, Noddy in Nrityaland among others. I also turned my attention to themes of a more classical nature and did Geet Govindam using multiscreen projectors and visuals, The Krishna Chalisa, the well-known prayer and used visuals and bhajan music interspersed with Bharatanatyam, the Radha Chalisa, Face to Face (a dance theatrical dialogue between Sita and Draupadi) in Varanasi, A Gateway to Moksha, Devadasi (the journey of a temple dance) and now my latest production Unmasked – when Ravana walked the earth. With each of these productions my intention is to widen the frontiers of classical dance and to allow the audience to become more aware and appreciative of our classical arts, without diluting its essence. In 1995 I established the Jyotsna Shourie Dance Company, my repertory company, where my senior dancers and myself toured India and parts of the world through the aegis of the ICCR and other cultural organisations.
What made you come up with your production Unmasked and how is it different?
Unmasked draws its story line from the Ramayana. Being such a well-known epic, it needed a unique approach to keep the audience engaged. Our research led us to the many versions of the Ramayana that exist, and the one we were most drawn to was the Adbhuta Ramayana. Here Sita is described as the daughter of Ravana and Mandodari. We decided to delve more into this aspect and question the audience and let them decide whether Ravana was indeed the 10-headed evil king as he is often portrayed or did he have other aspects to his personality? The methodology was different to the norm used in traditional dance as Unmasked takes us on a journey to Lanka to witness the Ramayana live through the eyes of some often overlooked yet pivotal characters. The old world meets the new as two parallel narratives unravel and fresh perspective on the nuances of good and evil emerge.
How is Unmasked different from other Ramayana based shows?
To give a different perspective we used a contemporary Western dancer as Ravana and blended his dance seamlessly with our traditional Bharatanatyam. We also used actors as the sutradars who took the story forward in a light-hearted way as they came from today’s world, where as they were witnessing the Ramayana unfold in the Treta Yug. We had elaborate sets for this show which gave the production a grand visual representation.
I am sure you have a long list of people to thank for making the show look like an extravaganza?
Indeed. The music was originally created by blending Carnatic music, by Sri OS Arun, Rajasthani music and percussionist, rather than lyrics for easier understanding. The musical score was created by award winning music director Daniel George. Though the concept was mine and of Aneesha Grover, the writers were an eclectic mix of writers from theatre, comedy television and with classical dance backgrounds – Reuben Israel, Sriraam Padmanabhan, Aneesha, apart from me. We used actors Reuben Israel and Dhruv Raj Gupta as narrators, and contemporary dancer Benjamin Jacob. Then we had dance centre dancers Nandita Kalaan as Mandodari, Aneesha Grover as Sita, Amrita Shivakumar as Surpanakha, Other dancers in various roles were Meher Sachdeva, Aadya Jain, Meghna Majithia, Safia Livingston, Anandi Singh, Anam Kalsia, Nikasha Parasher, Satya Ram Himanshu Srivastava a soloist Bharatanatyam dancer of repute collaborated with us in the role of Maricha.
What challenges did you face to bring such a mega production on stage?
I am aware that many artists face huge problems and complications if they have to put out a production as large as Unmasked but, I am fortunate that I did not have to face any difficulties at all, as the whole show was sponsored by the Natya Ballet Dance Festival and then by the Cancer Society so costs were totally met. I must add that the audience response has been superb, they specially liked the fact that the actors spoke in English and so everything was easily understood, also many new aspects of the Ramayana came to light, the dance pieces were creatively choreographed. I am preparing myself as I am sure difficulties will start now when we have to take the show to other parts of India and abroad.
Sandip Soparrkar holds a doctorate in world mythology folklore from Pacific University USA, an honorary doctorate in performing arts from the National American University, He is a World Book Record holder, a well-known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honored with three National Excellence awards, one National Achievement Award and Dada Saheb Phalke award by the Government of India. He can be contacted on [email protected]