Ranjini Nair

Manduka Shabdam


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I inhale. I am Ravana. I am Ravana.  RAVANA. Ten heads. The wisdom of ten heads. Though how one is to make sure that all the ten heads contain wisdom is a consideration best left untackled for the moment. Put one step forward that shatters the peace. Then another. Fearsome. Eyes rimmed red with ambition. Or is it the sleepless nights that have leaked in to the whites of the day? But it is these eyes that create the forest. Where creepers fall in thick curtains. Trees rise high above the ground, in a slow race towards a sky that lies canopied from the forest floor. The floor snakes across heavy, with the smell of damp earth and flowers that droop, pulled down by the weight of their own perfume. The colours blind. Brilliant vermillion, deep pinks that fall in bed with purples, and yellows that stain like turmeric. His body leaps, unable to contain what his haughty eyes have unlocked, proclaiming in majestic strides the silent voice that is shouting inside his head. I am Ravana.

The sound of a flute meanders through the forest. Winding around tree trunks. Whispering to the leaves. Ravana is melting, as a musical finger trails across his spine. Spooling a shimmering cocoon around him. Mandodari smiles at the butterflies that have broken out within her, tickling her insides, causing red to bloom across her face. Her eyes watch the empty space that Ravana had just inhabited. I am Mandodari. Born of Maya. Floating frogspawn. Her eyes draw out Ravana. Her wrists flirt out of his grasp. The sharp beat of the mridangam that echoes around becomes a premeditation of his presence. She/he pauses mid circle. In transition, between the two. Who am I now?

Now I am pretending to be Ravana. I can feel the mask on my face. Painted on by steady hands. Each time I have new eyes, new eyebrows and a new mouth. New skin even. My face warps. It distorts. Creating in the creases and wrinkles that appear, a net to ensnare the expression I wish to relay. A mobile mask. One worn over the painted fixity of the other. Shhh. The audience doesn’t know yet. That Ravana and Mandodari have left. That they are watching only me. That the forest too has lifted up its rustling skirts and walked away. If they were paying attention they’d have heard that distinctive rustle of dead leaves and felt the cool breath that resides only between trees. I continue to pretend in the empty space that these mythic characters have left behind all for me. Here is the forest I say. My hands spiralling, showing them the creepers that Ravana had parted to glimpse Mandodari. We can see it; their breathing tells me. I am Ravana. Can you see the medallions that glitter on my breast? My fingers tremble in their frenzy to replicate the shimmering of the gold. I am Mandodari. See how I glide like the swan, small, delicate steps that emphasise the sway of my hips. I am all of this, I tell them. My body is all of this. My face is all of this.

I begin to feel the make-up cracking. The full lips someone painted, kissed away by the rivulets of sweat, its tributaries smudging the doe eyes that were never mine. My head is heavy (Is the weight of ten heads taking its toll?). But I am still here. Still telling a story. I have to make them believe. There is a shortness to my breath now. The lights dim. The darkness is a relief from the shards of light that were splintering my face, Ravana’s face, Mandodari’s face. I am not sure. A sea of people surge towards me. Flounder. I am close to drowning.

***

‘It happened again’, I tell Li. I am lying in bed, spent. My eyes still contain remnants of kohl.  I am looking up at the slow whirring of the ceiling fan. I can see the three blades distinctively. He breathes evenly. He has heard this story too many times. His face betrays no comprehension. I try again.

I can feel them leave me in between. Ravana felt stifled. I tried to hold on to him. Made my eyes wider. Stepped with greater purpose. But he left anyway, as though disgusted at my cheap theatricality, that reduced him to spectacle. I can’t move the space around me anymore.

Li jumps off the bed with a disgruntled meow. ‘Yes, exactly like that,’ I call after him. His tail swishes in the air, he is a natural master of making one know what he feels with gesture alone. Next to Li my gestures feel empty, each time devoid of the true intent I painstakingly attempt to craft. I quickly modify my hand into the single hand mudras listed in the Natya Shastra. Pataka,Tripataka Kartharimukha…I chant. A habit now, when I feel dance slipping away from me. My eyes trace the gulmohar framed by the window, that has burst into bright red flames (or is it flowers?), the streetlight seems muted in contrast. Li is nowhere to be seen.

***

My back is a morass of sweat. I am pretending again. My guru watches me intently. He watches me portray the entire scene. My face is flushed. My legs ache. The beat of the wooden stick on the cool floor has stopped for the moment. ‘Dance is like a medicine,’ he muses, looking at me. I wonder if my dance has evoked in him some memory of a sickness long past, the bitter aftertaste of a pill on a tongue, the fevered haze that clouds one’s vision. ‘It takes a while to dissolve through the entire body, to effect the change it seeks to wrought,’ he says, signalling the end of the class.

Koooochipudi, I enunciate in my head. As though stressing on the right syllables will help me gain greater mastery of this popular composition. This odd little love story better, between a ten-headed king and his frog princess.

The rain is incessant outside. I am afraid to step out. Afraid the traces I have imbibed will be washed clean off. I think of the last time I had been on stage, when my characters had walked off my body. Left me completely naked. And, the terror that had swept through me.

***

I watch Ravana’s heads get lopped off. One by one. The sword stops when it reaches mine. I can feel the cool pressure of steel against my throat. You are not Ravana. You are not Mandodari. A fury builds up inside me. It explodes within me. A tight ball that ricochets off my insides. I taste metal. My lips bleed iron. I AM RAVANA. The sword slices through.

***

I am sitting in a garden. Ravana and Mandodari sit on either side of me. We are watching the sun set behind a monument, its dome haloed by the orange glow that emanates from the sun. The smell of wood smoke mingles with the ghost of winter that hangs in the air. Leaves crunch under us. ‘You are Ravana’, Ravana tells me. I look up at him.

So, you won’t leave next time?

No.

What about her?

She doesn’t think you are Mandodari yet.

Oh.

You’re close, she feels you can still see that odd shuffling you’re prone to when you are neither of us.

I am not odd.

Look there are others who have come to meet you.

Draupadi comes up to me. Her eyes meet mine. The world in front of me transforms. I am aware of a fire constantly singeing my scalp. My hair crackles as though daring an ever-present witness to lay a finger on it. Dushasana comes forward and she turns her face, I can feel her wrath turn to smouldering embers in my eyes.

Each time you pull her sari, I am made aware of the extent of my folly. But I am condemned to re-enact it, live it through each time. You are me. I wish you were not. But you are. I feel the malice well up within me each time. Rising with the tempo of the mridangam, swirling within me like a tornado waiting to be unleashed as the notes of the flute climb higher and higher.

 I look up at the sky. Dark clouds are gathering. My hands unbidden rise towards them. My fingers seem to be leaching those colours, soaking into my skin their shadows. I smile. Ghanshyam.

I can feel the medicine spoken of. The dissolution takes time. I take to the stage only to realise I have left behind Draupadi’s toe, or Mandodari’s smile, or Krishna’s stance. I fill up the gaps with little bits of me. Plugging in the holes for the time being. Sometimes as I am dancing, I see a dismembered toe making its way towards me. The dance carries on undisturbed. I exhale.

Ranjini Nair is a Kuchipudi practitioner based in New Delhi, currently pursuing a Masters in Performance Practice from Ambedkar University, Delhi.

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