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Settled outside Jaisalmer, in a village called Bhaiya, the Manganiyar community has an age-old tradition of men singing the story of the Ramayana through poetry of saints such as Kabir, Surdas, Mirabai and Tulsidas, which have been passed down orally through generations. In another world, London-based storyteller Vayu Naidu performs Vayu's Ramayana, a reimagining of the epic in an English setting as a "transcultural experience through storytelling and music". In Tamil Nadu, Kattaikkuttu Sangam, a residential theatre school in Kanchipuram for Kattaikkuttu performers, a theatre form practised in rural Tamil Nadu only by men, has merged the ancient story with a modern breakthrough. Its production, Ramaravana, for the first time, has women actors and the storyline recreates the epic with characters of Sita, Lakshmana, Ravana, Surpanakha, Hanuman and an absentee Rama.
Now, an organisation based in Pune, Open Spaces, is documenting various creative retellings of the Ramayana in a website and an offline location in the city through a project called Kiski Kahani: 300 Ramayanas and Counting. Their documentation includes fine art, theatre, posters, calendars, films and photographs from India and abroad. Imran Ali Khan, the "Ramayanafied" head of the project, says, "Apart from being an archival project, we aim to reclaim the text. We want to open a way for new interpretations and tie-up with people who look at the Ramayana closely to recreate it in a more contemporary way."
A book on the project, with "around 200 pages of stories, essays, commissioned works, cartoon strips and academic writings from authors among others" will be released later this year. The project, which started in November, has on board Arshia Sattar, who translated Valmiki's Ramayana in the 1990s as an advisor, and Ujwala Samarth as the programme coordinator. The team has dug into archives, libraries, the internet and commissioned works to ensure that the project includes both contemporary and traditional interpretations of the Ramayana. "We also look at folk stories which have a huge demographic and are mostly oral," says Khan. One interesting story comes from Himachal Pradesh about how Sita was making laddoos in her kitchen when a crow flew away with one. He dropped it in Ravana's lap in Lanka and, when he tasted it, he resolved to have this woman for himself. That, according to the story, is why she was abducted. "Many of these stories bring forward notions of the spaces of home, women and everyday life. I think that's what the Ramayana really is, about people," says Khan.
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