Updated: Jul 18, 2019
I don’t quite remember how it came to be that I was cast in the role of Sri Ramchandra for my Guruji’s production, Sita Haran. What I do remember is struggling intensely with the role.
In my family and community, the Ramayana was significant. My grandmother woke up at 4am every day to read the epic tale. As a family, we watched television versions of the Ramayana and listened to Murari Bapu’s Ram Katha regularly. The more I was exposed to the story, the more I developed an intense dislike for it. The characters of the Ramayana seemed to me two-dimensional. Ram’s unwillingness to stand up to his stepmother, Kaikeyi, befuddled me. I never understood the choice he made to abandon his kingdom blindly and abide by his father’s request. I thought his alliance with Sugreev and killing of Bali lacked nobility. And of course, his treatment of Sita was unforgivable. I never understood why I and so many young girls were told to emulate Sita. She seemed to me voiceless. A willing victim of circumstance and injustice. I didn’t understand her choice to remain silent and not fight.
When I was cast as Sri Ramchandra, I was speechless. Although it was unheard of to question my Guruji, such was my horror at having to play the part, that I summoned the courage to ask him to recast me in another role. Of course, my numerous attempts to persuade him fell on deaf ears. Eventually I succumbed to my fate and began working on the role. Day after day I stepped onto the dance floor and battled my own anger and judgement. Every bone in my body resisted working on the role. It was as if by playing the role of Sri Ramchandra, I was complicit in his actions. I was condoning every man’s mistreatment of and an entire society’s subjugation of women. I was betraying my own being, my mother, my grandmothers, and all the girls and women I felt such kinship with.
I’m not sure when the war I was fighting within myself gave way. My guru sister, Seibi Lee, had taken it upon herself to help me. We began working on holding my body like that of a man. Square and broad shoulders. Wide stance. Tall Spine. We worked on moving my center of gravity up from my pelvis to my sternum. We worked on changing the way I walk – leading with my chest instead of my hips. I eventually arrived at the hard part – embodying the character of Sri Ramchandra.
In order for me to enter the character, I was going to have to let go of judgement. Guruji would often talk about the hours he spent observing students in the San Francisco State University cafeteria. How this process of observing gave him insight into human behavior and character. So, I began by observing the men in my life – my father, my Guruji and some of my closest friends. The process that unfolded was miraculous. My judgement and anger melted as I saw – more deeply than ever before – the men in my life that I loved and adored. I saw how they wrestled with and accepted responsibility. I began to see the nobility in the choice to fulfill one’s duty as a father, a teacher, a son. I saw the dignity and love in the daily, quiet actions of doing one’s work. I saw how at times what seemed like weakness was strength and strength was compassion.
It isn’t so much that I all of a sudden condoned Ramchandra’s treatment of Sita or even agreed with his decision to go into exile. But my sense of men, women and their choices and actions became more complicated and nuanced. I began to see the nobility and compassion in Ramchandra’s actions. And I saw the strength in Sita’s actions.
Ramchandra was my first major character role. Working on the role created an opening for me, a way to move from judgement to understanding and compassion. This shift was profound and paved the way for a personal evolution. As my judgement softened, my own sense of self expanded. And as I sought understanding, my ability to truly see and receive others deepened. Ultimately playing the role of Ramchandra transformed my way of relating to myself, others, my family and my heritage was forever transformed.