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A state where more than 50 versions of the Ramayana exist, Orissa is home to the Vichitra Ramayana, by medieval poet Vishwanath Khuntia. An offshoot of this version is Ravan Chhaya, an evocative oral tradition of storytelling which uses the lyrics from Khuntia's Ramayana told through shadow puppetry and music. The folk form, once seen as a means of livelihood of some indigenous communities, was neglected because of a lack of patronage and insufficient funds. It almost disappeared in the 1940s. Right now, Ravan Chhaya Natya Sansada, a registered cultural group, stands as the lone preserver of the art form, which exists only in an oral format, and is bringing this ancient theatre to the Capital as a part of Ishara International Puppet Theatre 2013.
At the helm of the project is 75-year-old Khageshwar Pradhan, who has been staging Ravan Chhaya for more than 50 years. "We are often told to take up new projects with new stories, but Ravan Chhaya is the tradition and, with the support of Sangeet Natak Academy, we have retained the ancient format," he says. Unique to the Angul district of Orissa, Ravan Chhaya is performed at least 15 times a year in the state and across India. The group even has 50-year-old puppet models made of animal skin.
With about eight to ten people involved in a 60-minute production, Ravan Chhaya uses puppets cut that are designed as various figures of the Ramayana and stories centre on the legends of Rama. It is titled thus because, a story about Rama, chhaya or shadow is considered inauspicious and hence related only to the character of Ravan. Even the instruments are sounds from the past such as sambal (drums) and khanjani (a percussion instrument which looks like a miniature tambourine). Behind a white curtain, lit by an earthen lamp, powerful deities come alive with Khuntia's lyrics sung in Oriya, a version which is not that different from its Sanskrit counterpart. But sustaining the art form is still difficult. "This does not have money. The young people in our group have other occupations as well," says Pradhan.
Ravan Chhaya will be performed at Club Patio, Gurgaon, and Amphitheatre, IHC, on April 11 and 15 respectively, at 7.30 pm. Tickets are available at www.kyazoonga.com and www.unitechpatio.com