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She never really stood a chance. He was refined, she was gross. He was divine, she was of the netherworld. He was radiantly beautiful, she was a plug-ugly. He was happily married and she was a widow hoping to find love again. She makes an overture but he says he is married and points out his handsome brother. The brother plays along with the joke but excuses himself - he is his brother's shadow and no more. Then she sees the exquisite wife and the smirk on the faces of the brothers and furious with jealousy and rage hits out.
There are many takes on how Surpanakha loses her nose - and ears and breasts according to some accounts - in the forest of Dandakaranya at the hands of Laxman. But all of them show her up as a pathetic wannabe who gets her comeuppance for her temerity in desiring Rama. She is the comic interlude in an otherwise grim story of love, loss, greed and treachery, the bit when children fall about laughing at the idea of a nose-less female troll.
For centuries, Surpanakha has been the laughing stock in classical dances. As Odissi dancer Sharmila Biswas says, every time you had to show the navarasas on the stage and you needed to show hasya, you picked on the needy, greedy Surpanakha. Everytime you wanted to convey vibhatsa (revulsion) or bhayanaka (fear), Surpanakha's fierce face came in handy. But what is so funny, repulsive or frightful in this time and age about a woman making a romantic overture? she asks.
"The characters in our scriptures and epics were created to impart lessons in morality and socially acceptable behaviour. But our ideas of good and bad, right and wrong have changed with time. We are far more open-minded today so why not depict her in a way the young can connect with, give her a distinct point of view? She can be good and bad, generous and mean, just like you and me, " says Biswas who was inspired by Bengali writer Leela Majumdar in how she saw the much-maligned character.
Biswas is not the only dancer troubled by the Surpanakha stereotype. Ashavari Majumdar who recently staged a Kathak performance on the rakshasi says her choreography was a reaction to the permanent negative corner reserved for her in classical arts.
"There are so very many ways to look at her - she is a forest dweller dealing with sophisticates from the city, she is a lone woman trying to come to terms with her grief at having lost her husband in a battle with her own brother, she is also a sexually charged character ... why force me to choose? She can be all or some of these, " says Majumdar whose yearlong research into Surpanakha was funded by the Indian Foundation for Arts.
The other traditional art that has been exploring Surpanakha in many ways is Koodiyattam. Here she comes as both Lalita, the pretty, gentle, delicate woman she becomes to entice the brothers, modelled pretty much along the lines of Sita. She also appears as the regular rakshasi. The latter, interestingly, does not speak the Sanskrit all Koodiyattam characters speak but the more plebian Malayalam. "She speaks and acts very folksy, tribal. Her language is very colloquial, crude in parts and there is nothing sophisticated about her character at all, " says KK Gopalakrishnan who heads the Koodiyattam Centre in Thiruvananthapuram.
Despite this, both in Kathakali as well as Koodiyattam, she is shown as a nuanced character, not a boring, linear or predictable baddie. She is the essence of bhavatreyam, three emotions - sringara (love), roudram (anger) and vibhatsam (revulsion).
In her landmark work Many Ramayanas, scholar Kathleen Erndl has dwelt at length on the mutilation of Surpanakha in five different versions of the epic. She interprets Rama's reaction to Surpanakha's sexual advances as typically patriarchal. She points out that Rama's image as a chivalrous protector of the weak takes a big beating in the Surpanakha episode. He notices her vulnerability but teases her and goads her into turning her romantic attention towards Laxman, a married man himself. This ill-advised strategy actually becomes the starting point of the bloodshed that follows in the rest of the Ramayana. Infuriated, Surpanakha goes to her brother, tells him her sad story and also holds forth on Sita's unparalleled charms. And the rest, of course, is history or myth whichever way you look at it.
Why did Surpanakha work on Ravana's excitable temperament? Was it to avenge her husband's death at his hands? Was it to avenge her own insult? There is so little we know of her and these are exciting questions to ask today without consigning Surpanakha to eternal vamp-hood.
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