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The Beautiful Art Of Ramayana Ballet Will Surely Mesmerize You!

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The trend of events in the past one year involving Lord Ram has been very interesting starting from the verdict on Ram Mandir to the very recent statement given out by the Nepalese Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli on the Hindu god. His statements have caused a furore in South Asia that even Hindus in Bangladesh held a protest march against Oli’s remarks at the Dhaka Press Club on July 17, 2020. The Bhoomi Pujan for Ram Mandir is the very significant date of August 5, 2020. Let’s also remember that Nepal is the only Hindu country in the world and Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, is also situated in this Himalayan country!

The writing of a travelogue was long pending. Thanks to the recent controversy in the Indian sub-continent which has caused a trigger, I now finally get a chance to write about the Ramayana Ballet! I also write this as a tribute to all the women who took part in a play some 22 years ago during our brief stay in the Oil township of Moran in Upper Assam. My mother had played the role of Sita.

The story of Ramayana being told through the performing art of Ballet is very unique, a thing one gets to witness in the open-air theatre behind the huge Prambanan Temple in the Special Region of Yogyakarta, in the island of Java, Indonesia. Candi Prambanan (Prambanan Temple), as it’s called in the language of Bahasa, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is one of the largest Hindu Temples in South East Asia. It is situated along the Opak River and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Tim Hannigan in his book, A Brief History of Indonesia, talks at length about the influence of religion, culture, trade, etc. on South East Asia’s largest nation.

Candi Prambanan or the Prambanan Temple (Image by Zeba Zoariah Ahsan)

It has been deemed to be the land of the Sultans, Spices and Tsunamis. The influence of Hinduism, the transition to Hindu-Buddhism, the arrival of Islam, the invasion of Dutch traders until the establishment of modern-day Indonesia; it has been a long and colourful journey. Many would find it similar to the history of India or South Asia in general. The arrival of Islam has not necessarily been equated to invasion as it’s done in the Indian context. The arrival of Europeans has however been described as a Spice invasion owing to their history of establishing a monopoly in an emerging capitalistic world!

But, what intrigued me was the syncretism of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism; hence, one of the timelines in Indonesia’s history is described as Hindu-Buddhism. The construction of the Prambanan Temple was started by Rakai Pikatan of the Sanjaya dynasty around 856 CE. Historians suggest that it was probably an answer to the construction of the massive Borobudur Temple, which was constructed by the Buddhist Shailendra dynasty. The Borobudur Temple complex is massive and is another UNESCO World Heritage Site situated along the Progo River.

I was fortunate enough to visit these two world heritage sites along with a couple of other friends from college when we were on a study trip in September 2017 to Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, which is independent Indonesia’s first university. Gadjah Mada literally translates to Elephant General, who was a powerful military leader and Mahapatih or prime minister of the Majapahit Empire. I was so impressed by the art and architecture of Indonesia that I ended up visiting the Prambanan Temple twice. The first time was to watch the Ramayana Ballet that happens in the evening and the second time to explore the temple complex at length during the daytime.

The island of Java is specifically known for its wooden artefacts; henceforth one can buy the wooden masks depicting Ram and Sita from outside the temple complex. All of this is sold by Muslim shopkeepers today. It is important to note that the story of Ram, who is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is being depicted through the Ramayana Ballet within the complex of a Shivaite Temple in a Muslim-majority country, which otherwise is quite rare.

The only issue was, I could not click great pictures or shoot videos because my phone battery had drained out. In fact, my friends’ phones and the camera also died out midway while the ballet was on. I have a deep satisfaction that it is intact in my visual memory and even pictures don’t justify the beauty of the Ramayana Ballet. It is close to a two-hour performance in a massive open-air theatre with traditional Indonesian instruments being played in the backdrop. The most prominent instrument is the Gamelan that is used widely across Indonesia during various feasts and festivities.

One needs extreme patience to be able to understand this art form as it is very slow. The hand gestures or the entire sequence of dance-drama could be quite difficult to understand if one does not know the story of Ramayana beforehand. The way Sita was dressed was very different from the Indian imagination of the Goddess. When we were handed out pamphlets before the show began, the spellings of the characters confused us. For instance, Sita was written as ‘Shinta’ or ‘Dewi Shinta’, Lanka was written as ‘Alengka’; Ashok Vatika was described as ‘Argasoka Garden’; Ravan as ‘Rahwana’ and Bali as ‘Subali’. Hanuman was particularly described as the White Monkey.

Picture showing Sita during the Ramayana Ballet (Image by Zeba Zoariah Ahsan)

I personally enjoyed the performance of ‘Mareech’ as the golden deer jumping gracefully with full stage utilisation. The fight sequence between ‘Jatayu’ and ‘Ravan’ was equally engaging. Watching the Kingdom of Lanka being set on fire by Hanuman got me goosebumps. The images are forever etched in my memory. We did manage to click a few selfies with Ram, Sita and Lakshman after the performance was over. If I have to make a comparison, I found it very similar to the Manipuri Classical dance or the Manipuri Raas Leela. It felt very spiritual!

Another important art form in Indonesia is the shadow puppetry most famously known as Wayang Kulit. It is a storytelling technique and depicts episodes from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. It has been promoted extensively by Indonesia that today Wayang Kulit is designated as one of the masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Although the politics of religion has strained many relations between countries across the world, yet it is this soft power of language, culture, food, art and films that unites us as a global community! So, next time you are in Indonesia (in a post-pandemic world), make a plan of visiting Yogyakarta and watching the amazing performance at the Prambanan Temple. Here is the full performance of the Ramayana Ballet that I found on YouTube. Give it a watch, it is extremely beautiful!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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