Dasharatha, the king of Ayodhya, had four sons borne to him by his three wives - Rama from Kaushalya, Bharata from Kaikeyi, and Lakshmana and Shatrughna from Sumitra. Being the eldest, Rama was the obvious heir to the throne. But Manthara, Kaikeyi’s maidservant, poisoned her ears, arousing jealousy. Kaikeyi now wanted her son Bharata to be crowned king, so she demanded of Dasharatha two boons that he had promised her earlier - first, that Bharata be crowned, and second, that Rama be exiled for fourteen years, and Dasharatha had no choice but to yield. Instead of being happy, Bharata was saddened by this news, since he respected and loved his elder brother Rama dearly, and hated to see him go. While Rama was away, someone had to look into the affairs of the kingdom, and so it came to be that Bharata was the pseudo-king, ruling according to the principles of Rama, and took inspiration from a pair of Rama’s padukas (footwear)* that he had placed on the throne. This is a story that most children brought up in India are used to hearing, but can there be a layer beneath this story?
Kaikeyi remains one of the most despised characters of the Ramayana till date for her wretched actions. It has been, and is always easy to judge people for what they are and what they do on the outside, for it is this outward appearance and action that is our first source of contact with the other. Few of us go beyond this paraphernalia to see what a person or situation is at its core, which is where the role of a poet, an artist, or a teacher comes in to play. It was in the month of March in 2012 that I, along with my dance teacher Smt. Asha Sunilkumar (Asha teacher) and our most loved and respected music composer and singer, Shri. P. S. Krishna (Murthy sir) were conceptualising and researching for my solo dance-theatre called Navarasa to Ramarasa - an exploration of humanity in divinity. The idea was to choreograph various retellings and folk tales of the Ramayana that brought out the human aspect of God in His incarnation as Rama. It was at this time that Murthy sir narrated to us an interpretation by an anonymous Oriya poet, and we knew at that very minute that we had to incorporate this story into the production.
According to this poet, Manthara was Kaikeyi’s maidservant, but also a soothsayer. One evening, she had a vision - she foresaw doom over the kingdom of Ayodhya that would last fourteen years. This could not be possible, something had to be done about it, and the only person who had the power to soften the blow of this doom was Kaikeyi. Hurriedly she goes to Kaikeyi’s chambers and tells her of the impending misfortunes - that whoever would be crowned the king, was sure to lose his life. Kaikeyi was aghast - Rama was to be crowed the following day, and no, she could not let any harm come in the way of her beloved Rama! Desparate, she discusses with Manthara to find a solution, and finally gathers the courage - the courage to be labelled as a villain not just during her lifetime, but for centuries after her death. She demands of Dasharatha two boons - that Bharata be crowned the king, and Rama be sent on exile for fourteen years; she knew fully well that Bharata would refuse to take the throne, thereby ensuring no harm was done to him as well. Her love for Rama, who was as much a son to her as Bharata, gave her the courage to face all the abuses that were, and still continue to be hurled her way.
Apart from being poetically rich and appealing to the heart, such stories and their retellings have always inspired me and helped me reflect as an artist for which I am forever grateful!
*In Hindu tradition, one often touches the feet of people that are respectable and/or elderly. It is believed that even dust from such a person’s feet can be a source of inspiration and blessing.