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Playing with Fire

Prema Chari

By Hema Ramakrishna
Vijitayapa, Columbo, 2005, pp. 87, price not stated.


It is significant that in the introduction to her play, Sanctuary!, Hema Ramakrishna quotes Muriel Rukeyser’s poem to Orpheus at length to contextualize and situate the epigram that begins this retelling of the Indian epic, the Ramayana:   No more masks! No more mythologies! Now for the first time, the god lifts his hand, The fragments join in me with their own music. Among the many strands that are woven into this retelling of the travails of the exiled hero, Rama and his abducted wife, Sita, two over-arching ideas which the author embellishes further can already be seen in embryo: the inability to speak, the silencing not only of women, but of other marginalized folk as well, suggested by the archetypal Philomel and Persephone (for the author’s range of reference from Greek mythology to Jacobean drama is clearly rooted in a western sensibility); and the bleak recognition that that ‘there is no mountain’ (or forests, one might add), which is at once an ancient and very contemporary ecological awareness. Other implicit concerns are crucial, if not central: a critique of imperialism not necessarily based on mere territorial aggrandizement, but more insidiously, on the devaluation of the language, culture and traditions of the colonized, sometimes with the silent consent of the victim. The ironically punctuated title of this play obliquely establishes the utter futility of seeking sanctuary in hallowed ground: there is no hope of shelter for the oppressed in this denuded and godless landscape.   The ‘fragmented, exiled’ split self of Muriel Rukeyser’s poem is sought behind the mask that cloaks gods and goddesses; a mask that is mercilessly ripped off: herein lies the potentially incendiary nature of a work that recognizes but does not succumb to the way in which mythology has become an article of faith as in no other tradition. The author herself emphasizes in her introduction that ‘our myths are our religion’. In a country where movie stars who portray mythological (i.e. religious) heroes are then deified themselves and temples are actually erected to celebrate their celluloid avatars, any writer who is intrepid enough to expose the feet of clay in such an iconoclastic fashion deserves some notice, though not of the kind Salman Rushdie has faced! The prologue with its chorus of masked players giving voice to the muted primeval forest bears witness to the tragedy that unfolds. The feverish, frenetic anticipation of ...

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