Gods, princes and demons

Like Hinduism itself, the Ramayana epic is open to many interpretations. Herein lies its true beauty

Walking through a temple, you might form the impression that Hindus take their idols lightly. Here, a god is stealing the clothes of damsels frolicking in a lake; there, another god encourages his brother to cut off the nose and ears of an admirer. On many walls of great temples, minor gods and goddesses engage in sexual acts that would never be shown on television before the watershed.

Hindu gods are imperfect, and act in morally ambiguous ways, using trickery, treachery and subterfuge. They also show nobility, courage and valour. In an uncertain universe, Rama, for many Hindus, is maryada purushottam - the ideal human being who sacrifices his interests for others. His is the kind of life towards which lesser mortals should aspire; his heroism is based not simply upon battlecraft, but upon his ability to place the interests of others above his own.

The Sanskrit epic Ramayana dates back at least 2,000 years. Divided into seven cantos, it has some 24,000 verses. The story runs roughly thus: Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, is about to be crowned king when Kaikeyi, one of the wives of his father, Dasaratha, demands that her son Bharata be crowned instead. Rama is forced into exile with his wife Sita and brother Laksmana. In the forest, Ravana, the king of Lanka, who has coveted Sita, abducts her. Rama assembles an army of monkeys and they invade Lanka, killing Ravana and rescuing Sita. She proves her chastity through a trial by fire. After 14 years, Rama finally rules Ayodhya, leading to a golden age.

This story has countless variations in India and beyond. The walls of Bangkok's Temple of the Emerald Buddha carry images from Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana; Indonesia has Kakawin Ramayana, and in Java wayang kulit artists tell the story through shadow puppetry. Stunning dances such as kecak (fire and trance) keep the story alive in Bali. The Malays have Hikayat Seri Rama, the Laos have Phra Lak Phra Lam and the Khmers have Ramakerti. Thai kings call themselves Rama (the current king, Bhumibol, is Rama IX). In India, Rama is everywhere: people from a sect called the Ramnamis tattoo his name all over their bodies. Mohandas Gandhi's last gasp, as an assassin shot him 60 years ago, was, "Hey Ram." His name has also been invoked to justify heinous acts, such as the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by Hindu extremists in December 1992.

The Rama that we encounter in the British Library's impressive exhibition "Ramayana: Love and Valour in India's Great Epic" is the kinder, gentler incarnation. The display comprises more than a hundred manuscripts from the 17th century, from the courts of Jagat Singh and Raj Singh, rulers of the House of Mewar. The manuscripts represent a monumental effort over seven volumes. Much of it is the work of the court artist Sahib Din, who combined attention to detail, a hallmark of Rajput miniatures, with the scale and grandeur of the Mughal School.

These remarkable manuscripts, reverential in tone, are accompanied by an innovative exhib ition that tells the story of the Ramayana's spread beyond India, and the story's contemporary significance. There will be talks by experts such as Vidya Dehejia, wayang kulit workshops and Indonesian gamelan performances. We see that, while the orthodox Ramayana narrative ends with the triumphant return to Ayodhya, there are more complex versions. In one that is ascribed to the author Valmiki, unpopular with Hindu nationalists, the story turns adverse: a washerman turns away his straying wife, saying that unlike Rama, he won't accept a woman who has lived with someone else. Rama hears of it and banishes the pregnant Sita in order to maintain his reputation among the ruled. Some years later, they meet, and once her sons are reunited with their father, she chooses to be swallowed by her mother, earth.

This is the version that inspired Sita Sings the Blues, a lively animation by the American film-maker Nina Paley that will be shown as part of the British Library exhibition. Paley draws parallels between Sita's story and her own (she became fascinated by Sita after breaking up with her husband). Sita Sings the Blues won a special mention at this year's Berlin Film Festival, and will be shown here in July. The director describes her heroine as "not docile; she is a lively, assertive, emotional woman". Sita emerges from her film as a sensuous woman who ultimately secures a delightful victory.

Feminist critics have long had problems with the Ramayana. As Gauri Parimoo Krishnan, senior curator at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, has observed: "Valmiki's Rama yana has been wrongly ascribed canonical status, giving rise to a sort of patriarchal, literate, pan-Indian elitism, which in recent times has been scorned." Among the scorners are the Indian feminist writers Nabaneeta Dev Sen and Madhu Kishwar, both of whom have written powerful critiques of the masculine interpretation of India's great epic. In her latest book on Indian myths, the Bangalore-based scholar Arshia Sattar explores these dilemmas further.

Clearly, Rama's story is no longer a literary or spiritual project in India; it is political. As if to demonstrate that, in late February, Hindu acti vists stormed into the history department of the University of Delhi to protest over the assignment of an essay they considered blasphemous. The essay, "Three Hundred Ramayanas", celebrated the sheer variety of versions of the Ramayana. Embedded in the many retellings of the tale are stories that reflect the social aspirations and ideological concerns of its many different interpret ers through the generations.

In a Kannada version, Sita is Ravana's daughter. In certain tribal renderings, Sita is unfaithful to Rama. Elsewhere, Ravana occasionally acts in a humane way. In the Malay version, Laksmana is the brave brother, Rama is weak, occasionally beating his wife, and Ravana is a descendant of Adam. In some Thai versions, Rama is Buddha and Ravana is his cousin.

These variations interfere with the Hindu nationalist project, which casts Rama as a strong, virile lord, a warrior-king. This is an image now reinforced by Virgin Comics in India, which has produced swashbuckling adventure strips in clud ing Ramayan 3392AD. The exhibition will also show some of the 1980s TV serial Ramayan, which enthralled millions of Indians. Academics have argued that the serial partly aided the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to political prominence in the 1990s. Other academics have identified, in Rama's portrayal as a militaristic hero, an element of insecurity in the Indian psyche. The American Martha Nussbaum has written: "For centuries, some Hindu males think, they were subordinated by a sequence of conquerors . . . So a repudiation of the sensuous and the cultivation of the masculine came to be seen as the best way out."

Elevating a masculine Rama over other gods makes Hinduism seem monotheistic, however, a point the late Morarji Desai, a former prime minister, astutely noted in the late 1980s, when the BJP embarked on the campaign to reclaim the site of the Babri Mosque: "They are creating a cult of Rama. They are converting Hinduism into Islam - a religion with one book, one place of worship and one God. That is not Hinduism."

On the contrary, Hinduism's essence is unity in diversity, and this is a point the British Library's exhibition warmly celebrates.

"The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India's Great Epic" is at the British Library, London NW1, until 14 September. Details:

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.