The Ramayana has been interpreted in a myriad ways in the past few years. Now, a new play, The Sitayana (or “How to make an exit”), is trying to look at the story through Sita’s point of view. Los Angeles-based East West Players in partnership with San Francisco’s EnActe Arts and New York City’s Hypokrit Productions, recently presented three virtual world premieres of the show, written by Lavina Jadhwani and directed by Reena Dutt.
“The story of Rama and Sita is one as old as time. Lavina has brilliantly reframed the story through the lens of modern relationships. Along the way, she upends stereotypes of femininity, providing a fresh view on chastity, commitment, and duty,” says EWP’s producing artistic director Snehal Desai.
Jadhwani, the Chicago-based director-advocate, does not remember reading much of the Ramayana in her growing up years. “I grew up hearing the story more often than reading it, and the focus was definitely on Rama—I remembered him and his brother Lakshman the most. At the time, I didn't think of this as a patriarchal view of the text; I just accepted it as canon,” she shares over an email interaction.
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However, as she grew older and learned about Sita’s story—particularly about the ‘agni pariksha’ —she felt angry about not being familiar with that part of the tale. “I felt that skimming the details of Sita's story was unfair to her and to me. So, I wrote this play to right some of those wrongs,” she adds.
Part epic tale, part coming-of-age story, The Sitayana lets the audience select one from three unique variations—Amar Chitra Sita, Sita’s Mehndi Party, and Sita’s Slumber Party. Performed by Minita Gandhi, Sheetal Gandhi, and Nikita Chaudhry respectively, all three variations question traditional gender roles, subvert idealised views of femininity, ultimately placing Sita at the centre of her own epic journey. “The vision to have three interpretations came from director Reena Dutt, and I loved it,” says Jadhwani.
Though she directs herself—Jadhwani was the ‘Best Next Generation Stage Director’ by Time Out Chicago in 2013 —as a writer, she likes to collaborate with directors who bring a specific vision to the text. “Reena’s vision also provided us with the opportunity to employ two more South Asian actors, in the middle of a pandemic,” she adds.
Although the play covers a wide variety of themes, for Dutt, Sita’s journey is about growth. As for the relevance of the epic and its themes, she believes the show has an immense appeal for everyone, especially with the pandemic and the gap year it has created. “This period made a lot of us reconsider our life choices and I think Sita is doing the exact same thing, just over a 40-plus year span. Watching the show really allows us the opportunity to assess what our life is supposed to be about, take it by the horns and live that life, because it’s the only chance we have,” she concludes.
The Sitayana is available as video-on-demand till 17 October. Visit EastWestPlayers.org/the-sitayana