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Illustration by Jessica Caisse.

Ishika Seth and Amit Patel Unearth The Contemporary In The Ancient

Nadhi Thekkek

Ishika Seth and Amit Patel. Photo by Genevieve Parker.

“Unearthed: The Untold Stories of the Ramayana” is a contemporary re-imagining of characters from the historic Indian epic, Ramayana, created, conceived and choreographed by Bay Area dancers Ishika Seth and Amit Patel. Versions of the Ramayana have been dated as far back as 500 BCE, and now the work is widely used and constantly reinterpreted in the South Asian arts, with hundreds of sources across languages, regions, and countries. While there are many interpretations that reinforce problematic narratives, work like “Unearthed” explores the more recently written, contemporary interpretations of three supporting characters, two often seen as anti-heroes, Ravana and Shoorpanka, and one often seen as the silent heroine, Sita.

As soon as we entered, the space felt transformed with hanging vines, lighting, and use of essential oils. After a meaningful land acknowledgement by Kanyon Sayers-Roods (Coyote Woman), the show invited us in with striking graphics by Varun Patel referencing key moments in the Ramayana and introducing the struggles of the three different characters

This led into one of the two main highlights, the first being ”Lanka is Burning,” where the three characters stand before us in a tryptic, each expressing their own plight as if through windows into three different worlds. Seth as Shoorpanka had a strength in her gaze that radiated through her entire body, whether she was still or moving. Patel as Raavan, was in constant motion, committing to the character’s own power struggles. Batra’s arresting movement mirrored Sita’s struggle between the strength of her past and the circumstances of her present.

Throughout the evening, each dancer brought their own individual styles and perspectives into this work. With Seth and Patel, each of their styles invoked elements of modern dance, bollywood, and what has been coined Indian contemporary. Batra brought in her own perspective of modern kathak; both her training and experimentation were visible through her composition of movement.

Seth and Patel. Photo by Genevieve Parker.

The second highlight, but perhaps the most captivating piece of the evening, was “The Lament” where Seth, Patel, and Batra, each dwell in the consequences of their actions and circumstances. Patel as Raavan grappled with his shift from being an revered and respected king, to a king who led his people into war. Sita, once an independent warrior princess, now struggled with her dependence on others to rescue her. Shoorpanka regrets that her feelings of revenge led to her brother’s demise.

In this piece, there is a palpable chemistry between the three dancers. Their energies matched, keeping us grounded despite their individual and yet very different movement styles. All three invoke strong facial expressions to guide the story, often seen in either bollywood or in many South Asian dance traditions, while also creating a combined abstract aesthetic made up of the movement styles each of them brings to this work.

They were accompanied by Nishant Bordia, an evocative singer that may or may not have walked onto the stage directly from Coke Studio. Also, the theatrical and musical stylings of Sheherazad as sutradhar (or storyteller/narrator) was critical to this work. Her tone, inflections, singing, all added layers of the narrative in a way that kept us engaged. The script by Sukanya Chakrabarti spoken by Sheherazad and the other voice actors (Charu Shankar, Shena Gamat, Shajehan Khan) was particularly inviting, and brilliantly written. At times though, I found myself wishing to hear the words from the dancers themselves, given how well the narration suited their characters.

While “Unearthed” was the first evening-length collaboration between Seth and Patel, it was an exciting start to what I believe will be fruitful, long-term, creative partnership.

Nadhi Thekkek is a dancer/choreographer and Artistic Director of Nava Dance Theatre. She uses the south Indian dance form of bharatanatyam to navigate place, identity, and politics through the lens of her lived experience as a child of immigrants, mother, American, diasporic Malayalee woman.

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