California school celebrates Ramayan for 33 years
Last week, 200 students of the Mount Madonna School in Watsonville, California performed the 33rd version of their annual Ramayan production at the Mexican Heritage Theater in San Jose, California. The 3-hour play was performed June, 10, 11 and 12 by preschool to 12th grade students in what is the longest-running production of the Indian epic in the western hemisphere.
The man behind the production is Baba Hari Dass, a monk who has observed a vow of silence since 1952.
"I lived in Ramayan from my childhood," Dass wrote on a notepad -- his preferred mode of communication -- to India Abroad. "The Ramayan is different and the same due to separate cultures. In India, it is real for Indians. It is not just a play."
Gyan McCaughan, a teacher at Mount Madonna and a follower of Dass, said the school was established for the children of Dass's followers.
"Earlier," McCaughan explained, "we used to do the play twice a year. One during fall (Diwali) performed by adults and one during spring by children. It was too much to do twice a year." McCaughan said the students start practicing in January.
Girija Beavers, who designed the costumes for play and who has been associated with the Mount Madonna School for the past 20 years, said Dass was an inspiration.
"Every year, I try to upgrade the costume as we have been doing the play for so long," said Beavers, who gets fabric and costumes from Delhi, and whose daughter and granddaughter are also associated with the school. "I love the play," Beavers continued.
"I love the kids' participation. I may not like some parts of it (the epic), but I love it because it brings the whole community (of Dass's followers) together."
The play's director for the last 30 years, Sampad Martin Kachuck, has given the Ramayan a fusion look, with western songs and a dragon.
"I wasn't aware of the Ramayan until I met Babaji (Dass)," said Kachuk. Kachuk said he read Saint Tulsidas's version of the Ramayan and hundreds of other versions and also saw a play in San Francisco to understand the epic. For him, the Ramayan is as exciting as Star Wars.
"The Ramayan is a powerful story. It's about a hero's journey. Also, it has a true spiritual implication," said Kachuck. "The Ramayan is also about the inward journey. About personal demons, our confusion, our anger and our pride. It has a lot of adventure."
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Image: Baba Hari Dass with students
'It's like a Broadway show'
The English language play takes some liberties, "but what the kids brings each year makes it fresh," said Kachuk. "They respect the story. I am western, and cannot deny that, so I bring that to that story," he said.
Painted in blue and with a microphone attached to his ear, James Clifton said this was his first time playing the role of Lord Ram. He has played a different character every year; last year he was Lakshman, Lord Ram's brother.
"Our class went to India early this year for two weeks and we tried some mythology on Ram and his history and I found that our play covers a very short amount of the actual story. There are many different versions we have not included," said Clifton.
Noah Limbach, who played the role of Vibhishan who deserts his brother Ravan and joins Lord Rama, had a bit of a problem.
"For me," Limbach said, explaining her dilemma loyalty comes above what is right or wrong. He (Vibhishan) chooses what's right over loyalty to his family. So, I had a little bit of problem over that but I have been trying to understand the character more and in depth. I like my role, though."
He too has been part of the Mount Madonna Ramayan for years now. The three-day annual involves students, teachers and parents.
"I have three children participating and they have played roles from a forest animal to a challenging role like Mandodari or Sita," said Sadanand Kakka. "They mentally built up to that role and this is a community play. Primarily, it's like a winding down finale for the seniors. I feel great about the play, as it gives a lot of self ex-pression to the kids, and lots of confidence."
Venkata Balagani, another parent volunteering at the play, said his daughter looks forward to the production every year. "The show is awesome and the kids are pretty amazing. They do a wonderful job. It's like a Broadway show," said Balagani, whose daughter has been participating in the Mount Madonna Ramayan for the past nine years.
Image: Students performing an invocation dance in front of the Goddess Saraswati