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Moments of magic

The talk is that we’ve yet to experience the cuts that will have to be implemented to balance the nation’s books, but on the quiet, in suburban backstreets, behind closed doors, along cultural throughways and byways not often visited we know that they’re already happening, big time.

6 November 2010

12:00 AM

6 November 2010

12:00 AM

The talk is that we’ve yet to experience the cuts that will have to be implemented to balance the nation’s books, but on the quiet, in suburban backstreets, behind closed doors, along cultural throughways and byways not often visited we know that they’re already happening, big time.

The talk is that we’ve yet to experience the cuts that will have to be implemented to balance the nation’s books, but on the quiet, in suburban backstreets, behind closed doors, along cultural throughways and byways not often visited we know that they’re already happening, big time. Look no further than Sunday’s Classic Serial on Radio 4 for a signal of how they might affect what we’ll be listening to in future decades (not just years). The huge sprawling Indian epic, The Ramayana, has been hurriedly put together in just two hour-long episodes instead of developed into a nice long meaty series. This meant that what we heard were the bullet points of love and war, rather than a lavish, colourfully embroidered portrayal of ordinary mortals struggling to overcome the tests of endurance, honour and duty set by the mischievous gods.

Amber Lone’s script is a valiant effort to compress the tale of Prince Rama and his beautiful doe-eyed wife Sita who are cast into exile with his faithful brother Lakshman after a palace coup. But 120 minutes cannot do justice to the ancient Sanskrit poem, which springs from as far back as at least the 4th century BC and runs to 24,000 stanzas. For some ardent readers it provides a religious exercise, repeating favourite passages day after day as a step-by-step guide to enlightenment. Others regard it as theatre, a dramatic tale with complementary characters acting out the huge variety of human experience.


There were moments of magic as Sita (played by Manjinder Virk) declares her love and Rama (Lloyd Thomas) attempts to lift Shiva’s bow, but it was difficult sometimes to keep up with what was going on, or to get a sense of what it is about the poem that so entranced Gandhi. He dreamed that India would one day return to the Golden Age described by the poet Valmiki. Evil is present as Rama’s wicked stepmother attempts to disinherit him, and General Ravana, ruler of Lanka, kidnaps Sita. But such wickedness is tamed by Rama’s goodwill, which successfully reboots the wayward emotions.

The setting has been updated to 2010 for Radio 4 so that Sita lures Rama to her heart with a pink silk scarf and a mobile phone, while Rama is threatened by gun-toting rebels wielding AK47s. The text resonates with echoes of the troubles in Kashmir, the civil war in Sri Lanka, the ways in which we are now ruled by terror. But with so much action happening in such a hurry there’s no time for the real meaning of the epic, its spiritual underpinning, to become clear. The Ramayana explores not so much emotions as motives. In R.K. Narayan’s translation we are told, ‘The perfect man takes a false step, apparently commits a moral slip, and we ordinary mortals stand puzzled before the incident.’ On air we heard lines like, ‘Don’t pity me; fight for me’ and ‘If I can’t be Rama’s, I won’t be anyone’s.’ It is worth a listen, though, if only for the music — by Niraj Chag — which takes us straight away from the gloom of fogbound November to the faraway forests of the Indian hills.

The Asian Network, meanwhile, has had its drama budget cut so radically that it has only enough resources to produce one half-hour play a month. On Wednesday, Sonali Bhattacharyya’s engaging Ping Pong (produced by James Peries) was inspired by Ping!, the table tennis project of the summer, when tables were set up across London for anyone to have a go for free. Young Anil spends too much time practising the loop-kill shot with his grandmother, Thakuma, once a champion player in West Bengal. His parents would prefer him to study for his school exams. Anil, though, has talent, and encouraged by Thakuma he runs away to Sheffield to enter the national championships for under-12s.

This drama, too, could have drawn us in more effectively if more time had been given to develop the script, and if the play had been longer when aired. It took a while to work out who was who, and to distinguish their voices (the most difficult problem for any aspiring radio dramatist). Another 15 minutes would have enriched the interplay between the generations and the different strands of the family’s story as Anil competes for attention with his clever sister, and embarks on his adventurous journey by bus from Leicester to Sheffield. Yet after a few minutes I was won over by Thakuma’s wonderfully warm voice (she’s played by Indira Joshi, from The Kumars at No. 42 and Anil’s bright enthusiasm (Joseph Samrai). The dialogue is sharp, and the characterisation inventive. It’s just a shame the Asian Network has so few listeners, as Ping Pong’s atmosphere and originality deserve to be aired beyond this niche market.


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