Translating Tradition for Young Audiences - Part 1 of 2

This article is part 1 of 2 in the series Translating Tradition for Young Audiences

This article is based on Ramaa Bharadvaj’s illustrative talk on June 18, 2017 at the workshop on Vyāsa, Vālmīki, Kālidāsa, and Guṇāḍhya at Chinmaya International Foundation, Veliyanad, Kerala.

It is presented in two parts for Prekshaa readers.

We, the performing and visual artists of India, have inherited our rich tradition of storytelling, from master raconteurs. Among these, Vyāsa, Vālmīki, and Kālidāsa stand out prominently for providing rich fodder for our imagination. While their works can be categorized as poetic literature, another noteworthy writer named Guṇāḍhya, and his Bṛhatkathā deserve an equally revered place in India’s literary gallery.

Photo credit: Amitava Sarkar

The Bṛhatkathā stories contained the wisdom of life narrated through characters ranging from gods and kings, to animals and birds, and is said to have influenced India’s beloved book of stories, the Pañcatantra. As a derivative of the Bṛhatkathā, Pañcatantra Fables too are an exceptional source of life’s profound wisdom, expressed in a most accessible style.

While those who intellectually engage with these stories may look for symbolic intentions and philosophical implications, it is the artist, that keeps the rasa of these stories alive. While reinterpreting them through theater, dance, or puppetry, the artist provides the heart to these works, thus freeing them from narrative fossilization.

Through revisiting my dance-theater production “Pañcatantra-Animal Fables of India” (created when I lived in California USA), I share the conceptual and aesthetic processes that went into choreographically translating tradition for young audiences. I found that these stories, with their myriad emotional complexities of humor, pathos, jealousy, anger, wonder, and courage, lent themselves magnificently to be structured through the medium of dance, especially for a global audience.

Translating Tradition - An Immigrant Experience

The challenge for traditional arts practitioners in the diaspora setting is that our working arena is a non-native cultural environment where the arts, customs, and traditions, that have had a history of generational transmission as a Lived experience, are not practiced as a Lived-experience but as a Learned-experience.  In such a habitat, the creative dexterity required of immigrant artists increases.

During my 31-year dance career in the US, my sharing of the cultural tradition was not about a habitual reproduction of inherited artistic-techniques, but about communicating my innate Indian-ness through the medium of Dance. I consider live theater to be a collaboration between the artist and the spectator and as such, I find statements such as “I dance for myself”, or “I dance for God, and God alone”, to exhibit a certain pomposity. In this regard, I recall Swami Tejomayananda’s reflection on the ‘Artist-Art-Rasika’ relationship:

An artist might say ‘I did it as a worship of God’ but if all the people who are sitting (in the auditorium) did not enjoy, then the offering is not complete. If we know that Paramatma alone is sitting here in the form of all these people and then perform, it is something special.

In this sense, having my work resonate with my viewers has always been important for me.

Photo credit: Amitava Sarkar

However, my desire to translate Pañcatantra stories through dance-theater was born not out of any craving for novelty, but out of necessity, when I encountered a genuine personal need for recreating my inherited artistic traditions.

Desire - The Mother of Invention

It was 1992, and my son Siva had just turned 3. Being a dancer, I decided that he would go where not many 3-year old Indian boys have gone before, and do what not many 3-year old Indian boys have done before. He would go to Indian classical dance performances and sit through the whole thing!  But my son had other plans.  While I sat in the auditorium, he ran around in the lobby, with other 3-year olds, chased by their respective dads.

This amusing scenario raised three pivotal questions in my mind:

  1. Are we diaspora artists being true cultural representatives, or have we settled into an artistic comfort zone (or creative apathy)?

2. Do we strive to rediscover our rich traditions, or are we merely using our traditional arts as a cultural pillow for us migrated adults to snuggle into, for curing our own homesickness?

3. Are not our ABCD children (American Born Confused Desis), as they are unfortunately called, our first real transnational audience? Can we brag about being cultural ambassadors of our tradition in a foreign land, when we cannot even seem to draw our own children in?

At that time, I used to read him bedtime stories from the Pañcatantra fables, and the dancer in me would jump, leap and make faces. Siva was riveted to my “Presentation”. It was then that I decided I would animate these fables on stage for him, and for other young children who were running around in theater lobbies.

Ramaa with her son Siva & student Nikita

It took two years of research and preparation – my husband and I took a second mortgage on our home in the US to fund the project - and Pañcatantra was brought to the stage in 1994.

About Pañcatantra Fables

Believed to have been compiled 2500 years ago, Pañcatantra is a nīti-śāstra - a science dealing with the conduct of life.  It presupposes that one has considered and rejected the possibility of living as a saint.  It attempts to answer the question of how to gain the utmost gratification from life in a worldly existence, not in a frivolous manner, but through dharma-based principles. Dharma is not to be understood as an explicit ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  It refers to the innate nature of a thing/person.  For example, it is the dharma of fire to burn, of a bird to fly, of a warrior to fight, and so on. In the tapestry of life, every creature has its dharma and Pañcatantra fables explained the enjoyment of life on this basis.

The stories were told by Viṣṇuśarma, a Brahmin scholar, who was ordered to educate the three lazy princes of Mahilārūpya. Viṣṇuśarma taught them the art of statecraft, along with lessons in philosophy, psychology, astronomy, human relations etc, all in the form of 86 clever and witty animal fables. The verses spoken by the animal characters were quoted from sacred writings. Arthur W. Ryder, who wrote a comprehensive English translation, compares this use of verses to that of having an English beast fable in which all the animals "justify their actions by quotations from the Bible or from Shakespeare".

Photo credit: Bala Bharadvaj

Viṣṇuśarma divided his fables into pañca (five) tantra (treatises). These were:
Mitrabhedam – Breach in friendship
Mitraprāptikam – Gaining friendship
Kākolūkīyam – Story of owls and crows
Labhapraṇāśam – Loss of what is gained
Aparīkṣita-kārakam – Results of unexamined (rash) acts
Within six months, he turned the princes into experts in the complexities of political ethics.

Some historians even say that in 600 to 700 BCE, Pañcatantra tales traveled to Babylon and Greece through traders who narrated them as nighttime entertainment in trading colonies, and thus they became the forerunners of the famed Aesop's Fables.

Adapting the Fables

During my research for this production, some questions arose in my mind.

1. Why did Viṣṇuśarma select animals to be the voice for this intellectual subject? I realized that animal characters have the power to touch a delicate part of the human psyche in a way that human characters cannot. Whether it was Viṣṇuśarma who created the Pañcatantra animals, Walt Disney who created Mickey Mouse, or the creators of Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Kermit the Frog, they were all aware of this fact. (A real-life example of the impact of animal characters is found in the animated film ‘Babe’, about a baby pig. When it was released, the sale of pork dropped dramatically in the US.)

2. Did the author see the similarity between the state of equilibrium needed for the human mind for surmounting the challenges of life and the equilibrium maintained by Nature? After all, Nature does possess a great capacity for regeneration, and for survival, which is what Pañcatantra is all about.

3. Could a reinterpretation of the Sanskrit words in the original work redefine the message of the Pañcatantra to deliver a commentary on environmental ordeals?

Photo credit: Bala Bharadvaj

I found, that through a contemporary interpretation, I could embrace Pañcatantra’s allegorical structure for raising philosophic questions about human perception of “Nature” and global ecology in today’s world. Thus, if Viṣṇuśarma’s Pañcatantra talked to the sons of king Amaraśakti who were to inherit the kingdom of Mahilārūpya, my Pañcatantra would speak to the sons and daughters of the modern world who will inherit the kingdom of Earth.

In conceiving the storyteller’s dialogues, I drew inspiration from the speeches of Native American leaders, writings of American Naturalists such as Henry David Thoreau, philosophers from around the world, and from our own Ṛg Veda.

For example, although the first chapter of Mitrabheda is literally interpreted as “Breach in Friendship”, I was inspired by a deeper philosophical implication found in the Ṛg Veda, where Mitra is described as a heavenly Being, who lays down the Ṛta Dharma, a law which dictates the peaceful co-existence of all life forms.  Straying from this dharma causes a tear in the tapestry and creates a breach (bheda) in the cosmic and ethical laws of Mitra. When this interpretation of the word mitrabheda unveiled for me, the story of the lion, the bull and the jackal became more than just about a rift in the friendship between two creatures. It carried symbolic connotations about personal, communal, and global miseries that result when harmony and balance are fractured.

I found each of the five Tantras to lend itself aptly to provide environmental thoughts and adaptation, and I braided these together by scripting a conversational narration between a mother and her young children as seen in the video sample below. This biographical intent became truly meaningful, when my son Siva, who had turned 5 by then, not only agreed to act on stage but also recorded his dialogues in his own voice. This thrilled me, for, after all, he was the artistic muse who unlocked the gate for this journey.

Whereas weaving the connective story for the five Tantras flowed as if guided by some higher supervision, bringing it on to the stage entertainingly, and without losing the classical eloquence, presented challenges from multiple angles. In Part-2 of my essay, I share how I navigated the choreographic landscape.

To be continued...




Ramaa Bharadvaj is a storyteller based in Bangalore and tells stories with movements and with words. An acclaimed performer, choreographer, and author, she lived in the US for 31 years. She is the recipient of multiple Lester Horton Awards for her choreographies, and California Arts Council’s Directors Award for her contributions to the Arts in California. She writes, travels, and speaks on the arts for diverse groups and also teaches and curates a national dance festival at Chinmaya Naada Bindu Gurukul, Pune.

Prekshaa Publications

Indian Perspective of Truth and Beauty in Homer’s Epics is a unique work on the comparative study of the Greek Epics Iliad and Odyssey with the Indian Epics – Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata. Homer, who laid the foundations for the classical tradition of the West, occupies a stature similar to that occupied by the seer-poets Vālmīki and Vyāsa, who are synonymous with the Indian culture. The author...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the sixth volume of reminiscences character sketches of prominent public figures, liberals, and social workers. These remarkable personages hailing from different corners of South India are from a period that spans from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Written in Kannada in the 1970s, these memoirs go...

An Introduction to Hinduism based on Primary Sources

Authors: Śatāvadhānī Dr. R Ganesh, Hari Ravikumar

What is the philosophical basis for Sanātana-dharma, the ancient Indian way of life? What makes it the most inclusive and natural of all religio-philosophical systems in the world?

The Essential Sanātana-dharma serves as a handbook for anyone who wishes to grasp the...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the fifth volume, episodes from the lives of traditional savants responsible for upholding the Vedic culture. These memorable characters lived a life of opulence amidst poverty— theirs  was the wealth of the soul, far beyond money and gold. These vidvāns hailed from different corners of the erstwhile Mysore Kingdom and lived in...

Padma Bhushan Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam represents the quintessence of Sage Bharata’s art and Bhārata, the country that gave birth to the peerless seer of the Nāṭya-veda. Padma’s erudition in various streams of Indic knowledge, mastery over many classical arts, deep understanding of the nuances of Indian culture, creative genius, and sublime vision bolstered by the vedāntic and nationalistic...

Bhārata has been a land of plenty in many ways. We have had a timeless tradition of the twofold principle of Brāhma (spirit of wisdom) and Kṣāttra (spirit of valour) nourishing and protecting this sacred land. The Hindu civilisation, rooted in Sanātana-dharma, has constantly been enriched by brāhma and safeguarded by kṣāttra.
The renowned Sanskrit poet and scholar, Śatāvadhānī Dr. R...

ಛಂದೋವಿವೇಕವು ವರ್ಣವೃತ್ತ, ಮಾತ್ರಾಜಾತಿ ಮತ್ತು ಕರ್ಷಣಜಾತಿ ಎಂದು ವಿಭಕ್ತವಾದ ಎಲ್ಲ ಬಗೆಯ ಛಂದಸ್ಸುಗಳನ್ನೂ ವಿವೇಚಿಸುವ ಪ್ರಬಂಧಗಳ ಸಂಕಲನ. ಲೇಖಕರ ದೀರ್ಘಕಾಲಿಕ ಆಲೋಚನೆಯ ಸಾರವನ್ನು ಒಳಗೊಂಡ ಈ ಹೊತ್ತಗೆ ಪ್ರಧಾನವಾಗಿ ಛಂದಸ್ಸಿನ ಸೌಂದರ್ಯವನ್ನು ಲಕ್ಷಿಸುತ್ತದೆ. ತೌಲನಿಕ ವಿಶ್ಲೇಷಣೆ ಮತ್ತು ಅಂತಃಶಾಸ್ತ್ರೀಯ ಅಧ್ಯಯನಗಳ ತೆಕ್ಕೆಗೆ ಬರುವ ಬರೆಹಗಳೂ ಇಲ್ಲಿವೆ. ಶಾಸ್ತ್ರಕಾರನಿಗಲ್ಲದೆ ಸಿದ್ಧಹಸ್ತನಾದ ಕವಿಗೆ ಮಾತ್ರ ಸ್ಫುರಿಸಬಲ್ಲ ಎಷ್ಟೋ ಹೊಳಹುಗಳು ಕೃತಿಯ ಮೌಲಿಕತೆಯನ್ನು ಹೆಚ್ಚಿಸಿವೆ. ಈ...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the fourth volume, some character sketches of the Dewans of Mysore preceded by an account of the political framework of the State before Independence and followed by a review of the political conditions of the State after 1940. These remarkable leaders of Mysore lived in a period that spans from the mid-nineteenth century to the...

Bharatiya Kavya-mimamseya Hinnele is a monograph on Indian Aesthetics by Mahamahopadhyaya N. Ranganatha Sharma. The book discusses the history and significance of concepts pivotal to Indian literary theory. It is equally useful to the learned and the laity.

Sahitya-samhite is a collection of literary essays in Kannada. The book discusses aestheticians such as Ananda-vardhana and Rajashekhara; Sanskrit scholars such as Mena Ramakrishna Bhat, Sridhar Bhaskar Varnekar and K S Arjunwadkar; and Kannada litterateurs such as DVG, S L Bhyrappa and S R Ramaswamy. It has a foreword by Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh.

The Mahābhārata is the greatest epic in the world both in magnitude and profundity. A veritable cultural compendium of Bhārata-varṣa, it is a product of the creative genius of Maharṣi Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa. The epic captures the experiential wisdom of our civilization and all subsequent literary, artistic, and philosophical creations are indebted to it. To read the Mahābhārata is to...

Shiva Rama Krishna

சிவன். ராமன். கிருஷ்ணன்.
இந்திய பாரம்பரியத்தின் முப்பெரும் கதாநாயகர்கள்.
உயர் இந்தியாவில் தலைமுறைகள் பல கடந்தும் கடவுளர்களாக போற்றப்பட்டு வழிகாட்டிகளாக விளங்குபவர்கள்.
மனித ஒற்றுமை நூற்றாண்டுகால பரிணாம வளர்ச்சியின் பரிமாணம்.
தனிநபர்களாகவும், குடும்ப உறுப்பினர்களாகவும், சமுதாய பிரஜைகளாகவும் நாம் அனைவரும் பரிமளிக்கிறோம்.
சிவன் தனிமனித அடையாளமாக அமைகிறான்....

ऋतुभिः सह कवयः सदैव सम्बद्धाः। विशिष्य संस्कृतकवयः। यथा हि ऋतवः प्रतिसंवत्सरं प्रतिनवतामावहन्ति मानवेषु तथैव ऋतुवर्णनान्यपि काव्यरसिकेषु कामपि विच्छित्तिमातन्वते। ऋतुकल्याणं हि सत्यमिदमेव हृदि कृत्वा प्रवृत्तम्। नगरजीवनस्य यान्त्रिकतां मान्त्रिकतां च ध्वनदिदं चम्पूकाव्यं गद्यपद्यमिश्रितमिति सुव्यक्तमेव। ऐदम्पूर्वतया प्रायः पुरीपरिसरप्रसृतानाम् ऋतूनां विलासोऽत्र प्रपञ्चितः। बेङ्गलूरुनामके...

The Art and Science of Avadhānam in Sanskrit is a definitive work on Sāhityāvadhānam, a form of Indian classical art based on multitasking, lateral thinking, and extempore versification. Dotted throughout with tasteful examples, it expounds in great detail on the theory and practice of this unique performing art. It is as much a handbook of performance as it is an anthology of well-turned...

This anthology is a revised edition of the author's 1978 classic. This series of essays, containing his original research in various fields, throws light on the socio-cultural landscape of Tamil Nadu spanning several centuries. These compelling episodes will appeal to scholars and laymen alike.
“When superstitious mediaevalists mislead the country about its judicial past, we have to...

The cultural history of a nation, unlike the customary mainstream history, has a larger time-frame and encompasses the timeless ethos of a society undergirding the course of events and vicissitudes. A major key to the understanding of a society’s unique character is an appreciation of the far-reaching contributions by outstanding personalities of certain periods – especially in the realms of...

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhānī Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective to every discussion. These essays deal with the philosophy, history, aesthetics, and practice of...


इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...