(As published in India Currents, www.indiacurrents.com)
Here I am practicing for my part in Lasya’s 16th production when it occurs to me that women are the raison d’etre, literally and figuratively speaking, of life. The “how” of a woman making a choice is as interesting as the “why.” A poet turns happy mother and housewife; goes on to transform into Sarojini Naidu; a girl’s imagination compels her to be Meera, Krishna’s beloved.
The production, “Navarasa: Her Choice,” will showcase nine women from Indian mythology, fiction, and history in a blend of classical and loka-natyadharmi (casual dramatic) bharatanatyam. Each of the women to be portrayed represent one of the nine main emotions: Sringara (Love), Veera (Bravery), Hasya (Mirth), Roudra (Anger), Bhibatsa (Revulsion), Karuna (Pity), Bhayanaka (Fear), Adbhuta (Wonder), and Shanta (Peace).
Lasya’s production promises a riveting look into some of the poignant moments in India’s culture. Vignettes from Naidu’s personal and political life, for example, will be brought to life with a narration of her poetry, some of it set to music; with company dancers enacting important decisions and episodes of her life. A clever play of live music that includes tabla (Vikas Yendluri), flute (Raghavan Manian), mridangam (N. Narayanan), violin (Shanti Narayanan), and the effervescent vocalist Asha Ramesh who has set the music for the production, will give every story a fresh and dramatic appeal.
The introduction promises to set the dramatic tone that is the premise of the production. A not-to-miss will be the striking solo opening sequence by artistic director Vidhya Subramanian, to be subsequently joined by my classmates and me, senior company dancers, for a combination of heady footwork set off by percussive beats (jatis) and music notes in patterns (swaras). Subramanian, known for her captivating expressiveness, will bring to life the sensuous Sringara rasa, along with Hasya and Adbhuta via portrayals of carefully selected heroines. Senior dancers will don other emotive personas through the program. Each rasa will be serenaded by nritta (pure dance) interludes representing the numbers two to nine across jati compositions, formations, and number of dancers.
Interestingly, heroines have been chosen based on their ability to evoke, or epitomize the central emotion, with an emphasis on connecting to the everyday woman. And while the recital promises some truly dramatic encounters through several passages of India’s cultural and political times, one surprising choice of heroine is Surphanaka.
Subramanian speaks hereof her decision to portray the controversial “dark” character and her career as dancer.
Surphanaka has to be the most off-the-beat heroine, why her?
Surphanaka boldly uses her beauty that is extolled by many poets, to enchant Rama and Lakshmana. Instead of a mere refusal, she is ridiculed by both and then humiliated. This incidence forms a turning point in the Ramayana as it incites an enraged Ravana who is Surphanaka’s brother, to take revenge. I will be highlighting the ridicule for sure, the rasa is mirth, but I hope to raise some questions in the spectator’s mind about society’s reaction to a woman’s sensuality.
Any other characters that have touched you?
Meera’s unchanging faith in her divine love intrigues me. There is also the modern mother who is driven by suspicion of her own child becoming a terrorist—a suspicion that is purely circumstance driven.
Most of your performances are women-centric, any reason for this?
A woman can inspire and cause life around her to be energized through her love, anger, bravery, and the entire gamut of emotions, sometimes in one day! We are such complex beings, there is so much to explore, evoke, and express.
You’ve danced internationally as well—how is bharatanatyam received outside of India and the U.S.?
Dance forms with a communicative aspect, such as bharatanatyam go over well with any audience. I have been moved by audiences in Afghanistan and Kenya that seemed to intuitively understand why the Tamil or Sanskrit heroine is cross with her lover—romance, motherhood, bravery are universal. In addition, the fiery nature of bharatantyam’s pure dance—crisp movements and straight lines—also appeals to the non-Indian audience.
You performed in India recently, what was that like?
I am blessed to have rejuvenated my bond with Chennai during the last few seasons. We are fortunate that we have a large and discerning audience for bharatanatyam in the Bay Area, but one feels truly arrived and recognized when one wins critical acclaim in India. I also feel a responsibility to raise the bar on what to expect of NRI dancers.