A ballet that raises unanswered questions to get ‘one billion rising’

She was created by Brahma as an epitome of beauty and womanhood. She was venerated and desired by all, yet she was punished for the crime of another, a victim victimized. Ahalya, foremost of the ‘panchakanyas,’ the cursed wife of Gautama who was redeemed by Lord Rama, brings to fore the apprehension and anxiety that every woman undergoes when torn between ideals and realities, desires even not her own, and sacrifice.

What was Ahalya’s crime and why was she punished? What turned her into a stone and what redeemed her? These unanswered questions were raised at the ‘Ahalya ballet dance from feminist perspective’ at the Chamber of Commerce.

The myth

Brahma created an exquisite beauty and named her Ahalya. He breathed life into her and entrusted her to Sage Gautama, who became her parent, guru and protector. When she was ready for marriage, the creator announced that the first one who circled the world thrice would win her hand.

Indra, the lord of the Devas, enamoured by her beauty, undertook the venture. But Sage Gautama outwitted him by encircling a cow thrice, a ritual equal in spiritual merit to circling the world. Ahalya became the wife of the sage.

Pierced by his lust, Indra disguised himself and seduced Ahalya. The Sage cursed Indra for his lust, gelding him and marking him with a thousand yonis. The Devas hastened to help Indra, and he lived with oxen’s testicles and eyes on his body instead of yonis.

His anger unabated, the Sage then cursed Ahalya. She was condemned to become a stone, to live in dust, without food or water and shielded from human eyes for thousands of years. None of the Gods came to her rescue. None pleaded on her behalf.

“The story of Ahalya thus raises issues of purity and pollution, desire and denial, illusion and reality of crime and punishment,” says script writer Vasanth Kannabiran. “She is worshipped as Mahapathivrata and symbol of wifely devotion. But what is the price women pay for earning a place on the pedestal of patriarchal honour?

“Ahalya is an experiment in taking a contemporary look at stories of the archetypal woman,” she says. Vasanth Kannabiran has written a similar ballet ‘Menakaa’. “The ballet is a powerful tool for the dissemination of feminist ideas among those people who are not yet exposed to them. It is also a powerful medium to speak about the pervasiveness of violence in women’s lives,” she notes.

Kalpana Kannabiran says, “For no fault of hers, Ahalya remained as a cursed being for thousands of years and gets redeemed of her curse after coming in contact with the feet of Lord Rama.” Kalpana speaks the English voice-over for Sutradaar (the one who narrates the story of Ahalya).

Rajeswari Sainath, who danced the role of Sutradaar, says that she had read the script a hundred times to perform one time. “Whenever I read, tears come rolling down my cheeks because I understand the plight and predicament of women.”

Questioned and analysed

Throughout the hour-long play, Ahalya’s quandary was not only stated but also questioned and analysed. The whole ballet was interspersed with Sanskrit slokas. The powerful English commentary questioned or rather undermined the slokas. The dance drama, with its mime, fast-pacing foot work and myriad expressions from dancers kept the audience in rapt attention.

The campaign

According to a UN report, one in every three women in the world experiences some kind of violence in her lifetime. In India, every 22 minutes a woman is sexually harassed, every 58 minutes a woman is killed for dowry and every three minutes a woman is subjected to some sort of violence. India stands fourth in the world for the number of cases of violence against women. A team from ASMITA Resource Centre for Women, Hyderabad, performed the ballet to launch the One Billion Rising campaign to end violence against women. The speakers at the function also expressed their concern over the declining sex ratio, which is now 1000:914 in the country.

In Tamil Nadu, the campaign was formally launched in Madurai on Wednesday.