Dancers talk about stepping out of the confines of tradition and interpreting “strong” women characters on stage.

There are several strong women characters to be found in the classics. Yet, across genres of Indian dance, many dancers feel that only the nayika (the female protagonist) pining for her love has really got her due. Take Mohiniyattam, for example, which essentially explores the female psyche. “In Mohiniyattam, there have been many interpretations of the emotions of hapless women, the victim. But very few have explored the psyche of powerful women. In this age of the educated, independent female it is necessary to bring out the stronger side of mystical heroines. I enjoy giving expression to the humane element in these strong women. Thankfully, in the case of Mohiniyattam at least, our generation is at the forefront of this change,” says Mohiniyattam danseuse Neena Prasad.

It’s then heartening to see many women performers, especially Mohiniyattam and Koodiyattam artistes, stepping out of the confines of the largely patriarchal predisposition of Indian performing art, and that too without transgressing the inherent classicism of the art forms. With their confidence in their craft and in the art itself blazing, these women dancers/artistes are beginning to tell their stories, sharing their own experiences on stage, and in the process covering the changing roles of women in modern India, ever so subtly, through the voices of Sita and Draupadi, Kunti and Kannagi, Chitrangada and Amrapalli, and the many other “strong” women of lore.

There are a number of things that come into play when these women are depicted through the medium of dance or on stage. “The key is not to interpret the story/poetry in the literal sense, but to think laterally, on what has been left unsaid, ideally, without compromising the character or the story,” says Mohiniyattam dancer Methil Devika. “I think an act works best when you keep these mythological women as they are. Interpreting is not about second guessing a character or pondering on what could have happened or creating an entirely new character out of the existing frame. For example, I would not want to depict Yashodhara, wife of Siddharta Gautama, as making a strong statement against Lord Buddha. After all in the end, she herself becomes a monk. Similarly, I would not want to re-imagine what it would be if Draupadi has only one husband not five. I believe it defeats the whole purpose of the story. Personally, I would really rather take a day or two out of the lives of these characters and explore, for example, Yashodhara’s emotions when she hears that Lord Buddha is coming for a visit or Draupadi’s feelings every night,” adds Devika, who has given life to powerful women characters such as Kannagi (and Madhavi) from Chilapadikaram, Ganga in ‘Gangavataranam’, ‘Abhisarika’ (from a poem by poet Sugathakumari), Prakriti (as juxtaposed against Purusha), Urmila, Radha, and Ratnakara’s (Sage Valmiki) wife, to name a few.

Neena agrees and adds: “As dancers we have to think of the bigger picture. Amrapali, for example, is essentially a story of universal womanhood, told through the tumultuous tale of a courtesan. Ultimately, she is a shining example of self-liberation at a spiritual level.”

Neena is currently working on her interpretation of the ‘patni’. “I’m intrigued by how the concept of ‘the wife’ has not changed all this while, despite vast changes in cultures everywhere,” she says.

Koodiyattam artiste Indu G. who has enacted women characters as varied as Thara, Subhadra and Gandhari, opines: “You’ve also got to know how to approach the characters. In Koodiyattam, though the performance grammar is the same for both male and female artistes, traditionally, there is not much possibility for women characters in the play. However, the ‘Nirvahanam’ – the back story – affords unlimited scope for explorations of the female psyche.”

Most of the women performers who are actively engaged in this sort of lateral thinking say that a lot of their true selves also come into their interpretations and that’s another key to making them different. “I colour my protagonists with a lot of my mannerisms – in the small things, their reactions, their responses. All of them are rooted in bhakti,” says Devika. “Well, it is inevitable, isn’t it, that a part of our natures are reflected in our heroines too?” muses Koodiyattam prodigy Kapila Venu.

“I believe in gender equality and so a lot of my heroines tend to be very independent. The Sita in Reghuvamsham is a conflict-ridden heroine. My Sita in ‘Sita Parithyagam’ though, is very strong. So is my interpretation of Tagore’s Chitrangada. I try to make the interpretation as truthful as possible, after all at the end of the day, I am answerable to myself,” she says.

The women are also univocal in saying that one has to be subtle about the way they explore the female psyche. Devika speaks for all of them when she says: “Dance should always only suggest. Dance is always about the completion of the idea in the mind of the audience.”