The four-day Natya Darshan Conclave in Chennai saw “epic women” from the scriptures and arts conveyed in new light

“Why still the loose hair Draupadi? Was not Dushasana killed long back and your hair anointed with his blood?”

“Oh! I have got used to having it loose. Besides, this is the fashion now,” is the demure reply. I quote from the fascinating keynote address by Dr. Prema Nandkumar for the four-day Natya Darshan Conference/ Performance Conclave curated by Dr. Anita Ratnam and presented by Kartik Fine Arts in association with Arangham Trust at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Chennai. Witty, spewing Sanskrit quotations with her deep scholarship, with a totally open mind combining stout commonsense, she pointed how in India, where myths and legends from the past are not Dead Sea scrolls, the Satis, Savitris and Draupadis have been kept alive through writing and the arts, especially black and white Telugu films between the 1950s and ’60s visualising these epic women, sans glamour or denigration. Like Gandhari, who could have served humanity better by not binding her eyes, women allow themselves to be victimised at times.

Discussing “Epic Women” against the backdrop of widespread violence against women was ironical for some but very necessary for many. Panel discussions and papers alongside an unbelievable range of performances drew sizeable audiences, with Chennai’s classical dancers conspicuously absent. Contemporary interpretations of Sita emerged starting with Veenapani Chawla’s intellectual curiosity-stirring research (a work in progress) on Sita’s mind transported to changing landscapes. From the democratic Mithila where rishis meditated on the secrets of life, to Manu’s city Ayodhya straitjacketed in dharma and laws with the political intrigues of kingship and palace, for Sita the forest meant new adventure, and Lanka was the ‘dark subconscious world’ amidst strangers. In the second sojourn, the forest was her refuge with the ashram ambiance ideal for creative expression.

Writer C.S. Lakshmi in her play “Crossing the River” makes Sita the non-gendered symbol for every type of injustice and degradation. Like Shiva’s “Angikam Bhuvanam” embracing the Universe and woman’s body, the landscape for reading human history needs to expand to spaces beyond prescribed boundaries, she said. “Let me lead my own life,” says Sita to Ravana in an imagined encounter years later. Kapila Venu’s Koodiyattam experience has Sita only represented as the oil lamp on stage with Rama’s ‘shantam’ too placid for theatrical purposes. Koodiyattam revels instead in catching the passions of Ravana, the anti-hero.

Considering “Selfhood and tenacity of the Sangam Tamil heroines: Madhavi and Kannagi”, Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh sees in Kannagi’s burning of Madurai the woman ill-treated and subjected to injustice becoming either a symbol of resistance within the establishment — like Madhavi and Manimekhalai (who become sanyasins) — or manifesting in the pent-up ferocity in the Kali/ Durga / Kannagi /Phoolan Devi (contemporary life example mentioned) avatars. Playwright Mahesh Dattani saw stereotypical epic figures of desirability — submissive, obedient and beautiful — and ‘women we love to hate” as ugly and low-caste (Manthara) and those cast in the larger mould with smouldering passions (like Surphanaka) as constantly reinforced by predominantly male (Brahmin) writers. But Kalpana Ram highlighted lucidly that performance activity by so many groups in so many genres, with specific repertoires which tend to make epic characters larger than life, also allows for open-endedness with nuances of different versions, where caste groups and contexts alter perceptions. Upper castes would reinforce the Draupadi of patriarchal society, whereas in many subaltern Tamil Nadu groups concerned with injustice, Draupadi is worshipped as the fiery Goddess. India alone, pertinently, accommodates countless Ramayana versions. Ammu Joseph on “Women in Politics” spoke of them as bold women rather than of exceptional calibre, and, barring odd cases like Mamata Banerjee or Mayawati, benefactors of dynastic political families. Dr. Ketu H. Katrak gave a cross-cultural comparison of women with epic passions, using examples of Medea, Lady Macbeth and Surpanaka.

“Epic Women in Indian Dance” saw meaningful vignettes of dance icons Balasaraswati, Rukmini Devi, Indrani Rehman and Chandralekha by disciples. Rukmini Devi, the educationist and institution builder, turned more to dance presentation, said Katherine Kunhiraman, while daughter Sukanya spoke candidly of mother Indrani constantly trying to underplay the ‘Miss India’ mantel which she believed belittled her dance status. A short film of her Manduka Sabdam, presented for the “Smothers Brothers” show in America with a young Ravi Shankar announcing, was a moment in history. Padmini Chettur spoke with feeling about Chandralekha, saying what she had imbibed from her lay in her bodily experience and not in theories. “Dance experience lies in the search, not in arriving… Let us not start with meaning, it will emerge with movement,” were Chandralekha’s words. Nandini Ramani, who divided the short time available very well between a neat, short paper with an audio-visual of Bala, topped it with a demonstration of a one-line abhinaya, catching Bala’s approach succinctly.

Andree Grau from Switzerland read a paper outlining aspects of the life and career of Mrinalini Sarabhai and spoke of her as a cosmopolitan patriot and epic woman who used her classical dance expertise for purposes of social activism. Film snippets on some of her work were screened.

(To be continued)