Mallika Sarabhai’s Past Forward explores the evolution of the woman’s voice and her identity in dance and life

Mallika Sarabhai’s Past Forward fuses the vocabulary of Bharatanatyam with poetry and literature and travels across time to narrate how women are finding their own identify

March 05, 2024 05:22 pm | Updated 05:23 pm IST

Mallika Sarabhai’s Past Forward  traces the evolution of the women’s moment through Bharatanatyam.

Mallika Sarabhai’s Past Forward  traces the evolution of the women’s moment through Bharatanatyam. | Photo Credit: Jayanti Sagara

In the place of the pining nayika (female lead), commonly seen in Bharatanatyam, is a nayika of substance in danseuse actor Mallika Sarabhai’s production Past Forward. Articulate and bold, this nayika has the agency and determination to demand her rights.

Fusing the vocabulary of Bharatanatyam with literature, poetry and music, Past Forward explores the status of women in art and life. Excerpts from the repertoire of Bharatanatyam have been blended with verse and song to portray the modern-day nayika who battles the odds to rise, Phoenix-like, as in Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise’.

Speaking on the phone from Ahmedabad, Mallika says the recital also parallels the evolution of Bharatanatyam, how it was performed and how certain practitioners like her perform the classical dance by extending its language and grammar to embrace contemporary issues. “The change is not only in the lyrics but also in how we go from chaste Bharatanyaam as a form and where I began using Bharatanatyam as my root language without saying this is Bharatanatyam. But it obviously is!”

Mallika Sarabhai in her production Past Forward 

Mallika Sarabhai in her production Past Forward  | Photo Credit: Jayanti Sagara

Performed first at the Kolkata Literary Meet in 2023, it took off from an idea that had been “brewing in my mind about mirroring events in the women’s movements and what Bharatanatyam can do”, she says. So, she bridges time and space to narrate the story of the evolution of the woman’s voice and identity in dance and in life.

“I consider myself a nayika. But I am not the simpering nayika that is usually depicted in Bharatanatyam. I am a nayika who questions, protests, shouts from the rooftops… I am a nayika who does everything I do,” she asserts.

“There was also an evolution in the thinking of those who used to write the lyrics for the dance form. By the 18th century, I have a varnam on Karthikeya, where the nayika is telling her friend to remind Karthikeya of his promise to marry her. She wants her companion to tell Karthikeya that she has his love letters and that she would show those to his father! It is a dramatically different nayika. She says I will put up with a lot but don’t think you can get away with it.”

Mallika Sarabhai

Mallika Sarabhai | Photo Credit: Sreesaj Sreedharan

In the 18th century, some “rebellious, illuminated men or women wrote such lyrics. This nayika is not a man-hater. She says, ‘I long for you, I want to be with you. You spend your nights with me and one day, you put vibhuthi on your forehead and say you have become a monk. How is that possible?”

Mallika has chosen the piece to show the change in a traditional varnam and how within 100 years, there was a difference in the portrayal of a nayika. The first three pieces in Past Forward are performed in the framework of traditional Bharatanatyam.

“Next is a stuthi written by men for women, who always want women to be weeping, looking out of the window, and getting dressed only to be disappointed. Then I explore how a woman looks at herself. For that, I have chosen a poem in English ‘I am not that woman selling you shoes and socks‘ by well-known Pakistani writer Kishwar Naheed.”

Mallika Sarabhai’s performs to a song sung by her and Aditi Ramesh.

Mallika Sarabhai’s performs to a song sung by her and Aditi Ramesh. | Photo Credit: Jayanti Sagara

The veteran choreographer has juxtaposed the poem with an Urdu song by Momin - Tumhe yaad ho ki na yaad ho‘, which was made famous by Begum Akhtar. Paying tribute to her Kuchipudi guru CR Acharyelu, Mallika says the next piece is based on a ninda stuthi, in which a woman questions her man. It was taught by her guru who chose the piece for his “argumentative, rebellious disciple.”

“She asks Shiva ‘Why are you getting angry with me? Do I tell anybody that you go around begging with an empty skull and that you don’t have enough to eat….? And it goes on...It is fabulous. Over the last 30 to 40 years, but for me, I have not seen anyone perform a ninda stuthi although there are lots of it in existence.”

Mallika ends the recital with Maya Angelou’s powerful poem on a woman’s resilience, ‘Still I Rise’.

She then moves to using the form and setting it in a contemporary way. An in-depth study on the way women are brought up in India and their socialising processes has been incorporated into the production, followed by a song that Mallika renders with Aditi Ramesh.

“Its about people giving us power and taking it away. All the hard won liberties that women had over the last 100 years is being taken away, all over the world. I conclude with ‘Still I Rise’. In spite of the all adversities and setbacks, women are resilient to rise again,” she says.

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