Refined dance-theatre experience

Srikanth and Aswathy performing for Brahma Gana Sabha in Chennai

Srikanth and Aswathy performing for Brahma Gana Sabha in Chennai   | Photo Credit: S_R_Raghunathan

‘Samavesha’ was a sensitive exploration of the third gender characters in the Mahabharata

‘...Sleep shall evade me for the last time tonight, for tomorrow I go to the battlefield to slay Bhishma!’

Thus went the introduction of Shikhandi in ‘Samavesha’, an exploration of third gender personalities from the Mahabharata, Amba- Shikhandi and Brihannala by N. Srikanth and Aswathy. ‘Samavesha’ was not all rhetoric, just the introductions. It was a two-part solo dance drama, where drama dominated, and going away from convention, the dancers used easily understood mukhaja and angika abhinaya, facial expressions and body language, rather than the traditional mudras or the gestural language. As the dancers are talented dramatists, ‘Samavesha,’ came across as a non-indulgent, accessible and refined dance-theatre experience. This venture was a departure from the usual and the artists need to be appreciated for exploring possibilities.

Aswathy’s Amba-Shikhandi was a combination of Mohiniyattom and theatre. The long story was intelligently presented. She did not waste time with the details of the story; she relied on symbolic references to the incidents, using her clear and sharp expressions to tell the tale.

Mohiniyattom lent itself easily to abhinaya; there was one instance where a swara segment with slow steps was used during Amba’s sorrowful reaction to King Salva’s rejection. The dancer’s ready tears added intensity to the mood.

The concept of the third gender came to the fore when Amba is reborn as Shikhandini. She is brought up as a boy, and not realising her identity gets married to a woman. When they discover her gender, she is shamed and runs away. Her despair as regards her identity brought the issue to the fore, but it was for a brief moment. As a portrayal of Amba-Shikhandi, Aswathy’s delineation was commendable, but as a theme-based production, it was not enough.

Intelligently, Aswathy used only one raga, Sarasangi (Bijeesh Krishna), but it was cleverly adapted to different moods — from the sad moments when Salva rejects Amba, to the shame of Shikhandini, and to the revenge and anger within Shikhandi. Padams from the Kathakali attakatha ‘Amba’ by Malayalam poet Olappamanna were used; additional lyrics were by Vyloppilly Narayanankutty. Aswathy’s costume and hair, in grey and white and an unusual top knot with side-swept hair, was an interesting attempt at being diferent.

Srikanth’s Brhannala with Sanskrit verses from Vyasa’s Mahabharatha, Malayalam lyrics from Irayiamman Thambi’s Kathakali play ‘Utharaswayamwaram’ and music by Hariprasad Kaniyal, was all about the protagonist’s state of mind. Arjuna had been cursed to live the life of a eunuch for a year by the celestial dancer Urvashi for having rejected her advances; he spends the year as Brhannala teaching dance to Princess Uthara in King Virata’s palace.

It maybe interesting to note that ‘eunuch’ referred to in the West is somewhat different to the third gender, more specifically ‘hijra’ connotation, in South Asia. Arjuna endured the travails of a male hiding within a female body, and this is what Srikanth explored. There was hardly any narrative to fall back on, but Srikanth, as an experienced hereditary artiste in the Melattur Bhagavatamela dance drama tradition, was able to portray the role with ease. He was dressed as a female dancer, accessorised from head to toe; his entry was dramatic — with his back turned to the audience he started dancing with one-handed mudras, before turning around dramatically, to loud applause. Dancing gracefully in a swara segment in Nagaswaravali, talamalika, Srikanth embodied a female dancing body, with occasional strong stamps the only give-away. The student session overlaps into a jathi and he emulates a lady dance teacher in an interestingly visualised scene.

His role was comparable to tight-rope walking. Externally he had to emulate a woman, but while speaking of internal feelings, he had to revert to being a man. Though stree-vesham is his speciality, this switching could not have been easy.

He collapses crying at his predicament in a beautiful Mukhari ‘Deivame aha..’, breaking down and falling as a woman, but speaking as Arjuna when he talks about the uselessness of the Gandiva bow. He is tortured by thoughts of what others will think of him when they find out and this was handled most sensitively, as was the romantic scene with Draupadi in the famous Kathakali padam, ‘Tharithen mozhi’ (Bhairavi). As the year was to end, Arjuna takes on a manly countenance and prepares to be a charioteer for Prince Uttara Kumara, when suddenly someone walks in and he reverts to the coy woman in a split second, ending the dramatization on that high note.

His presentation did explore the pain of an identity crisis, though his natural grace as a dancer seemed to blur the lines of male or female on occasion. It was a brave effort to come to the sabhas with stree-vesham, something Srikanth has kept separate from his Bharatanatyam career all along.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 3:26:06 PM |

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