Wilted flowers and silent cries

Dance of life.

Dance of life.  

IT WAS the story of Muthamma — a mother who killed her child. A mother who rocked the cradle of death. Who grew up from being a carefree and fun-loving girl to be the matron of female infanticide. But she was not the devil. She was the victim.

Muthamma was a small village girl who loved life. When her second daughter was born, she was forced to kill her. Give it the milk of poison. Crying, wretched and agonised, eyes bulging with anger and pain, trembling, shivering and helpless, she cradled her child to death. And was stripped of emotions and life.

``It is a true story,'' says S. Vijayalakshmi. A story she knows well. Which her Bharatanatyam dance-drama portrayal brought to Chennai this week was well rehearsed, smooth and telling. The emotions overflowing and the pain real.

The presentation was the side-show of research by Dr. Torvold Olsson, a professor of religious studies at Kristianstad University, Sweden, on female infanticide. ``It is only a 50-year-old phenomenon here. We are trying to study the local and global factors that lead to female infanticide,'' he said.

It was during his research here, about a year-and-half ago, that he met Vijayalakshmi, then working with the Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW). Together, they took Muthamma's tale to Sweden and Denmark. About 30 performances later, they returned to India to perform at Vembenery, Ederpadi and Irupalli, all villages near Salem notorious for their high rates of female infanticide. ``At Vembenery, you could clearly see the audience had more boys than girls,'' says Vijayalakshmi.

``Wherever we go, the women respond according to their situations. In the West, the story had a great effect especially on those who had had abortions, miscarriages or still-born children. In the villages here, most women did not speak up, but privately told us how we had rightly expressed their feelings.''

``It gives a sense of catharsis for the villagers here. A form of social therapy,'' says Olsson.

The performances are interspersed with a background and explanation of the situation so that the audience can understand the emotions involved.

In Chennai, Vijayalakshmi was praised for the ``brilliant performance'', but the duo was criticised for choosing a classical medium like Bharatanatyam instead of folk arts, which villagers could relate to better.

``But the power of Bharatanatyam is in its expression,'' defended Vijayalakshmi. ``Besides, we are not advising anyone. We are just showcasing the feelings and emotions of these women worldwide.''

Which again came in for flak. ``Why do we keep portraying India as a land of elephants and poverty to the West.

What sense does it make to tell the Swedes about female infanticide here,'' asked some members of the audience.

Vijayalakshmi has a solid explanation: ``The idea was to create awareness and raise funds for the beneficiaries in Salem.'' So maybe Muthamma won't have to kill her next child.

By Feroze Ahmed Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

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