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Bharatanatyam gets naughty
By engaging with themes of love and sex, the classical dance form is only returning to its roots.
A young woman is at the door fondly bidding her husband adieu. He is leaving on a long business trip. She makes the usual protestations of everlasting love and distress at separation, waves one last, sad goodbye, and shuts the door. And suddenly she is no longer the maudlin wife. Eyes dancing with expectation, she tiptoes to the backdoor where her young lover waits, a bit rattled at the idea of this audacious rendezvous.
"This is the right time, " she insists. "My husband is off on a long journey and my father-in-law is confined to his room. Come right in. " She ushers in the anxious lover supremely confident of handling this tryst.
Samayamide rara (this is the right time, come) might sound like a scene right out of a modern open marriage, but it is actually dancer Priyadarshini Govind pulling off a sassy Bharatanatyam nayika on stage at a recent Delhi soiree. Far from being stunned at the idea of a promiscuous classical heroine, the young audience is vastly tickled. Cuckolding is something they can connect with, much more than the conventional stories they are used to.
Priyadarshini comes up with another delectable javalis (classical love songs set to fast tempo) the same evening. In Nee matale (you said), the heroine sends a passionate lover packing for not keeping his promise of laying the world at her feet. And in the padam (a slower classical love song) Choodare (look), she reprises the role of a woman married into a rich clan who keep her assignation with a lover. She proudly walks past the village square, dealing with the taunts and sneers with êlan, until in one last dramatic display of defiance, she scares away the shocked village women. And the young audience erupts into cheers.
"Normally, the way Bharatanatyam is presented there is a tendency to downplay the sringara, " says the dancer. "If the character in a song is promiscuous, that is how I will play her, I make no apologies for her. And there is a lot of beauty in her character. This beauty can be sensuous, sexy, but it doesn't have to be coarse or crude. "
Priyadarshini is among the younger generation of dancers who trained with the legendary abhinaya expert Kalanidhi Narayanan, an authority on the portrayal of sublime as well as unabashed sringara. "A lot of what I perform comes from my very strong training with her, " says Priyadarshini. "She emphasised that dancers delve into the story behind the lyrics. The words are mere springboards to take a leap into the song. The dancer has to excite interest in this story she is telling. "
Bharatanatyam has been changing, steadily but surely, since the late '80s, questioning and breaking boundaries. Many who belong to this league of dancers trained under Kalanidhi Narayanan - among them, Malavika Sarukkai, Alarmel Valli, and dance scholar Avanti Meduri. Meduri, who has worked on the social history of Bharatanatyam, says that Rukmini Devi's work at reviving and bringing "respectability" to the style ended up selfconsciously containing the expressive and sringaric elements in dance by juxtaposing it with Kathakali. "After all, " she says, "Bharatanatyam was a dance of devadasis. Where was the room for coyness in their art?"
Meduri points out that classical dancers today are traversing the globe and the nation taking their art to younger and more varied audiences. "The world is a changing place and a dancer has to communicate. The contemporary dancer has to create a context for this art which has no place for selfconsciousness, " she says.
But Priyadarshini is not really keen on being viewed as leading a rebellion. Rather, she sees herself as a dancer who is game for any character that lends itself to nuance and variety. "Even if I am playing a haughty woman who mocks her lover for letting her down, I give her moments of weakness and doubt, " she explains. "When she is not with him or looking at him, she suffers some pangs. Behind all the sarcasm and hardness, there is pain and hurt. I like these complexities. That is what I enjoy the most and I find that viewers revel in these emotional details because it touches them at some point. "
It isn't just the sexually bold characters that Priyadarshini revels in. Her last heroine is a young warrior's mother, somewhat heartless in her yearning for a glorious death for her son. Based on the ancient Tamil poetry compilation, Puranaanooru, this is a tough act to pull off - a fond mother concerned about her child's safety and an uber-patriotic, hysterical woman determined that he win the battle for the nation. This is not a mother you are likely to see in your average classical repertoire. It is to the dancer's credit that she manages to portray the conflicting maternal duality with finesse and compassion.
As Meduri, a spirited defender of the new wave Bharatanatyam, puts it, the same old themes are not going to work with the younger generation of dance lovers. "We are moving towards a time when dance will have to move out of the auditorium - maybe it will move to salons or parks, " she says. "It is time to start all over again."
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