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Family play

Two tall women


SHAKTI SISTERS: Lilette Dubey as Violet Miranda in 'August: Osage County' and Malavika Sarukkai (left)

They could not be more unalike. Lilette Dubey as Violet Miranda, a gravelly voiced Goan matriarch in a ferociously foul-mouthed family, has directed herself in August: Osage County as a drug-fuelled, fag-smoking hag. There is a moment in the play, however, when she comes down the stairs and dances to an old Eric Clapton song, Lay Down Sally, that is pure theatrical magic. When a character dances just for the joy of it, it triggers tiny impulses of shared memory. Think Zorba the Greek surrendering himself to the slow rhythms of dance and sorrow and finally leaping up as an affirmation of just being alive. Or Al Pacino as the blind man leading a beautiful woman in an erotic tango in The Scent of a Woman.

Malavika Sarukkai belongs to the austere and elegant South Indian Bharata Natyam dance tradition. She has taken her dance form to almost every major stage and dance event across the world. When she dances, she evokes the majesty of the Lord of Dance himself, Shiva. She becomes Shiva at his most resplendent, performing in the sacred halls of the temple tradition and bringing to life the drummers, the pipers, the courtesans and ordinary worshipers who accompany the image.

As seen on two different evenings at the Times Chennai Festival, an event that brings together both the popular and the profound at different venues across the city, Dubey and Sarukkai shared a similarity that went beyond their stated roles. They are both women in the prime of their lives, willing now to push the frontiers of experience into uncharted waters. If not to let their hair down, at least to let their guard down and show themselves as older and wiser women willing the world to accept a new image of themselves.

"I have a great need to reach out to a different kind of audience like that represented by those who come to the Times of India festival, " says Sarukkai. "To tell them of my passion, I trace a design, or an idea that I have explored in my dance, give them a hint of what is there and leave them to fill it in with their imagination. " Her dancer's fingers flutter in the air, tremulously tracing arcs as she speaks, evoking the movement of butterflies or flames or a garland of lotus flowers that she weaves to place around the neck of her beloved. "I feel myself becoming ever lighter, more free, even as I celebrate the tradition to which I belong. Classical dance allows you that freedom. As you grow older, you bring different aspects of your experience to bear upon the very same dance that you might have learnt when you were a student. "

In an enchanting recent composition called Birdsong, inspired by a poem written by her sister Priya Sarukkai Chabbria and choreographed by a famous teacher C V Chandrasekhar, Sarrukai embodies the flight of a bird as poignantly as Shelley's skylark reaching for the sky, or, even more precisely, Gerald Manley Hopkins' whirling winding image of a hawk in flight. It's only with the lightest of suggestions that Sarukkai imagines the struggle and the multiple failures to take flight that every individual faces, even as the bird struggles to break free of its bonds.

More significantly, she turns the classic dance fragment of a beautiful young nayika waiting for her lover into a conversation between the nayika and a parrot in a cage. When the lover turns up, accompanied by the insistent drumming of a mridamgam and the clamour of the musicians, she asks him: "After all your fine words and protestations of love, why have you turned up now?" She has freed herself from him. She turns to the parrot in her cage, even as Sarukkai asks the audience, "Who is in the cage?

The parrot, or the nayika?"

Dubey's recent presence as Mummyji in the star-filled cast of Marigold Hotel has only underlined her versatility as an actor who comfortably embraces the bold and the brazen. In her role as Violet she comes across as an ageing ingênue, as fragile and manipulative as Blanche du Bois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and as foul-mouthed and feral as Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Part of the play's fascination is the way her character tears into each one of her three daughters and their hopes and desires to be women who are both successful in the professions and in their relationships with men.

August: Osage County is a claustrophobic family play set in Oklahoma and scripted by Tracey Letts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Letts allowed for a change in location but did not sanction any changes in the text. This is how the family ended up in Goa. The male characters are failed poets, failed husbands and lecherous boyfriends who exit the lives of the women they have fondled and followed with dog-like persistence. "What excites me when I read a play is to see it as a series of images, " says Dubey in her growly, caramel-and-cream voice. "The moment I read August: Osage County I could see Dom Moraes as the ageing poet and that settled it for me. "

Dubey inhabits and interprets Violet as a tragically flawed and magnificently obsessive woman, who despite the blows life hands her, survives. A small victory. But like the nayika and her parrot, liberating.

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