Dance be­comes her

A dance drama uses the clas­si­cal stylings of odissi to high­light fe­male em­pow­er­ment.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Arts - By SHARMILLA GANESAN star2@thes­tar.com.my

THE dis­em­pow­er­ment of women does not hap­pen all at once; it is a con­tin­u­ous, of­ten in­sid­i­ous process that be­gins early in the life of a fe­male child and goes on to in­fil­trate almost ev­ery as­pect of her life. The girl who isn’t al­lowed to play “boys’ games”. The teenager who is told a girl shouldn’t talk too much. The young woman whose sole goal is viewed to be mar­riage. The mother who is ex­pected to build her life only around her fam­ily.

An up­com­ing In­dian clas­si­cal dance drama, Saa Shakti, seeks to dis­rupt and ques­tion this process by telling the story of a woman’s jour­ney to em­pow­er­ment. The show’s ti­tle, which evokes not just the San­skrit word for power and em­pow­er­ment but also the Hindu god­dess Shakti, is an apt metaphor for a show that uses the clas­si­cal tra­di­tions of odissi to ex­press con­tem­po­rary thoughts and ideas.

Saa Shakti plays at the Shan­tanand Au­di­to­rium in Kuala Lumpur on July 15.

For odissi ex­po­nent Leena Mo­hanty, the show is an op­por­tu­nity to en­gage with is­sues of gen­der equal­ity through the art that has be­come her life’s pas­sion.

Mo­hanty, who trained un­der pre­em­i­nent odissi guru Deba Prasad Das and his dis­ci­ple Durga Cha­ran Ranbir, is a renowned per­former and chore­og­ra­pher in her own right, and a fa­mil­iar face to odissi au­di­ences in Malaysia. Her pre­vi­ous per­for­mances here in­clude An­jali (2009), Leela Pu­rushot­tama – The Supreme Ab­so­lute (2011) and Sha­rana­gati (2013).

While the award-win­ning dancer has pre­sented many crit­i­cally-ac­claimed odissi per­for­mances around the world, this will be her first to take on specif­i­cally con­tem­po­rary themes.

“Gen­der equal­ity has been an is­sue that con­tin­ues to be rel­e­vant and is al­ways a big topic of dis­cus­sion. We have sent women in space, women in the armed forces. Yet, we still live in a world where women are ex­ploited, treated un­equally and not al­lowed to make their own choices. I re­alised that this was an op­por­tu­nity for me to ex­plore a topic that isn’t com­monly done in the tra­di­tional In­dian dance for­mat,” says Mo­hanty, who is cur­rently based in Ban­ga­lore, In­dia.

The show, pre­sented in Kuala Lumpur by Kal­pana Dance The­atre (KDT), will tell the story of a fe­male child as she grows into adult­hood, look­ing at the chal­lenges and strug­gles she faces along the way. Per­form­ing along­side Mo­hanty will be Malaysian dancers Daisyga Rani Vi­jayaku­maran, Nritta Ganeshi Manoha­ran, Lawrence Sack­ris, Ku­narat­nam Ve­lau­tham and Muneeswaren Pal­samy. The cast will be rounded out by 40 other lo­cal dancers in var­i­ous sup­port­ing roles.

KDT founder and artis­tic direc­tor Shan­gita Na­ma­si­vayam says there is much po­ten­tial in In­dian clas­si­cal dance to en­gage with mod­ern themes and ideas. “These tra­di­tional forms are so well-cod­i­fied and have such a strong lan­guage. We have the rasas (emo­tions), mu­dras (hand ges­tures), ab­hi­nayas (ex­pres­sions) – all of which can add so much rich­ness to any story.”

To help flesh out the ini­tial idea be­hind Saa Shakti, Mo­hanty and Shan­gita turned to In­dian writer, poet and art critic Kedar Mishra, as well as mu­si­cian Ku­mar Mo­ha­p­a­tra for the orig­i­nal mu­sic score. From there, de­spite it be­ing rel­a­tively un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory, Mo­hanty says the odissi sim­ply flowed.

When it came to the chore­og­ra­phy, Mo­hanty found in­spi­ra­tion in na­ture. By us­ing the lan­guage of odissi to de­pict flora, fauna and nat­u­ral land­scapes, she dis­cov­ered a way to break free of the con­straints of mod­ern life and in­stead de­pict fe­male­ness in an equal foot­ing.

“Na­ture doesn’t seg­re­gate be­tween male and fe­male; each are given an equal and im­por­tant place. I linked this to the con­cept of gen­der equal­ity through clas­si­cal odissi ges­tures and pos­tures that evoke na­ture,” she says.

The cul­mi­na­tion of Saa Shakti, says Mo­hanty, is the woman’s dis­cov­ery of her own iden­tity and in­ner power.

“Dur­ing the course of the show, she re­alises that she has be­come de­fined by the roles she plays to dif­fer­ent peo­ple – daugh­ter, wife, mother – but has lost her own iden­tity. And so the story be­comes about her learn­ing who she is through her own eyes,” she says.

As moth­ers of fe­male chil­dren them­selves – Mo­hanty’s daugh­ter is 12, while Shan­gita’s are 19 and 20 – the two women be­hind Saa Shakti are keenly aware of how im­por­tant the mes­sage of fe­male em­pow­er­ment is.

“This is of course an is­sue that is per­sonal, some­thing we have ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­enced. And some­times you just have to say some­thing,” says Mo­hanty.

“Em­pow­er­ment is not about negat­ing the roles as­so­ci­ated with women, or putting men or mar­riage down. It is about free­dom, the free­dom to make choices,” says Shan­gita.

Saa Shakti will be staged at the Shan­tanand Au­di­to­rium, Jalan Ber­hala, Brick­fields in Kuala Lumpur on July 15. Show­time: 7.30pm. For in­vi­ta­tions, call 017-672 5672, 012-650 7226 or 012-787 7467.

— Kal­pana Dance The­atre

Odissi show Saa Shakti, chore­ographed by Leena Mo­hanty and pre­sented by Kal­pana Dance The­atre, will fea­ture lo­cal dancers such as (clock­wise from top left) Tha­nen­thi­ran Maruthai, Ku­narat­nam Ve­lau­than, Daisyga Rani Vi­jayaku­maran and Nritta Ganeshi Manoha­ran.

— RICKY LAI/THE STAR

Odissi-trained dancer/chore­og­ra­pher Leena’s works will be fea­tured in Kal­pana Dance The­atre’s up­com­ing dance fu­sion per­for­mance Sha­rana­gati.

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