Sans new interpretations
THE PROGRAMME announced that the show ``combines classical dance, story telling and mime to explore the perception of Shakti.'' A description which can be applied to several works produced by many artistes in the different classical dance genres of this country.
Feminist explorations of chauvinistic Indian myths are as much ``old hat'' as is that cliched expression, usually with archetypes too exhausted to yield new meanings.
Sadly, that is what Mallika Sarabhai's much-awaited closing performance of ``In Search of the Goddess'' at the Other Festival turned out to be, despite the fact that she exudes energy and command even when what she does is dated or repetitive. And yes, her ``classical'' dancing had seen better days.
Chennai had been fascinated by her earlier work, choreographed by herself or in collaboration with John Martin.
She could create radical structures for the powerful issues she dealt with - injustice, oppression, exploitation or the casual inhumanity in social relationships that we take for granted.
She was serious without taking herself too seriously. In other words, she had a sense of humour, and a wit that was both verbal and visual.
``In Search of a Goddess'' retained some of that bubbling quality, but only in the narration. The treatment of the subject was predictable, pedestrian.
The parts were not knit into a sustained whole. The script combined Sarabhai's English commentary, prosaic Tamil lines (you couldn't possibly call them verses) on Indian women archetypes, and traditional Sanskrit slokas on the Devi in her manifold avatars. If the Goddess created the world, in turn man created different goddesses - Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganga, Durga - to suit his needs.
The Devi stutis banked profiles of Draupadi, Savitri and a woman ascetic from the legends. Draupadi fared the worst, particularly in the stereotypical fast forwarding of the game of dice.
The point that she was commoditised by the men in her life, from her father who decided she was to wed a ``shooter of fish", to the husbands who abandoned her when she fell on their final Himalayan trek (heaven is a male domain after all) was made through banal, unsubtle abhinaya and narration.
Savitri fared slightly better, as an icon identified through the ages as the passive sati who sacrificed her life for her mate, whereas, she was a heroine who challenged death and won the round. Puppet head for Satyavan and Yama was not new, but nonetheless effective theatrical ploy. Sarabhai scored with her caricaturist mime of the woman sage ravished by Indra. ``Divine justice'' was meted out to soothe the bruised ego of the husband while the woman remained as unknown as her name.
How do women avoid being pawns in the male game? Why, draw strength from the Mother Goddess who rides the lion. The finale made use of definitive verses from dance texts and ended with Sarabhai drawing a lion on a sheet with her dancing feet through thunderous ovation in the hall.
The music was deafening, at times muffling the narration. The lighting followed its own erratic path. The script ran through a gamut of emotions among which Sarabhai was most at home in raudra and hasya.
``In Search of a Goddess'' proved that, unless constantly recharged, experimental work (no less than traditional practices) dwindles into a run-of-the-mill exercise for both artiste and viewer.
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