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Warrior Queens: Ranis of Dance!
Photos: Sachin Chavre

March 9, 2023

Indian history provides enough fodder for thought and interpretation through art. In dance, there have been several themes explored in the last century. In the 1930s, there was Uday Shankar's Labour and Machinery on the theme of colonial industrial exploitation. In the 1950s, Nehru's Discovery of India was made into a fantastic production by Shanti and Gul Bardhan. In the 1970s, there was Darkness at Noon by Yog Sunder. Then there were countless poets like Subramania Bharati, Tagore, Rizvi whose works were made into dance productions.

In the clime of Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav today, quite a few senior dancers have presented their patriotic flavoured works with the ball set in motion last year in April, by Delhi-based veteran Sonal Mansingh, the ruling party's nominated MP to the Upper House. Her works on women leaders before connected to Buddha or recently on the queens of Kashmir and mythological characters before - like Draupadi - have always made her someone who has taken up women's issues and causes. In that, she is a pioneer of Indian dance in this segment.

Senior dancer Prathibha Prahlad has come up with a wholesome production where patriotism meets pride and art meets warrior queens. This production is a good introduction to the canvas of history of a few chosen women warriors of India in last 200 years. Like all her earlier team or group works done for tourism or culture sectors, this too is a spiffy idea. Spiffy, the dictionary says means smart, stylish, even fashionable. In dance, it means something that holds and holds well as a production; doesn't drag, is effective, neat and clean. Add pace. Nothing boring. No yawns for the audiences. Just dawn of hope and enthusiasm. That's what this production does: help revive our dormant patriotic fervour. Despite loud volume of announcements in hall and music (was there no tech check or wo/man in sound control deck?), there was an inner quietude borne out of deference to Ranis of the past and some of the dance Ranis of the present.

Warrior Women of Bharat

Prathibha Prahlad's Warrior Women of Bharat is a nicely knit tale of seven historical heroines who left footprints in the sands of time as women warriors. Rani Chennamma of Kittur or Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi are well known figures. But Rani Avanti of MP and student-activist Kanaklata of Assam are by far less known, nationally. Capt. Lakshmi Sehgal is a legend and Hazrat Mahal still stands in Lucknow. First gift on stage was Rani Velu Nachiyar. To get all of them Ranis of dance together itself is a feat. Seven forms (except Manipuri all are there. Priti Patel would make a good addition or anyone Prathibha Prahlad deems fit), seven seasoned names in each form are not an easy fit but Prathibha Prahlad is a known ring master, experienced organizer and dancer-choreographer with decades of experience in big spectacle events like the Hampi Festival of Karnataka, Prasiddhi festival of greats in Bangalore and DIAF in Delhi. To travel with seven (get dates and all; hall and dole isn't easy) and perform, shows commitment to the cause. Indian dancers work against many odds; there's no real financial support first of all. Even accessible space for rehearsals. Everything is on as is where is basis. Yet, they shine on stage and come up with meaningful art works, that is the beauty of Indian classical dancers.

Shovana Narayan
Shovana Narayan
Prathibha Prahlad
Prathibha Prahlad

The production is spiffy because each form and its proponent is given 10 minutes with introductory commentary in Hindi and English (voices of Shovana Narayan and Prathibha Prahlad could be detected in one place and Rashmi Seth in Hindi where Jhansi ki Rani was undertaken). Costumes were aesthetic and unique made by Sandhya Raman, the Delhi designer. Each heroine entered with historical background of archival photos and commentary. This was also the strength of the production that Prathibha actually made time and effort to put together an academic montage that works as a backdrop. Alas, the sutradhar Avanti Meduri - an acclaimed academician, recently returned from decades abroad in UK - was almost superfluous, since there was a recorded commentary anyway. Her movements for each segment were same and predictable. In a way the format with screen at back and dancers entering from the wings also decided the fate of the rendition.

Each senior dancer - Shovana Narayan for Kathak, Sharodi Saikia for Sattriya, Prathibha Prahlad herself for Bharatanatyam, Gopika Varma for Mohiniattam, Alekhya Punjala for Kuchipudi, Meera Das for Odissi and Anita Ratnam for contemporary, presented their patra effectively and to wield a prop and dance, say in Kathak or Bharatanatyam or Odissi is not easy because hand movements get limited by sword or shield. Each had to also fall down in battle in the end (rock and roll as one teenager behind me thought that's what was going on!) and die on the battlefield, and once down, to then get up with props and continue to exit also wasn't easy but each got into the skin of the role. While one can't single out any one or two or a few dancers in a group effort and production like this, Shovana Narayan with her most difficult gharara costume of and as Hazrat Begum gets a special mention as footwork and chakras were not easy to attempt and Anita Ratnam in the end got multiple and maximum applause because she had a contemporary connect, essayed her piece clearly and the economy of movement proved military precision and quality. She is also the only one who actually spoke loud and clear (her name to the regiment as the audience listened intently). Gopika Varma is soothing even as a warrior queen! Meera Das had an easy connect with a theme outside her Odia territory. Alekhya Punjala set the tone by being the first of the Ranis while Sharodi Saikia went through the paces. The flag used was the original 1942 design with full charka (spinning wheel). The official version today has a different charka, a symbolic wheel of time and weave.

Anita Ratnam
Anita Ratnam

This production must be seen by school and college kids today (is Spic-Macay listening?) as most have no real connect with India's past, especially patriotic or historical. This production proves and provides a pan-Indian palette of costumes and colours (most wore orange or shades thereof, even the Mohini), music and make up, forms and fodder from east to west, north to south. While music was from different sources and of varied forms, it was merged into one seemingly seamless pattern.

In memory of Guru Narmada, Kala Sindhu, under the aegis of Nirantara Narmada Festival, presented the Warrior Women of Bharat on March 5 in Bangalore. Narmada "aunty" was a popular dance teacher of Bangalore and the event was presented courtesy Poornima Gururaj.

As India is celebrating its 75th anniversary of Independence, this can also be shown abroad by Indian missions to coincide with Independence Day celebrations. There were interesting facts of colonial history that was brought out too like the Doctrine of Lapse, by which the cunning Britishers made a rule that if a kingdom didn't have a male heir or inheritor, the kingdom could be annexed! By that definition today England can't even find a UK-born PM then should we or any other able former colony take over that little island nation? Our Queens of Kittur or Jhansi were brave protestors who fought against it and chose to fall to the ground than give in. The standing ovation in the end said it all. Bangalore dance lovers welcomed the dancing queens with aplomb.

Ashish Mohan Khokar
Khokar is a critic and author by profession; historian by education; arts administrator by occupation; archivist by disposition; film compiler through documentation and celebrator of arts and artistes by tradition. More details on

Nice review, Ashish, as always. An interesting theme. It was good to know about the lesser known warrior queens. As we know, all these characters died young. I really wonder how it would have looked when senior citizens performed these roles while dancing.
- V Sahaj (March 14, 2023)

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