Natya and Narration – REBELution
- Jana Seshadri
Photos: Mohan C Mohan

April 26, 2012

Vidhya Subramanian
San Francisco Bay Area residents received a rare audio-visual treat from local artistes, who collaborated to present ‘Natya and Narration – REBELution,’ personal literary expressions interpreted through south Indian classical dance. The two-hour program held on April 20, 21 and 22 at CounterPULSE, a non-profit theater in San Francisco, included thought provoking short stories, humorous essays and poignant poems complimented by graceful Bharatanatyam dance movements and melodious saxophone music. Featured artistes included reputed Bharatanatyam exponent Vidhya Subramanian, award-winning writer Jaya Padmanabhan, published poet Arun Kumar, essayist and humorist Kalpana Mohan and Carnatic and Jazz Saxophonist Prasanth Radhakrishnan.

The artistes pulled the audience members into their powerful pieces by covering a multitude of issues relating to people of all ages. The small theater size made it intimate and conducive to interactive discussions with them after the show. Addressing internal and external conflicts and questioning and defying authority, the program encompassed prose and poetry in motion with something in it for everyone.

Beginning with the traditional invocatory Pushpanjali, Subramanian set the tone of the program with a piece on Ardhanari, represented by Lord Shiva and Goddess Shakti. It emphasized the merging of male and female energies, each strong and individual on its own and an unmatched force when combined.  Well known for showcasing strong women protagonists, Subramanian’s ‘Ojas – With that spiritual energy I yearn,’ shed light on the lives of three Indian saints who did not let their forced family situations keep them for rejecting worldly pleasures and drawing on their inner strength to seek divine grace. Subramanian immersed herself into each character and brought them to life by recounting their stories with deft foot movements and expressive bhavam.  

Written and narrated by Padmanabhan and accompanied by Subramanian’s emotive dance movements, ‘His Curls’ addresses the emotions a woman feels for her child, especially during turbulent times. The mother is enchanted by her newborn son’s curly hair and showers him with her unconditional love. His curls slowly disappear as he grows into a rebellious young man. She reaches out to him but watches him grow apart and reacts callously as she questions him about the whereabouts of a stray white cat she’s been feeding. Nowhere to be found for a few days, she hears of the cat’s brutal killing in an alley one day. She fears for her son’s safety as news of bomb blasts, airline disasters and other terrorist activities continue to haunt her.  One day a note from her son takes her to a marketplace where a bomb explodes. While frantically searching for her son amid the carnage of dead bodies, she suddenly looks up to see him in front of her holding out a white kitten.

Kalpana Mohan and Prasant Radhakrishnan
The piece evoked sympathy among the audience and many questions. Was the son finally reaching out to his mother? Was he trying to redeem himself and endear himself to her? Or was this a ploy to temporarily appease her anguish while he continues to indulge in activities she feared? On the other hand, was that really her son or was it the mother’s imagination, one audience member asked after the show. Anything is possible, Padmanabhan replied. The interpretation is in the eye of the beholder, she added. 
Mohan’s humorous essays about contemporary family issues had the audience chuckling and nodding in agreement. In ‘Facebook Face-off’ she admonishes her husband for his 24/7 use of the medium to reveal everything about the family for the world to see and like. Why should he check me in when I’m in the toilet she asks, which had the audience laughing out loud. In ‘Dear Victoria, Keep Your Secret’ Mohan criticizes the famed undergarment company for steering young minds into an unhealthy path with their products, which focus purely on a sexy image. 

One concern among several cultural and generational issues that plague Indian Americans is elder care in India, which Mohan addresses wittily in ‘Not For Me.’ As the title suggests, her aging father-in-law strongly objected to her and her husband’s idea that he move out of his decades old home in Chennai and into a retirement community with an assisted living situation. Engaging in the abstract rather than conventional, Subramanian depicted the father-in-law’s unwillingness by moving rhythmically in Bharatanatyam steps forming large and small squares on stage while emphatically stating “Not for me,” thus signifying his determination to stand his ground and confine himself to his comfort zone. 

Audience members complimented Mohan for addressing this constant concern in the Indian Diaspora and asked how she was going to resolve the situation. While respecting her father-in-law’s decision to live his life as he sees fit, she hopes her children will follow suit one day and refrain from telling her how to live, or not to live, her life, Mohan replied.

Kumar’s poems were a mixed bag of sentiment and nostalgia, sprinkled with humor.  Accompanied by Radhakrishnan’s soulful tunes on the saxophone, Kumar recited verses about friendship, his beloved Kerala, reminiscing and the generation gap. He drew knowing smiles from the audience and suppressed a few chuckles himself when he recited ‘Elevator,’ a couple’s sojourn for clandestine kisses between floors. 

Jaya Padmanabhan, Kavya Padmanabhan, Kalpana Mohan and Arun Kumar in ‘Indian Summer’
Padmanabhan’s ‘Indian Summer,’ a one-act play, highlighted the cultural differences among three generations of one Indian family, each one living in denial and secure in his or her own world. All the artistes participated in this narrative, which dealt with arguments between a mother and daughter while the father hides behind his newspaper, the mother’s inability to accept her homosexual son and the grandmother’s fixed notions about the goodness of milk. Subramanian ended the program with a celebratory Thillana.

Q & A after the show
It was a successful blend of dance and literature, judging by the audience’s reaction and comments. The evocative and well-choreographed program hit home with their contemporary themes and left them wanting more.

Jana Seshadri is a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.