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Draupadi aka Janaki wows Dallas!
- Dr. Prathiba Natesan
Photo: Shashank Iswara

December 5, 2019

On Nov 16, 2019 I had the fortune of witnessing the dancer par excellence, Dr. Janaki Rangarajan in Dallas, TX. That she is a dancer of the highest calibre does not need to be restated. I reserve the highest praises for her araimandi, on point nritta, beautiful poses, and finesse that only comes with extreme discipline and practice. What captivated me was her prowess as a narrator, dancer, singer, visionary, all enmeshed into one. Her deep-seated mandis and high leaps were immediately followed by her spoken word and all I could think was, "How are you not panting for breath?" She showed superior control not only over her body, but also her breath and her voice. Kudos!

Janaki did a four-act dance play called 'Unravelled' in which she took the subject of Draupadi and through her, the heinous act of sexual violence, the taboo following it, and the struggles of an ordinary woman versus a Goddess. It was thrilling, eye-opening, challenging, uncomfortable, marvellous, uplifting, intelligent, and much more. There were a few moments that struck a chord. In Act I, she stopped her statement with the words, "Agni is I." To me, that was the embodiment of the entire evening. It ignited the thought that within every woman a fire is ablaze - be it the karpu thee (the fire of virtuosity) or simply, female identity. Spoken word was very well woven into the entire evening's performance. However, I couldn't help but wonder whether the spoken word could've had a subtle musical interlude running in the background so that the auditory difference between the musical parts and the non-musical parts could have had a smoother segue. When she used the word "irritated" for Kali, I wondered if it could have been displaced with something perhaps more poetic.

Scene two encompassed the notorious disrobing of Draupadi. Seeing this woman, who was not afraid of political (in)correctness and saying that garment is a social norm (what a powerful selection of words), struck a deep note. Scene four talked about how a goddess is accepted but a real rape victim needs to be cleansed and goes through various ordeals. Janaki had an almost L.R. Eswari timbre to her singing which was a beautiful contrast and complement to the music. And quite expectedly she finished with a thillana which was splendid and joyous.

Amidst all this brilliance was a true maama sitting right next to me checking out reviews of watches on the entire time. I didn't care that he was not interested in art or music or Bharatanatyam or women's rights (perhaps maami dragged him), but the callousness that you can sit in a dark auditorium while ignoring how your bright smartphone display affects the people surrounding you is just beyond my understanding. I wonder if this maama would do the same at an opera or a Broadway show? What gives them the right to be callous when the art is from their own backyard? These are the same people who'd sit tight on an airplane when it touches down at JFK but pop open their seatbelts even before the plane touches down in Chennai. Sigh!

Any review is useless without things to improve upon. The music somehow left much to be desired. I felt it could've supported Janaki a lot more. I do not know if it was the acoustics of the auditorium, but the ghatam sound, whenever it came, was a bit jarring. Same can be said of the singer in the higher pitch. It was a bit difficult to understand some spoken words such as warrior/voyeur, but again the fact that Janaki carried off her voice without a microphone after such rigorous dancing overshadowed these subtle issues.

Finally, on an extremely personal note and knowing that I am going to get strong backlash for this I am taking the risk of asking the question, "When can we stop saying words such as pure bred tambram family?" Many people who use the hashtag #tambram (as innocently as it may seem) fail to see how insidious the hashtag sounds let alone its historical and hegemonic implications. Imagine someone saying, "I come from a pure bred all White family." Like Draupadi who needs to be proud of her actions and not her birth, we all can only be proud of what WE have done and not what we were born into, an act we can barely control.

Dr. Prathiba Natesan (Batley) is the founder chairperson of Eyakkam Dance Company, a non-profit organization in Dallas, TX. Trained in the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam by Guru Preethi Menon, she is also trained in Kathakali and body conditioning by Kalamandalam Udayakumar Ashaan. Many of her productions highlight contemporary social and cultural issues while others underscore the intricacies of classical literature.

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