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Mallika Sarabhai's radical take on women's status in Past Forward
- Dr. S.D. Desai
Photos: Pervez Shaikh

November 10, 2022

Thoda-sa dance, Thoda-sa drama: a pre-performance blurb promised for Mallika Sarabhai's Past Forward, the inaugural piece of a three-day dance festival Karaanaa at Natarani (4th to 6th November), Ahmedabad. Through this format, she rather tellingly portrayed in an hour long performance the undignified subjugated position of young women in society, in India and abroad. Her perspective is not unfamiliar. What anchored interest was her assertion of the view through Bharatanatyam, poetry and significant bits of drama along with light designs (Yadavan Chandran) and music, traditionally devotional and intensely contemporary (Aditi Ramesh).

Past Forward

As part of a dance festival with two other classical dancers to follow, Past Forward by a reputed Bharatanatyam dancer, without any other clue, was expected even by this writer to be a (delightful) visual narrative on Bharatanatyam since its origin till today with highlights in a 'fast forward' mode! The presentation did begin with devotional hymns to Nataraja and the initial lyrics of the Nayika perpetually waiting for her lover, her pain in separation and the Nayaka seemingly taking pleasure in her pain. From this 'past' there is a jump right to the 'present' with women-centric themes in the modern context, remaining true to the classical dance form's authentic basic elements - karaanaas as described in the Natyashastra and depicted in temple sculptures - and adding at least one considered a taboo to it.

The dancer looks thin, economical in movement and is in a simple Bharatanatyam aharya, not a bright-coloured glittering one, suiting a radically different theme in the form and significantly in keeping with the festival having been dedicated to the late Elaben Bhatt, who in appearance, behaviour and work was true to the values Mahatma Gandhi stood for. She keeps moving in and out of the wings, communicates with the viewers, resorts to a bit of drama and balances it all with nritta as well as nritya, in tune with the traditional BN music and bols, and visual symbolism. With her intellectual engagement, she has a complete rapport with the audience in absolute silence watching, listening and intermittently applauding her.

Past Forward

The hymns underline the facts of the Nayika having to passively wait, her being trifled with but asserting even if faintly, her dignity being compromised. The vocalist's piercing alaaps and their climax on top notes even as she ascends Herculean steps close to the back wall in the centre give an aesthetically distanced symbolic ambit to the social issue being highlighted through Mallika's solo performance. Quickly realizing the need to keep her viewers' attention unflagging she resorts to significant lines of poetry and instances from history at home and across the world. Yadavan, who has also assisted in direction, keeps adding a third dimension to characters and situations with light and shade.

Past Forward

There is a volcanic verbal eruption throwing out devastating facts and moods towards the end. Cases of women being treated blatantly unfairly: Don't argue, don't yell, shut up, adjust kar lo, be good girls! Cases of their inhuman treatment: A woman being killed by the police, rapists and murderers serving a life term being officially freed, men engaged in warfare abandoning helpless women with their children at home. Women fighting back: Their collectively resorting to sex strike as a nonviolent method, their united protests against oppression and injustice and taking over the reins. Poetic assertions: '... Tumhe yaad ho ki na yaad ho' (-Momin), 'I am not that woman selling you shoes and socks' (-Kishwar Naheed), 'And still like dust I'll rise' (-Maya Angelou).

Dr. S.D. Desai
Dr. S.D. Desai, a professor of English, has been a Performing Arts Critic for many years. Among the dance journals he has contributed to are Narthaki, Sruti, Nartanam and Attendance. His books have been published by Gujarat Sahitya Academy, Oxford University Press and Rupa. After 30 years with a national English daily, he is now a freelance art writer.

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