Because sometimes you have to look back, to go forward
I first started conceiving Radha Now in 2004. It was a difficult work for me on many levels because it demanded an open and honest acknowledgement and expression of the fact that the patriarchal systems both in my life and dance were no longer working for me. In fact, they were starting to debilitate me. I must say that previous works - Outcaste Eternal, She, Then & Now... laid the ground. But in Radha Now there was no female character to hide behind. There was only Radha (Then) and Radha (Now) - Me. However I believed then and still believe that Bharatanatyam is an ideal site for feminist intervention allowing for challenging patriarchy not just through the dance but through change from within the dance form as well. And it is this belief that helps me keep my head above the raging waters!
Radha Now, involving a cast of ten male dancers and one woman, was first performed at Dublin, a discotheque at the ITC Park Sheraton, Chennai. I am always appreciative of the male Kalakshetra-trained dancers who committed themselves so wholeheartedly to this feminist critique of status quo. What drew them to the work? What kept them so deeply engaged with it? Someday I want to sit them down and ask them. Also, despite the many performances platforms (sabhas) in the cultural capital, it was a hotel chain that stepped forward to support the work. The space was ideally suited to the concept with three levels to represent the personal, the public and their convergence. There was also an outdoor space in which the woman finally communed with Nature - a Tree, the Sky, Water. Top brass of the status quo army quite predictably gave us flak for performing in a disco - never mind that the space suited the concept perfectly, that the work received excellent support from its host organisation, that the disco was filled with invited guests that night and that the bar was closed for the entire duration of the performance. Or that Dance carries the potential to energise any space, and to transform minds and hearts. I suppose that is the fear. Change.
Did I mention that Radha Now was conceived through my communion with a Tree? My confidante, my sakhi (female friend), the silent witness to my frustrations and agonies. And then conversation after conversation with my collaborator Dr. Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan to gradually translate the thoughts, experiences and emotions into structure and form.
In 2011, I was invited by Bhaskar's Arts Academy to stage Radha Now once again in Singapore. However much I tried, I kept hitting a wall when it came to rounding up 10 local male Bharatanatyam dancers. This despite the fact that there are so many dance institutions on this island. Moreover, two from the original cast were now based in Singapore and teaching Bharatanatyam here. Institutional politics unfortunately came in the way of artistic endeavour. I ended up working with a mixed cast of male Bharatanatyam and Kathakali artists which I must say gave the work a new texture.
I did miss the discotheque though, especially the multiple levels, glass window, tree and water. There is something about caressing a real tree, carrying bits of its bark along with you on your skin and clothes as you then move gently under its canopy, its large roots serving as a cushion on which to rest your tired spirit. The moist night soil beneath you is like a mattress that rejuvenates. You rise, body smeared with brown soil to remind you of a deeper connection and reality, and immerse yourself gradually into actual water, healing and freeing yourself from the rigid and oppressive structures that have colluded to hold you back. A glass window separates and protects you from the gaze of your audience.
It was daunting to adapt the work to the indoor proscenium stage in Singapore, that too with a modest budget. But we tried.
Apart from a few stray voices, there was a curious silence after the Singapore staging. Did you like it? Did you not like it? Why? Why not? I have gradually understood that the silence and the silencing is very much a part of this sort of work. It's par for the course lah! A few days later, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a call from Dr. Maha Sripathy asking if she could come over with her friend Ms. Jenny Lim, to discuss the work. I will write more on Radha Now in future posts, but first let me share Maha's (and Jenny's) reflections on the 2011 staging of the work
A performance with a difference - That was RADHA NOW. This was no performance to relax, enjoy and leave, feeling that all that mattered was that it was a good evening. RADHA NOW demanded an engagement, a reflective involvement that had to be personal, although the issues it raised are universal. For this was a performance that did not draw on the audience with its bright and well-corseted costumes or its vibrant, fast-paced music or seductive movements. And yet it kept the audience riveted to their seats! Such was its conceptual allure, that a friend whom I had invited for the evening’s sojourn, with just the statement ‘it is a contemporary Indian Dance’ was bursting with questions late into the evening. Jenny, my friend, holds a licentiate in Speech and Drama from Trinity College, London. Our discussions and soul searching led us to Nirmala, to find out not just about RADHA NOW, but also about her engagement through dance and the connectivity between persona, performance and perspective and this is what we learnt…
J: What struck me was your intense sadness and the pain. I was drawn into that sadness. What was the pain?
N: I was exploring the concept of love, where the man takes the centre-stage in the journey. By doing that, the woman is subjected to pain and humiliation. I was exploring the possibility of moving out of that and finding a space where I don’t negate the emotion but put something in that space. The tree in the background symbolizes the inner core. All the experiences can come and go but my inner self is intact. It stops me from being absorbed into the zone of self-destruction. Love is a journey and the process, given the male-centric focus, is a painful one. The sadness, which originates from the pain, has many layers. It is more than just emoting. The journey itself, as presented in the dance, is a purposeful endeavour.
J: Does Radha feel the pain? Who is Radha?
N: Radha is a mythical character. She is Lord Krishna’s lover. She is an older, married woman. The love between Radha and Krishna is immortalized in temple statues, in literature. The love is so powerful and Radha and Krishna are deified. Radha’s pain is intense. Krishna does not seem to feel or share the pain. He is always happy. He is the one who is sought.
J: Why is the love so mesmerizing?
N: Radha’s love is beautifully captured in the 12th century poet Jayadeva’s lyrics. Radha is always pining for Krishna. Krishna, on the other hand, is always away enjoying the company of the many gopis. He is supposed to have had 16,000 women. But for Radha, Krishna is the one love. RADHA NOW opens with the plea for Krishna to fill the void. As a young dance student, I was drawn to this notion of love. As I grew older however, I began to question the nature of this love. What kind of a love is it - that is wasted away in its pining? So in the dance, I was depicting the poignancy of the love in the separation, the intense pain and sadness in separation. RADHA NOW questions the deification of the man in your life and the pain that the love inflicts.
J: What helped you to overcome the intense pain?
N: The strength came from the self, from within and from the Tree that inspired this work. In this version of the work, the Tree is represented by the elder woman, played by my teacher Mrs. Santha Bhaskar. She represents the woman, the all-knowing woman who understands the pain of separation and lends her unquestioning support through her compassion and wisdom - the unconditional love she so generously gives. She embodies the nurturing force, more important than the man.
J: At one point in the dance there were 10 men? Who are they?
N: The ten men depict the story of evolution in Hinduism. They are the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. In the entire story, the woman is missing. With her erasure, everything is male. Through the themes depicted, I was addressing patriarchy.
M: Why did you feel the need to re-interpret Krishna and Radha? After all they are god and goddess, revered by many and upheld as immortals to be emulated by mortal men and women. Why disturb that representation, that universe?
N: That is the very point of the dance. Do we, should we, go on presenting and representing that one perspective? How many more centuries do we go on casting women in this desperate light? I am not even reinterpreting. I am merely capturing the pain of separation in love suffered by Radha as it is presented in the compositions of great saints. And in doing so, I am then questioning why the suffering has to be partial? And is that suffering just? Is the love of a woman only about giving and waiting? And a man’s due is that of receiving? The question is why is Radha (women) always presented in this destitute state? And that presentation is composed and choreographed by men! How would a man know how Radha (women) feels? Why should women and their love be framed such? And is it right, that after all the progress we have made, after fighting for women’s right to education, employment and liberation, we tie them down with the shackles of dated perspectives and expectations? Is that what art is about- reproduce? Do we pursue the arts, merely to reproduce the known? Why then do great artistes recast Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake or reinterpret Mozart and Beethoven? Surely Art must capture the times that we live in! Otherwise the pursuit of art will be in vain. Art is life and life is art. Should today’s women go on living and suffering in love like Radha? What similarity, if any do they share with Radha? Was there a Radha in the first place? Or was it a figment of a man’s imagination- the ideal woman as he saw it! Yes, Krishna and Radha are worshipped. We are told that they are the ideal to be aspired to. What sort of an ideal is that? Should art endorse such a partial representation- that perspective of the pining, agonizing, love of the woman and the exuberant male recipient, who is clueless about his partner’s suffering? As an artiste I am questioning that. My role as a dancer is to think about what we are asked to consider and are presented with as an inviolable dictat, sanctified truths that must be perpetuated. To do so would be to go against one’s conscience and to retard society’s progress.
M: The same representation we see in Silapathikaram- the epic Tamil literary work by Ilango Adigal- which depicts the self-sacrificing woman (Kannagi) who waits patiently for her long gone husband (who was actually living with another woman), receives him adoringly and unquestioningly when he finally returns penniless and then rises to uphold his innocence when he is accused and unjustly killed for the theft of the queen’s anklet. When she was suffering in his absence and pining for him, neither society nor community came to her rescue. In its silence, society in fact condoned Kovalan’s extramarital liaison. Despite the separation and suffering, Kannagi stands up to defend her wrongfully punished husband and in her rage sets Madurai on fire! Is this the fate of women? That they have to always be the long suffering, the ever patient and giving being, while privileged treatment and attention is the birthright of the male? That representation, because it is not in synch with the times and the society we live in, with our sense of fundamental human dignity, which should be accorded to all, must be reflected upon. I think that if we are unable to critically evaluate the texts we encounter and challenge the injustice, then we fail as human beings. The performing arts, in my opinion, has an important role to play in creating civilized societies where all individuals, regardless of gender, class or ethnicity are treated with respect and dignity.
J: In RADHA NOW you created a new form?
N: I revisited the classical dance form. The presentation of women in Bharathanatyam is through the male gaze. Dancers sing to lyrics composed by men and the focus of the pieces is men. In love compositions, the man becomes the focal point. The Bharatanatyam costume too reflects this patriarchy. It is designed to capture the female figure seen through the male eye. My costume too changes from the saree in Part 1 to a simple top and a skirt in Part 2. The focus is the concept and the feelings and not the distraction and seduction of the female figure enrobed in the Bharatanatyam costume. RADHA NOW, by recasting this male-centric focus in form does not seek to redefine the powerful emotion of love or of women. It merely presents women as they are- intelligent, empowered individuals with feelings.
It is not just the conceptualization that I revisited, but also the repertoire. The performance begins with the jatis- fast, rigid, typical movements. But the form shifts and it slows down in the segment that presents the pining- the ashtapadis. The fast-paced ‘thillana’, which traditionally ends a dance rendition, occurred in the middle when the Ras Leela is reversed with Radha dancing with the men.
So does the music. Part 1 begins with Carnatic music, but this shifts delicately and it transits to other genres. Carnatic music is highly structured and is suited to the initiating piece. As the pining becomes intense, there is the shift towards Hindustani music, which given its loose rhythmic structure, allows the stretching and thereby creates the flow. It allows for a greater passionate and emotional feel. The change helps to emote differently and it slows down the pace.
So, in conceptualizing, choreographing and presenting RADHA NOW, I was unpacking and unlayering the encumbrances that defined women (rooted in the male psyche) and facilitating their connectivity to life nurturing experiences. This way while they enjoy love when it presents itself and are nourished by it, they are not engulfed by it to the point of self- destruction.
Every woman is Radha. She is the Radha of today- educated, informed, capable and passionate- with an identity of her own, an individual in her own right. She is not to be defined by a man’s love. Neither is her existence to be framed by a man’s perception of her or of her love.
RADHA NOW shifted and challenged the patriarchy within the form. We need to do this before we can challenge the patriarchy within ourselves.
J: When you were going through the process, was there hesitation?
N: I worked on it years ago. It is difficult to distill life into art. Life is art, art is life. I don’t doubt the process. Dance reflects who I am. Life experience adds value to the art. It personalizes whatever I am doing. Art is the carrier of the culture and the form. And of life.
J: Your work ends on a note of dignity. You reached a greater height out of all that.
N: RADHA NOW challenges the established boundaries. What lifts Radha is the empowerment. That it is possible for a woman to pass her time while waiting for her love. The love need not be all consuming. The dance questions if as a woman NOW, it is possible to explore role reversals. The narrative of RADHA NOW explores what is generally forbidden - the gendering that has always been presented through the male gaze.
N: Do you think that your lack of familiarity with the mythology on which RADHA NOW was based and with Indian Classical Dance in any way hampered your understanding of the performance? Of the message?
J: This is the second Indian Classical Dance performance that I have attended in many years. This was different. No, I have no knowledge of the mythology either. But the dance, for me it was drama- it told a story. I could follow that story. As a woman, I felt your pain in the waiting and your sadness. I understood it. As the narrative unfolded, I could see the shifts, the emotional aloneness and the yearning. The elder woman, who beckoned you unto her to provide you solace- she was responding to your pain as a woman. That was very reassuring. She personified the tree and gave it a human quality. I did not see the dance as telling me a story that was based on a myth, which I had to know. I had no idea and I don’t think it mattered. I did not feel deprived. Now that I have learned about this myth from you, it does not add to my understanding of RADHA NOW, although it shows me another perspective. Was that perspective important for me to understand the yearning or the agony? I don’t think so. What you presented there was a woman’s story and I identified with it as a woman. It is the story of many women who waste away their lives, waiting and pining for love as defined by the male.
I was also fascinated by the power of your concentration. The focus and the intensity of the emotions were so deep. You lived each of those moments. You were lost in those emotions. It was not a performance. It was not just a role you were performing. I felt you were Radha herself. And Radha is every woman. That was all that mattered for me. My heart cried and my mind understood your suffering and your struggle.
N: Did you feel uncomfortable about it, the sadness?
J: You exuded the sadness. No, I wasn’t uncomfortable. You came out of it in the last segment when you had communion with nature. It showed the nurturing quality of art.
Listening to Jenny and Nirmala’s animated and intense discussion of RADHA NOW brought to mind Maya Angelou’s celebration of women in her poem Still I Rise:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
RADHA NOW, thus was clearly not meant to be a light-hearted entertainment for an evening out. It was a performance/ presentation that turned over accepted ideas about men, women, love and pain and forced the audience to confront their own unthinking acceptance of these ideas. Should art perpetuate ‘time-honoured’ beliefs and injustices in the name of continuing tradition and preserving culture? Do we continue to present unquestioningly, in and through art, age old precepts and perspectives? How do these perspectives integrate into our very different lives today? Should they not be recast to reflect the progress we have achieved, the emancipation of women, the recognition by men of the strengths possessed by women and the leaps made in societal development as a whole? What is the role of art? Is it not the role of art to reflect progress and effect change? The narrative that any form of art presents must transform society. Was it not this belief that led Austen and Bronte to pen their classic pieces and the likes of Maya Angelou, Erin Gruwell, Azar Nafisi and Ngozi Adichie to capture the debilitating struggles of their own kind/ womankind!
The energy, effort and execution that went into the conceptualization and final presentation of RADHA NOW should have disturbed our universe that 8th October night. It should have set our adrenalin flowing! If it did that, we will never see the world and dance in the same way again. We would have become a thinking audience, who can not only enjoy a performance, but also come out of it enlightened and empowered. The message and the medium came together in this exploration. I, together with Jenny and the many like her, demand that engagement from a performer. Set us thinking! Challenge our perspectives and the narrow, cloistered, comfortable perceptions! RADHA NOW did just that. It is a phenomenal piece of work.
Jenny Lim teaches language and literature and is a connoisseur of the performing arts.
Maha Sripathy is an education consultant and works with young people in the promotion of the arts to create greater awareness and sensitivity for empowerment of the individual.
A version of this article was published in "Aesthetics", Singapore, October 2011