Shakti Bhakti @ Diwali in BC

"Festival of Light" theatre series celebrates Eternal Feminine

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But the music takes a more classical turn and choreographer Monica Kapoor makes full use of Mehta’s bharatanatyam and kathak training to pantomime the “framing story” that surrounds the Faak Layne action. Drawn from the ancient Mahabharata epic, it traces the evolution of mythic Queen Draupadi from fairy-tale princess to fiery Shakti icon.

Rejecting a worthy – but low-caste – suitor, Draupadi opts instead for a more eligible hero, only to find herself wed not only to her chosen champion but to all four of his brothers as well. Wagered into slavery by one of her five husbands, she’s publicly stripped by her captors. The trauma turns her into a vengeful demiurge who instigates a cataclysmic, Armageddon-style battle.

Juxtaposing the mythic and mundane, slapstick and pathos, classic and pop  – all in the person of a single incandescent performer – Honour brings home the innate dignity of the human condition in all eras and places. All Lives Matter, even in Faak Layne.

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Hair-raising derring-do. Photo: Navarasa

The Draupadi legend also features in another of the Diwali in B.C. offerings, carrying us a long way from the urban squalor of Bombay to the forested heartlands of the sub-continent. There, dispossessed remnants of India’s indigenous pre-Hindu tribes have waged an ongoing “Maoist” insurgency for the past half-century against interloping landlords and the “neo-colonial” forces of the New Delhi government.

The underpinnings and ramifications of the conflict – politically, economically and ethnographically – are thorny, to say the least. But what an ideal set up for melodrama!

And India’s Navarasa Dance Theatre rises to the occasion, streamlining the story into a Grand Guignol of unalloyed heroes and villains as a vehicle for their ideological message and their very considerable physical theatre talents.

Some of the onstage stunts seem a little gratuitous, thrown in mainly to showcase the performers’ prowess. But, cumulatively, the show is affecting and its heart is indisputably in the right place.  

Between them, the eight-member cast can boast training in a wide spectrum of performance disciplines, ranging from bharatanatyam to salsa, African dance, Brazilian capoeira and (especially) the fluid Keralite martial art of kalarippayatu.

This is another show whose title – Encounter – lends sinister meaning to a commonplace noun. Just as Honour, in Faak Layne jargon, is a code word for bartered virginity, so here is “Encounter” a military euphemism for extra-judicial torture and execution.

Such “encounters” provide ample scope for Navarasa co-stars Anil Natyaveda, as the Maoist leader, and Sunil Kumar Thankachan, as his Army nemesis, to show off their martial arts chops. But the real target of the counter-insurgency is Dropdi (a vernacular rendering of “Draupadi”), the fiery female muse of the revolution.

This charismatic Passionaria (played by Navarasa co-founder Aparna Sindhoor, who also co-authored the script) roams the jungles rousing the tribals to revolt. “If we get her,” the Army commander reasons, “the rest will come.” And so they do, in an “encounter” that turns into a hecatomb.

Dropdi alone survives, only to be consigned to a fate worse than death. Like her mythological namesake, she’s first stripped (with a seemingly endless unravelling of sari yardage). Then she’s gang raped onstage, which is rendered with a highly stylized and impressive display of mallakhamba, a traditional Marathi form of pole-dancing yoga.

She rises, crazed from this ordeal, transfigured into an incarnation of the mythic Draupadi as a kind of wrathful deity. And it is this wild-eyed image we’re left with, the very apotheosis of an outraged and aroused Shakti.

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