Asian Music and Dance

Epic Women Conference

The EPIC WOMEN CONFERENCE, curated by Anita Ratnam and hosted by Kartik Fine Arts, cleared a space for thought and reflection in the dense jungle of performance activities of the Chennai December Season. The Conference was unique for the dance world as we have performances aplenty but the meeting of artists, academics and social activists which fuels the creative hotpot for future work is somewhat rarer.

The scope of the Conference is worthy of a paper in itself and the contributors too numerous to mention, so this footnote to the Conference just picks the theme of the integration of academic and performance world. The format featured presentations and panel discussions interspersed with daytime and evening performances. Day One examined the continuing relevance of the heroines from Indian Epics; Day Two looked at the Divas of Indian dance (see image above); Day Three investigated Art and Activism. The Epic Women evoked through performance included both classical heroines like Sita and Savitri, the lesser-known such as Amba/Sikandi, Hitimba; and modern-day heroines like Frida Kahlo and Aung San Suu Kyi.

The panel on Exploring Sita featured Director Veenapani Chawla of Adishakti (Pondicherry-based theatre company), kutiyattam exponent Kapila Venu (who later performed the Abduction of Sita), and the stalwart feminist writer C.S. Lakshmi, aka Ambai.

Chawla’s thesis on the significance of landscape in the Ramayana as symbolising Sita’s state of mind was fascinating: born in Mithila, a place of free thinking and intellectual pursuits, she is taken to Ayodhya, the city of Manu, the law-maker; the forest exile is a relief from the stifling atmosphere of the court to which she returns after the exile. In the intervening time she has entered (albeit forcibly), the fabulous Lanka, representing the subconscious mind, and ends back in the forest, a place for rishis, poets and the soon-to-be departed, where she once again can find her true self.

In contrast to the above, Kapila Venu spoke of the character of Sita being so insignificant in traditional kutiyattam that she was often represented by an object on stage. The real drama explored the complex character of the dark and handsome Ravana (the ten-headed visualisation representing a many-faceted personality), providing a study into the nature of passion.

C.S. Lakshmi, the writer and feminist, based her presentation on her play Crossing the River where Sita becomes the non-gendered symbol for every oppressed person and all kinds of injustice and degradation. Thus the scope of Sita is opened out infinitely. As Chawla maintained, the Ramayana has provoked so many interpretations that it makes it the most democratic of texts.

The speakers had performance credentials as shown at the opening of the Conference, when the drummers from Veenapani Chawla’s Adishakti created a magnificient ‘sound installation’. Two male and one female percussionist seated behind large elongated drums were as beautiful to look at as to listen to. Kapila Venu would on the following evening enthral a select audience of rasikas by her highly-skilled evocation of Sita’s Abduction, performed mostly seated, the action projected from her face and eyes. Venu was stately, almost impassive, yet emanated blazing intensity. The ebb and flow of the percussion provided the vital dramatic soundtrack to the action, equal player with the dancer. This performer was one of the revelations of the Conference.

The footnote would not be complete without mentioning the terrible backdrop to the Conference – the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Singh in New Delhi. ‘How do we as artists respond to the scale of this kind of evil?’ Anita Ratnam asks in her January Narthaki Editorial. ‘What theme can we create about this and what kind of jathi or adavu or padam can we dance to?’ She concludes ‘… music and dance can soften and refine. And that sometimes it is powerless and impotent against sheer malevolent evil.’

Postscript: The absence of Chennai dancers and dance students was surprising. How can dance which is meaningful, relevant and alive emerge from an intellectual vacuum? How can aspiring dancers know quality unless they watch performances? This is a question that the great and good gurus and dance institutions of Chennai and India should be asking themselves.



Join the weekly Pulse newsletter and we will send you the latest news and articles straight to your inbox