Srinidhi Raghavan and Sahasara Sambamoorthi are bharatanatyam dancers based in New York who met at graduate school in Columbia and in 2007 started working on the concept of Her Story, which premiered a year later in Manhattan. Buoyed by their success they brought the show to the UK for two nights to be followed by a date in Chennai, India.
Her Story was billed as the exploration of female characters from classical literature, re-interpreted in a contemporary context. The curiosity of seeing how the young generation was finding inspiration in the stories of ages past and what new light would be shed drew me to the performance.
Her Story, was an epic undertaking, two hours and twenty minutes without an interval. Two-thirds of the performance was abhinaya-based attesting to the capacity of the young dancers to sustain concentration and focus in portraying characters through mime and gesture. This requires utter commitment which Srinidhi and Sahasara conveyed throughout.
The main part of the programme comes after two introductory pieces. Pushpananjali creates a very pleasant impression of the two dancers in seated and standing positions, attired in purple and turquoise with gold costumes. Their movements are clean: arms and araimandis strongly held yet relaxed. They make good use of level and direction and move in harmony, bringing out the precise geometry of the form.
Slokam reveals the dancing pair at their best. They alternatively play the Goddess and Shiva, responding to his eight moods. The majestic postures depicting Shiva are at full stretch, and jattis fired off with finely executed tirmanams.
The theme knitting the show is that of unconditional love which leads to some terrifying and some heroic acts of self-sacrifice. The mother’s love of her son is shown as Kaikeyi, the step-mother of Ram brings about his banishment into the forest for the sake of her birth son Bharata; a young woman’s love for God (Andal); a wife’s love for her husband which leads her to wreaking a terrible revenge when he is wronged by his enemies (Kannagi) and the pain of a mother who has to give up her child to be brought up by another (Devaki). The dramatic narration takes the form of a brief recorded outline, followed by a varnam-style rendition where passages of abhinaya are interspersed with jattis.
The stories are mostly told literally. They lack the symbolism or abstraction to take audiences to unexplored depths or give multi-layers or new insights. Just as the flute to Devaki became the symbol for all that was sweet and nostalgic, a search for psychological depth, an unexamined motive or a poetic summation could have created a magic, which was felt in parts but could not be sustained. The dancers did not lack the skills but perhaps abhinaya itself has its limitations, it does not after all have the ability to exist alone in the place of a dramatic presentation and therefore in a traditional performance abhinaya must balance with nritta.
The young dancers have great skill and sincerity. They have the commitment and with deeper exploration of a less grandiose theme they could make a greater impact.