Poetry in motion

Poetry in motion
She moves like a river through the tides of time, age and relationships. Despite the invisible chains of choices tugging at her, Vichitra, the ‘Every Woman’, gracefully glides over the obstacles in the latest dance theatre production Chains: Love Stories of Shadows by Savitha Sastry, a pioneer of India’s contemporary Bharatanatyam.

Known for her avant garde productions that leave a lasting impact on her audience, Savitha has taken modern day concepts and flawlessly married them into the traditional idiom of the dance form, which includes nritta (pure dance form), nritya (expressions) and abhinaya (portrayal of a character), giving it a more relatable premise.

Like most of Savitha’s productions, Chains is scripted and conceptualised by her husband A K Srikanth, her partner in Sai Shree Productions. Speaking about the conception of Chains, Savitha says, “The plot was conceived with the notion of wanting to connect with the audience, i.e. everyday people, who can relate easily to the theme. The major questions that were raised with this theme are who scripts our life? Where do our decisions come from? From the society, family or free choice? These questions seemed pertinent especially in case of women. Gender equality in this country is a law of averages. Hence the empowering question that we need to ask ourselves is whether we have a free choice.”

A woman’s journey

With this basic structure in mind, the story was conceived around the life of an ordinary woman. “This is Srikanth’s story about the three important women in his life. His mother, grandmother and me, his wife. It is a trilogy, but the lives of these women intermingle into the story of the female protagonist Vichitra,” the artiste explains. “Sri wrote it with a common thread that ran through the lives of the three women. So the story follows Vichitra in different stages of her life. As a young girl who suffers heartbreak, a dutiful wife, mother and daughter-in-law, and finally as a old woman who lives alone in solitude.) On stage it is a love story with a male narrator who is in love with Vichitra all her life. He is like a shadow who follows her throughout.”

Most of Savitha’s productions including Soul Cages, Yudh, Prophet and now Chains centre around women. Is it a conscious decision to focus on women? “Female characters are easy to portray as some part of you goes into their evolution on stage. However, in the case of Vichitra, even many men in the audience could identify with her. She had that Every Man quality to her. Moreover, I do relate to the female protagonists in my stories. I related to Vichitra in Chains, in Yudh with the Satan, in Prophet with the title character.
Explaining the changes that she made in the production of Chains, Savitha says, “In Chains, we decided to take away from the traditional stories and even reformatted the music which, despite having ragas, does not sound like Carnatic music, thus giving it a universal appeal.”

Taking a rigid, linear form of dance like Bharatanatyam outside its mythological and religious framework seems like a daunting task. But Savitha seems to have done that effortlessly, proving that ultimately content is the king. When asked about her intention behind revolutionising the form and giving it a new dimension, the artiste explains, “Traditionally, the Bharatnatyam narrative consists of stories from the Indian epics. But how relevant are these subjects to the lay audience today? I wanted to bring a change in the format by introducing everyday stories that the audience can relate to. I wanted to disconnect from the age-old set-up without tampering with the essential grammar of the dance form. My aim ultimately is to bring in a degree of honesty in the performance, so I got rid of contextual information and complicated lyrics.”

Art for all

Thanks to artistes like Savitha, Bharatanatyam is shedding its elitist tag of being favoured by a select few knowledgeable audience. But with an onslaught of dance theatre productions that are gradually piquing lay audiences’ interest, how does Savitha manage to stay in the game and keep up with her contemporaries? “Dance theatre productions today have set the bar high for us all. I am happy with the evolution of the dance format, which is now slowly moving away from myth and social causes. However, Bharatanatyam has still not grown into an art of storytelling. I strongly believe that this dance form is by far the best medium to tell stories relevant to the time. For that, we need to take out the myth, the spiritualising of the form. That has been my constant effort.”

Trained under stalwarts including T K Mahalingam Pillai, the Dhananjayans and Adayar K Lakshman, Savitha believes that one needs to know the traditional techniques before stepping out and creating their own style. “Technique is the most important element and mastery over it is the key. The core idea is to take traditional elements like jathis and weaving them into the theme along with abhinaya. In the end, it is all about rising above the basic elements and giving them an exquisite touch,” she explains.

Post Chains, there is no stopping this artiste, who is also a teacher and will be conducting workshops in the cities where she has plans to perform in the future and will be working on another production titled In God’s Own Country along with dancers trained by her.
“My goal is to revamp the medium and make it exciting for the lay audience, as I feel art is not elitist. And I am not bigger than my art.” Spoken like a true artiste, indeed.

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