Shakti: Women of Power
February 15, 2009
Last Sunday MIT Natya performed their annual show in Little Kresge, entitled Shakti: Women of Power. Natya is purely devoted to Bharatanatyam, a classical dance tradition originating from South India. The show utilized the art of dance to convey the stories of three women in Hindu mythology who have had notable impact on the status of women. Bharatanatyam is an extremely technical and challenging dance form that incorporates percussive foot movements, which often complement the rhythm of the drums in the accompanying music.
Luckily, Natya was able to secure two live musicians for the event, Suhas Rao on violin and Akshay Anantapadmanabhan on mridangam. Whereas a number of Bharatanatyam events are danced to tape or pre-recorded music, having the live musicians not only made for a more authentic stage setting, but also allowed audience members unfamiliar with the art form to see the connection between instrumentation and the precise dance steps.
The show opened with a beautiful instrumental selection, as all the members of Natya entered the stage in a choreographed formation. This gave the crowd a chance to see the performers before they began the dramatic segment of the show, and, most importantly. to get a taste for the colors of the costumes and a variety of rhythmic dance steps. This would have been an equally exciting routine to seasoned dance fans or newcomers.
The first story of the evening focused on Kannagi, who represents justice. Played by Mathura Sridharan ’12, Kannagi is wedded to the handsome Kovalan, portrayed by Renuka Ramanathan ’10. The dramatization explains how Kannagi seeks justice for her innocent husband, who is wrongfully accused of stealing the Queen’s precious anklet.
The expert choreography combined a well-balanced mix of technical dancing and dramatic acting, as is customary in this dance style. While the actresses were strong, a live narrator gave necessary context to the story. The climax of the scene occurs during a beautiful yet macabre execution of Kovalan. Ramanathan’s exceptional expression and acting during this scene gave the audience pause, evoking a sense of urgency that was abruptly resolved as the executioners circling her took her down in one strike.
The next tale proved to be more accessible and less heavy than the previous. In this myth, Savitri (Anjali Thakkar ’12) uses her wit to trick Yama (Sridharan), the god of death. Savitri falls in love with Satyavan (Kavya Kamal Manyapu G), who is said to be near his death. Though she is advised against it by a wise man, the two are married and enjoy a happy life together. This scene was most humorous and endearing because of its representation of the forest in which the young couple celebrate: some dancers portrayed swaying trees, and others acted as playful monkeys.
Inevitably, Satyavan dies, but Savitri finds a way to outwit Yama. During this portion of the story, an incredible synergy between Thakkar and Sridharan made the scene impressive. Savitri relentlessly follows Yama, who grants her a boon for her determination. Eventually, Savitri asks for a son, which Yama agrees to — without realizing that she’d need her husband back in order to fulfill her wish. The audience laughed, showing reverence for Savitri’s intellect.
The third and final story brought a solemn feeling back to the stage. Here, Queen Draupadi (Ramanathan) is subject to public humiliation when her husband, Yudhistra (Mohini Jangi G), wagers her dignity on a game of dice. He does not know that his challengers, the Kauravas (his wily cousins), have fixed the dice game. This scene utilized the instrumental section most fluidly, as the drums and violins provided sound effects for the tense competition. Ramanthan once again proved to be an exceptional actress — as the Kauravas (played by Manyapu & Chandni Valiathan G) try to embarrass her and pull of her sari, she prays to Lord Krishna who lengthens her dress infinitely.
The crowd was moved by a stunning performance during each segment. Facial expressions, an integral element to Bharatanatyam, gave the characters exquisite life and excitement. Of the group, Sridharan, Ramanathan and Manyapu proved to be the most engaging. Sridharan even skillfully jumped back and forth between dancing and providing vocal accompaniment.
At times, technical difficulties and stage direction miscommunication caused a slight lag, but the girls were able to recover from these mistakes instantly. Due to the variety of skill levels in Natya, there were moments where large group choreography fell behind the beat and lacked the synchronicity that is so key in Bharatanatyam. This became more apparent as the live drummer at times compensated for the missed beats, or at other times tried to re-emphasize the beat to focus the footwork.
It is a shame, though, that Natya only performed this show once, because it does deserve to be seen by many more. Keep an eye out for more performances from Natya at this year’s SAAS Culture Show.