& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Woman: A Search

A woman’s status in the Indian society is changing rapidly, and by some accounts is getting better in some parts of the country. A perceptible change is that at least there is consistent articulation of the need for things to change. 

But Indian society is multilayered and several centuries coexist simultaneously in the present, so while we may be witnessing a mild transformation in the status of women in some urban centres, their situation remains unchanged across large parts of India.

An indication of the utter disdain with which a majority of men in India view the position of women was on display recently when a senior political leader (and a former government minister), Sharad Yadav, shamelessly shouted at a woman government minister (Smriti Irani), telling her suggestively, “I know who you are.”

One doesn’t have to agree with Smriti Irani on anything whatsoever (and any sane person would, in fact, find it impossible to agree with her on anything) to respect her as a woman and as a minister. Pertinently, the exchange occurred in the Indian parliament.

(If you wish to read more about Sharad Yadav’s deep-rooted misogyny, click here: Thank you Sharad Yadav…)

The situation is not all that different for women of Indian origin in Canada, especially in places such as Brampton, where the Indian origin population is in greater numbers. Such places are hotbeds of misogyny and gender-based discrimination. Importantly, the plight of these women generally remains hidden and doesn’t find any mention in the mainstream media, except for an occasional report when something really drastic occurs.

Many who watched the exquisite two-part dance ballet Woman:A Search by Mrudanga Dance Academy at the Fleck Theatre of the Harbourfront Centre on March 21 may have justifiably marvelled at the mastery of the performers and the dazzling production, and gone home deeply satisfied at having seen an avant-garde performance.

They would have (again, justifiably) congratulated the Harbourfront Centre for including an Indian classical dance ballet in its repertoire of the Next Steps series festival.

However, underlying the artistic excellence of the ballet was (is) the unrelenting reality that needs to be shouted out loudly and repeatedly: that women in India (and women of Indian origin in the diaspora) continue to get the wet end of the stick, and that their amelioration remains sketchy and incomplete.

Mrudanga Dance Academy depicted not just the plight, but also the indomitable spirit of Indian woman, and it did so with finesse, subtlety and breathtaking artistry.

And it wasn’t just the classical Odissi dance by the academy’s troupe in Janma (birth), or the fusion of dance forms in Trishna (thirst); it was Rishabha Dhar’s enthralling music, where he suddenly introduced a saxophone interlude to accentuate Ananda’s longing for Prakriti during their momentary separation, electrifying the auditorium; it was the dazzling display of lights and minimalist stage décor; it was Ananya Mukherjee’s emotionally charged voiceover that made Prakriti’s pain at being perennially ostracized palpably real; it was the legendary Lata Pada’s sombre yet evocative monologue; and it was the scripts by Amit Dasgupta (Janma) and Ananya and Bandana  Mukherjee (Trishna) that gave a contemporary slant to modernist tales.

Of course, all these aspects went into making the show splendid, but what took it to another level, what made it memorable and unforgettable was Enakshi Sinha’s riveting Odissi recital.

Janma is a straightforward story about gender discrimination, where a woman is born in a family that has been praying for a son. She grows ups aware that she is unwanted, and learns to survive by resisting her marginalization. The recital concludes on a positive note when the woman herself gives birth to a girl child, and she vows to treat her fairly and not shun her.

Trishna is based on Rabindranath Tagore’s classic Chandalika, the play and the opera-style dance drama that for the first time ever brought the angst of a young Dalit woman Prakriti, who falls in love with Ananda, a Bhikshu primarily because he treats her as a woman. 

Trishna is based on a more woman-centric interpretation of Chandalika by physicist turned philosopher and Tagore scholar Abu Sayeed Ayyub. This interpretation portrays the epic mainly as a love story, where love has the power to conquer all – in Prakriti’s case the social isolation, and in Ananda’s case the vow of worldly renunciation. In this interpretation of Chandalika, the two lovers boldly embark upon a journey to shatter stereotypes, break norms and attempt to create a new, better world that would have no place for prejudice and hatred.

The performance was in support of the UN Women’s campaign Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It. 

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