Classic dance tells struggle heroine’s story

A simple stage, reminiscent of a school hall, set the scene for Shree: I Am Shakti. Two small god lamp areas guard either side.

As we munched on our popcorn (it was a real family affair and a small tuckshop outside supplied the usual snacks — although to the dismay of the uncle sitting behind me, stocked no Johnny Walker Blue), figures clad in orange, red and yellow saris, white flower headpieces and maang tikka jewellery were brilliantly lit up for the audience.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. The last time I’d seen a bharata natyam dance was in a hot marquee somewhere on KwaZulu-Natal’s North Coast.

Anusha Pillay, Reshma Chhiba and Panna Dulabh, the akkas (older sisters) heading up the Sarvavidya Natyaalaya dance school, assured me that Shree: I Am Shakti was not another Bollywood showcase or purely classical bharata natyam piece. The school, which has been running for the past eight years in various locations in Lenasia, Roshnee and Benoni, teaches children from age five onwards learn this traditional dance form. After the success of last year’s Shree: I Am More than Just My Body, a show in which rape and gendered violence was explored through dance, poetry and spoken word, I was intrigued by what the second iteration of Shree would entail.

The show brought the entire dance school, from the beginner class to the professional-level Sarvavidya Dance Ensemble, on stage at different times. Divided into different set pieces, each dealing with its own theme, the use of narration throughout meant that even a bharata natyam newbie like me could follow the intention behind the production.

This year’s show picked up where last year’s left off and delved into the manifestations of Shakti in her all her temporal and spatial fluidity. The multiplicity of ideas and practices surrounding Shakti Ma meant that Sarvavidya had much to play around with. Conceptually, many of these aspects were represented. The dance school chose to tackle societal norms that shape South African Indian femininity in a dance form that, ironically, is tied to raising one’s chances of getting married.

The use of such an ancient dance form to subversive ends is a great example of the versatility of the dance, as well as how it adds its voice to a much wider feminist discourse on patriarchy. The performance weaved its way through the story of an anti-racist struggle heroine as well as generational chasms between Indian women and girls, the gender variance of Hindu deities, colourism and more. Fitting all of this into a performance of just 90 minutes is no easy task but the narration, combined with a team of skilled dancers, delivered it seamlessly.

When the narration took us to the story of Valliamma, a Satyagraha heroine from Johannesburg, the performance took a historical turn. This is the most literal storytelling section, and the young dancers animate the short life of the struggle heroine. Valliamma, born in what was then called the Coolie Location in central Johannesburg, fought to counter the anti-Asian laws that preceded apartheid. She died in prison at the age of 17 and her earthly resting place is in the Braamfontein Cemetery opposite the Enoch Sontonga Memorial Park.

The way in which struggle iconography (raised clenched fists) and classic bharata natyam poses coalesced rendered the story of oppression in a novel way — highlighting the grace inherent in fighting for justice.

It was refreshing to see a diversity of body types on stage. This challenged commonly held ideas of who is allowed to dance and who is not, and also whose form is worthy of praise and performance. The way that different feminine bodies told stories throughout the set pieces was astonishing and the ability of the dancers to remember the often minute mudras (hand gestures) and use them to punctuate storytelling and narrative was impressive. The subtle movements of the hands, feet and face were powerful storytelling features and showed how the kinetic energy — shakti — moves throughout and animates the entire body in mesmerising ways.

A scene invoking Kali Ma, the cosmic nature of blackness and her ability to devour time was a stellar example of the high calibre of dance work and storytelling hitting its mark. Kal (Sanskrit for time) is eaten by Kali, the divine mother with dark skin who wears a necklace made of the skulls of men and a skirt of dismembered arms. One of the most misinterpreted goddesses — probably because of Judeo-Christian beliefs not understanding the compassion inherent in such a fierce figure — Kali is worshipped as the destroyer of ego, as symbolised by the flesh that adorns her, and a reminder that we are all spirits, made manifest in our bodies for a short period of time. She is a fighter and a mother. In this set piece, the dancer’s facial expressions mirrored those of Kali Ma with her tongue out, with wide eyes piercing the audience’s gaze.

The performance succeeded in deconstructing the abstract notions of time and space into their vital gestures and forms through the body, grounding these big themes in a tangible and beautiful way.

Adding to the atmosphere was the lighting and stage design. The lighting and costuming worked well together, and the combination showed an attention to detail that allowed the dance to reach its fullness of expression.

In a performance that addresses colourism, lighting was used in an inventive way visually to dismantle the binaries of light and dark and explore how damaging this form of anti-blackness is in South African Indian communities.

Ultimately Shree: I Am Shakti is a performance with heart and comes from a place of seeking justice and reinvigorating dialogue about sexual violence, anti-blackness, womanhood and patriarchy.

The school hopes to perform a double bill of Shree: I Am More than Just My Body and Shree: I Am Shakti. The first performance was referred to in the beginning and end narrations, and to see the progression of thought would add to the potency of the message and medium.

As Sarvavidya continues to tease out these issues in an accessible way, I hope to see them performing to wider audiences across Gauteng. Bharata natyam, as practised by the school, is done in a way that highlights the South African context — traditions change as they cross oceans — so to see them perform to various audiences would only enhance their praxis and shed light on a dance form that is otherwise confined to Indian communities.

Youlendree Appasamy
Youlendree Appasamy
Youlendree Appasamy is a freelance writer and journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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