National Museum of the American Indian
March 29-30, 1999
Reviewed by Jane Goldberg
New York, NY-Mallika Sarabhai’s Devi: The Mother Goddess was a bharata natyam tour de force for those who appreciate Indian classical dance with a contemporary social message.
Understanding the gestures of Indian classical dance-the deep pliés, the mysterious symbolism of the eye and hand movements, the broad sweeps of the arms-has been like studying a foreign language for me. Even taking a bharata natyam class with the late Indrani Rahman, or some kathak classes with all the great footwork, did not make Indian dance accessible to me. I even went to India twice and still couldn’t understand it very well. What I could appreciate was the way in which Sarabhai interprets those ancient movements and tells stories that are topical. She makes adults and children understand their meaning today [see also “Jacques d’Amboise Goes Madras,” May 1991, page 58].
Known in India and internationally for her feminism and activism, Sarabhai reinterpreted and deconstructed some of the ancient Indian stories about goddesses, would-be goddesses, and about the raw deals some goddesses got. In one history, even a one-eyed monkey could not convince a husband, whose wife had been raped, that she had been wronged.
Granted, India’s renowned poor treatment of women gave Sarabhai ample material for questioning the subcontinent’s folklore, but this concert struck me as a way for Sarabhai to add her sense of humor to these stories. She talked through a two-minute synopsis of The Mahabharata (something she performed in Peter Brook’s 1989 film version). She gave it a good guys-bad guys interpretation to relate Arjuna’s real role in the Bhagavad-gita. I appreciated Sarabhai’s rhythmic intensity, too. She did wonderful trades with her four musicians, V. Balagurunathan, K. Jayan, Dinesh Kumar, and Rathinam Kaliya Perumal; it was a good demonstration of some accessible timing as well as good feet-which were not used as much as I would have liked.
But this was a concert about Sarabhai’s activism as a dance artist. (She is from one of the great families of dance and science in Ahmedabad, part of India’s industrial north; her family helped Gandhi in the Freedom Movement and she could have easily slipped into a life of “pure art.” But her mother Mrinalini is also a renowned bharata natyam practitioner, and their Darpana Academy of Performing Arts is set up as a socially relevant institution with courses in nonviolence and caste/race relations as well as different art techniques.
Ironically, I found the best pure movement at the end, when, Chaplinesque, Sarabhai shuffled along a white cloth laid on the floor to cover a blue one. Like a duckling following her mother’s walk, she shuffled in patterns much tinier than the rest of the space she had used on the gorgeous wooden floor. When she had finished her minimalist journey and disappeared, the musicians at the side of the hall lifted the white cloth which had concealed a drawing of a lion. Like the rest of the audience, I was surprised by the picture that hung on the back wall as Sarabhai disappeared.
At the end we were treated to Indian sweets and a discussion of what we’d just seen, something we rarely get to do at dance concerts. Many in the audience thought it was intermission-and they wanted more.
Author and dancer Jance Goldberg also wrote “Tap Dancing in India: Carry Your Shoes,” for Dance Magazine, January 1996.