Everyone is aware of the holy trinity of Hinduism— Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva—but hardly anyone speaks ofAmmavara, the goddess who gave birth to the three," says theatre and television actress Rashmi Vaidialingam. According to her, many of the patriarchal biases that suffuse our everyday existence have found their way into the way mythology is related. Vaidialingam will be handling the theatre component of Mythologies Retold…the female grail, a collaborative artistic endeavour to reinterpret mythologies in search of space for the feminine form.

The feminine: Another look

The dance-drama has been conceptualized by costume-designer Sandhya Raman, and features eminent Bharatanatyam dancer Geeta Chandran. The national premiere of the performance will be held today in New Delhi. Over the next six months, the performers will travel to seven cities including Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore.

Raman, a National Institute of Design alumnus, has been associated with Chandran for around five years now and has designed costumes for other well-known dancers such as Anita Ratnam, Birju Maharaj and Sonal Mansingh. “The idea is to question what happens when women are removed from society and the feminine energy is alienated through acts like female foeticide," she says. Raman is also the joint secretary at Rasaja Foundation, where she came into contact with the collection of its founder, artist and art historian Jaya Appasamy, which provided the necessary inspiration for the project. “One encounters a lot of women-oriented themes in the paintings, which deal with the life of women in different states and forms and at different levels," she says. The collection is currently housed at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

Over the years, Raman has worked closely with Chandran to help evolve the danseuse’s trademark look, one that juxtaposes the traditional Kanchipuramsari with a leotard blouse. Many similar improvizations will be on display during the performance. “The narrative is unique as traditionally, in a Bharatanatyam performance, one encounters Krishna lore or devi lore, or eulogies to the gods and goddesses, or episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata or the nayak-nayika bit," says Chandran, adding, “but here we deal with the little-known stories taken from mythology which are part-fictionalized and part-contemporized."

The performance, which lasts just over an hour, consists of five sections that frequently overlap the boundaries between different art forms like dance, multimedia presentation and theatre. Besides the Bharatanatyam component, the performance also includes soliloquies and dialogues with the goddesses by Vaidialingam. A trained Kuchipudi dancer herself, Vaidialingam is the sutradhar (the narrator) who puts forth a host of relevant questions to the audience, and probes the various goddesses (played by the dancers) about their roles and how the feminine energy has come to be obliterated over the years. As the actors and the dancers are performing, a set of 8-10 paintings from Appasamy’s collection will be projected on to the background.

Chandran and her students have been practising extensively for the past three months. She believes that Bharatanatyam as an art form lends itself wonderfully to this kind of experimentation, provided the dancer has mastered the craft and it is not a half-baked attempt at innovation for the sake of innovation. “Bharatanatyam is a stylized and powerful vocabulary of expression that the dancer has in her hands, which can be put to use in any situation," she says.

Both Chandran and Raman expect an enthusiastic response to the performance. Whether the evening will succeed in retelling mythology in a radically different manner or in discovering the feminine space in the epics and folklore, some troubling truths are sure to be encountered. “Why do we always look at Kama and not Rati as the goddess of love? (Kama is God of love, while Rati is the Goddess of love) " asks Raman.


u In ancient mythology, all the senses have been referred to as goddesses: Rati as the goddess of love (touch), Annapurna as the goddess of taste, Shakhambari as the goddess of earth and vegetation (smell), Usha as the goddess of vision (light), Vak devi as the goddess of speech (sound)

u During ‘hawans’ (a prayer ceremony involving fire), it is a common practice to chant ‘swaha’ before offering food or other material to the sacred fire. Hardly anyone is aware that Swaha is the name of Agni’s wife, without whose consent the offerings can never be accepted.

u Though Surya, the male sun god is revered all over, his two daughters, Usha and Ratri, are taken for granted. Usha is the goddess of dawn while Ratri is the goddess of night, an energy harbinger who gives you solace and rest.

The national premiere of Mythologies Retold…the female grail will be held at Kamani Auditorium, New Delhi, today at 7pm. Passes can be collected from the venue in the morning or from the Rasaja Foundation office in Kailash Colony, New Delhi. The schedule for the other cities will be available on rasajafoundation.com from end-September onwards.