Ekaantha Seetha: Interweaving Feminism through the Ages
On threaded palm, papyrus and page,
Now revered, now heralded, mostly unsung;
Across the orb's unmeasured miles,
Unbent under Destiny's unrelenting crush,
As others weep, wilt and wither,
Some stand and plough a lonely furrow.
Anamica (Association for a North American Mosaic of Indian Classical Arts) is a nonprofit organization barely two years old and already fast building a reputation for showcasing spectacular presentations. The last presentation, "Masters of Kathakali," ended up on Broadway, and this year on October 21st, the organization brought the stellar Cleveland Cultural Alliance production, "Ekaantha Seetha," meaning a lonely furrow, choreographed by the legendary couple V.P. and Shanta Dhananjayan.
The production showcased the lives of three women, Lord Rama's wife Sita, the warrior queen Rani Lakshmi Bai of the Indian Freedom movement, and Aparajitha, a girl born and brought up in contemporary India. The three-part production, performed in different genres of music and dance, presents the theme, "We reap the harvests of the loosened fields of lonely furrows ploughed by such women," or, in other words, that women have had what it takes to beat the odds and rise above great obstacles that society has put before them. We are grateful to these women and inspired to do the same by recognizing our own power and with courage and fortitude striving for justice.
The first segment Vaidehi (one of the many names of Sita) opens at a point when Sita is pregnant and Rama, forced to face gossip about Sita's chastity, puts her through the humiliation of an agnee pariksha (walking through fire). Even after she comes through unscathed, the voices questioning her purity refuse to die, and Rama, who believes his subjects own him more than his wife, condemns her to a life in the jungles. Instead of a tragic tale of the betrayal of Sita, the saga is cleverly turned into the story of a woman who rises above her circumstances, and raises two valiant sons as a single mother. Her ultimate triumph comes when her sons outshine her husband and their uncle Lakshmana in a battle, and when they refuse to fall at their father's feet, asking instead why they should show obeisance to a man who was a no-show in their lives. The ultimate redemption comes when they turn to their mother and tell her that she is both their mother and father. Even that is not Sita's final triumph. That comes when she graciously forgives Rama, and leaves on her own terms, to be welcomed by Mother Earth, leaving him lost without her and crying piteously, "Why did she leave me?"
The refreshing twist to an old tale which thus far had always eulogized the sacrifice of the parama uttam purusha (the most stellar amongst men) Rama, who gave up his wife and family to serve his people, now shows the audience a new angle: that it was Sita who was grace under fire and fiery when disgraced. She lived life on her own terms, raised her sons and did a mighty good job of turning them into winners, and was a single parent in an era when women walked seven steps behind their husbands. She left on her own terms, and, in a strange way, Rama became famous because of Sita, whether it was in showing his prowess by breaking the bow of Shiva to win her hand, or whether it was destroying the mighty Ravana to win her back.
In a world today when stories of female feticide and of brides being burnt for dowry are splashed across the Indian media every day, it is redeeming to see that Lakshmi Bai, born in 1835, was pampered and given all the freedom of a son by her parents. She learnt to fight, and fortunately her husband, a gentle man, loved her and honored her.
The second segment pays homage to Rani Lakshmi Bai, who was immortalized by the phrase khoob ladi mardani, woh tho Jhansi wali rani thi (she fought like a valiant man, this Queen of Jhansi). Well, in truth, she fought like the woman she was, rising against the mighty British with a heart that was as strong as her steely will, when many a man quaked in fear. What people forget is that she was only twenty-three when she died fighting fearlessly, marking what was India's first battle for freedom. Even the British saluted her integrity, ideals, and courage. She was indeed more of a man than many a man was.
The third presentation was set in contemporary times and traced the life of Aparajitha, a young girl who is idealistic and is fortunate enough to be taught by an enlightened guru that a life that has a broader vision, knowledge, and freedom is a life truly lived. However, just like many women before her, obstacles to her growth are placed by her own mother, who wants her to walk the trodden path and get married instead of filling her head with unnecessary nonsense—for too much knowledge clutters the mind.
It is when her husband has an accident that leaves him paralyzed that Aparajitha decides to step out and work. She is encouraged by her husband's friend, who shares her dream and encourages her, only to have people gossip. She is shunned and humiliated by society but her guru steps in and with his encouragement, she refuses to let her spirit break. Eventually the very people who ridiculed and shunned her come around and support her. She answers the question put to her: will she live up to her name, Aparajitha, the one who remains undefeated? She does, with steely resolve, grace, and graciousness.
What stands out in the entire play is the choreography done by the legends of Kathakali and Bharatnatyam, the Dhananjayans. Not only did they mix several dance forms to give the audience a glimpse of a rich tapestry that Indian dance and music possesses, they presented each segment in a different genre from classical to folk to contemporary music, while remaining within the realms of classical traditions and classic stories.
The script was crisp, and tremendous attention was given to every aspect of the presentation. English was used to convey the intrinsic aspect of each story along with expressions. Each segment stood out for innovation, the beauty of the costumes, and outstanding dancers. The casting was perfect, though one wishes one could have seen more of the Dhananjayans as performers, especially since this was their maiden performance in Atlanta.
For Uma Ganesan, the woman behind the creation of the Cleveland Cultural Alliance, this is yet another feather in her cap. Ganesan, who started the production company in Cleveland fifteen years ago and still stays deeply involved even after moving to Chennai, all the hard work of many years has now been rewarded. "Today whatever production we come up with, is signed on unseen. The high standard we maintain and the reputation we have created is the reason why." Her major challenge is funding and financial support, because even a production like "Ekaantha Seetha" which had about 20 performers runs to the tune of $150,000, and there seems to be reluctance on the part of corporate houses and even India's premier airlines to come on board as sponsors.
For Anamica, it was yet another great success. The organization lived up to its goal of "bringing quintessential Indian classical art productions to the Metro Atlanta area" and "to offer outstanding artists, underrepresented art forms, and innovative and creative art productions to the Atlanta audience."
By KAVITA CHHIBBER
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