Menakaa – Vasanth Kannabiran and Rajeswari Sainath

Vaishnavi, Rajeswari and (I think) Nainitha

I had the pleasure of attending a dance ballet at the Music Academy. A very kind friend gave me the invites to this event and I was quite impressed with the crowd that attended this. As in most art circles, there were the bohemian few but a lot were the well composed and elegant kinds that educe a quiet respect by their presence. I wasn’t armed with my camera so the pic here is courtesy The Hindu of an earlier performance.
Menakaa was conceived and written by Vasanth Kannabiran. When Roshni Goswami summarised the performance as “bringing together radical feminism and aesthetics”, I had to agree with her. Vasanth (she founded Asmita) has attempted to re-interpret an old tale, but the mark of a re-interpretation is usually cleverness and a convincing argument. In that Vasanth has failed. She has taken the story of Vishwamitra and Menaka down to Bharata and his adopted son and converted it into an accusation against men. There is nothing clever in this. One can always take a story and turn it around to make the other person the culprit. One could make Duryodhana look innocent or Chanakya a bigot but there is hardly any creativity in there especially if not developed properly. To be able to tell a tale of how Duryodhana and Draupadi team together to destroy Hastinaputra might be something different and untold (and perhaps it never happened). If one doesn’t wish to fictionalise a legend then one has to be clever in re-interpreting the tale. Vasanth fails here.
She has taken the tale of Vishwamitra and portrayed Menaka as not being a seductress. That is fine if she could have explained why then did Menaka come down to earth on Indra’s bidding and dance around Vishwamitra. That was missing. Then Menaka blames Vishwamitra for being a typical male in “planting his seed in her womb and running away”. That is quite possibly a familiar case but how then does she explain Menaka delivering Shakuntala and rushing off to the heavens to continue with her dance and courtesan duties? She doesn’t. If Vishwamitra identified his purpose of becoming Brahmarishi (which he did) and hence returned to his penance (and not other hedonistic pursuits) how is that vile when compared to Menaka delivering Shakuntala, leaving her in the forests and returning to Devaloka (world of Devas)? Vasanth doesn’t bother to explain and probably expects the audience to cast angry glares at Vishwamitra thereafter. Vishwamitra set out to achieve something, was interrupted and then resumed. Perhaps he was violent in between and that portion cannot be questioned in an interpretation. Vasanth’s point of a man’s anger in being proved petty and human enough to be incapable of aspirations as high as Brahmarishi are convincing and appear plausible. The take that Vishwamitra was ashamed of himself for falling prey to the call of this world when he had set his eyes on something else, hence, mutated that embarassment into a violent rape of Menaka could be well made and accepted, but the rest of it fell short of a cogent reasoning. Vasanth was more keen on establishing all men as perpetrators of violence and all the women (who participated in it) as being entirely innocent or justified. That would have been welcome if there was a convincing argument woven out of history.
Another point that Menaka makes is that she decided to bear the child (Shakuntala) because she thought that the child – a confluence of Vishwamitra’s prowess and intellect and her beauty and charm – would be a wonderful son who could rule this earth. But when a girl was born she left to the heavens. That is a take I couldn’t understand in the telling of a feminist tale. I thought Menaka would have taken care of her or left her in the hands of powerful teachers to raise her to become the ruler of the earth. Not quite the plan Menaka had in her mind.
Then Vasanth goes on to create the case of pure innocence and desertion of Shakuntala. Menaka claims that Durvasa’s curse had nothing to do with Dushyant forgetting. He simply didn’t want to have anything to do with a woman he had deflowered and enjoyed, which is possible and acceptable as an interpretation if she could explain why Dushyant saw the ring, regained his memory and returned to collect both Shakuntala and her child. Dushyant had no problems of heirs. He could have well married a few hundred princesses and had a few dozen children. Why return to Shanuktala and take her back with him to his palace? This has not been explained and hence the whole interpretation appears shallow.
Going by records, Bharatadesha has seen many illegitimate children and rulers so that is not news. But an attempt at re-interpreting things is welcome as long as there is a lot of creativity or sound basis (like I am told about Girish Karnad’s Tipu Sultan) and convincing argument. Menaka fails in that. Hence, this play is as Ms. Goswami notes radical feminism and not the educating and transforming feminism that I respect and enjoy.
The dance choreography was fine though faulty in many places. The faults fell in the category of coordination and suitable bhavas. The layas were honoured well though the transitions were often blurred or fumbled. When there were more than two artists on stage coordination was an issue and this was starkly visible. When the sutradharini, Nainitha started out explaining the prayer to Saraswati, her gestures were not matched with the ideas/words being explained. Similar gestures were made for two unrelated ideas and Nainitha cannot be blamed for it! Nainitha was one of the gems of the evening (though she has to be more conscious of her foot work). Perhaps Rajeswari should have donned the role of a Sutradharini and let Nainitha take over as Menakaa (from sheer consideration for age and the ability to execute vigourous steps and sensuous ones too), but perhaps it is not protocol to have the teacher do a lesser role. The fillers between two pieces of music were also not gripping enough. A filler, once it feels like a filler, has failed in its purpose.
Rajeswari was good and her expressions and timing were appropriate. I was forewarned that I should not expect the usual flexibility of dancers in her and I realised why that notion was formed. She told the tale well and held the audience attention till the very end. I think she has to get her students to focus on foot work which is given lesser attention.
Nainitha as the sutradharini was very good in her crisp execution of steps though the flaws in choreography did do some damage. Her foot work was dragged – literally and figuratively – but her mudras were beautifully drawn out. Her expressions were appropriate and didn’t give into exaggerration that one often sees in dancers. She too failed to coordinate well when there were more than 2 dancers on stage.
Vaishnavi Sainath was Shakuntala. Elegant and voluptuous, she carried off the scenes of the shy nubile very well although her initial display of wantonness was rather fudged. I might be wrong but her knees seemed to not cooperate well with her which might also explain her reluctance to go into the arai-mandi stance while performing some of the pieces. She must pay attention to her weight if she wishes to perform various roles demanding a more malleable form. Her bhava was fine though not entirely well pronounced.
The rest of the dancers were clearly amateurs and have a long way to go before grabbing audience attention. These three dancers stole the limelight and the points I raise before do not tell on their talent or capability as a dancer.
In spite of all this, I enjoyed the evening and simply couldn’t take my eyes off the stage. Before the performance started I saw the world of Music Academy as I had heard of from my parents and grandparents. It was indeed interesting to watch patrons of arts and itching-to-be-celebrities interact with each other. I had but Le Clezio giving me company though beside me was this artist who seems to be quite famous (she did state that she plays – something which she didn’t mention – for nearly all the artists though not for dance) whom I didn’t recognise or disturb.

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4 thoughts on “Menakaa – Vasanth Kannabiran and Rajeswari Sainath

  1. I had rather WATCH a live performance than read a review such as this. Found it tedious reading mainly because I hadn’t seen the dance show and also because I think that you got carried away as a writer does in the flaws of the plot that the performance was based on.

  2. excuse me but this review is very wrong…when you write ballet based on a specific story…it doesnt have to be exactly what the story's about!you can make some twists and changes and make a it a little more interesting…and i was there for that ballet and it was really good!!and i know Vasanth kannabiran very well….and i know what she writes about..so the ballet was very good!

  3. Dear P,
    I agree. πŸ™‚

    Dear Anon,
    It would be nice if you left a name. If a ballet based on a story doesn't stick to the story, then how does one know which story is it based on!? I am not against making things interesting (if you read this blog, you'll know). Your reason for the ballet being good is that you know Kannabiran well? And also that you were there? Hence, it has to be good? Hmmm. Convincing. If you can spot the flaws in my argument and educate me, I will remain indebted to you. I mean it. If all you can tell me is that I am wrong, I will nod my head till it rolls off my shoulder.

  4. Dear Eroteme,

    That is not what i meant,and i dont want to argue.

    The reason for the ballet being good was not because i know Vasanth Kannabiran or because I was there.Everyone and everything has one flaw or another,nothing can be perfect….I hope you agree with me on that??And thats how this ballet was..it had flaws,I am not going to say no,but it was good at the same time..like P said you'd know if you watched it. πŸ™‚ πŸ˜€ It was such a long time ago so i dont find the need to argue about it…and that comment was posted in 2009,so i appreciate you trying to understand what i was saying. I don't find it important to leave a name,so please dont mind. πŸ™‚ πŸ˜€

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