Do the dancers need to be assertive and unflinching? Do they need stern stances on social matters even as their on-stage personae keep moving through moods and emotions and their bodies never remain steady at one point on stage? The answer is a resounding ‘Yes’ for dancer Rajasree Warrier.
Rajasree is very clear that dancers are indebted to and are responsible for the ways and means of the contemporary society. The latest theme Rajasree has undertaken for her dance ensemble is the struggle transgenders go through eking out a respectable living. Rajasree presented this theme in Bharatanatyam format with Shikhandi of Mahabharata as the central character. The title of the presentation was ‘Shikhandi Kavuthuvam’. The first presentation was at Thiruvananthapuram.
Why Shikhandi when transgenders are facing an uphill task of dealing with controversies?
Shikhandi came to my mind about a year back. The personal rights of transgenders and the social rejection they face were matters more seriously discussed at that point of time than now. The base was written in Tamil. There is an invocatory item in Bharatanatyam called Kavuthuvam. The dance presentation titled Shikhandi is set on this format. The Bharatanatyam verses can be easily adapted for evoking both feminine and masculine attitudes. Tamil is a language that renders readily to the dance. It suits well for the Kavuthuvam format. So, for choreographing the dance, Tamil was chosen.
Not just Shikhandi, there is Brihannala also in Mahabharata
In Mahabharata, it is Arjuna who transforms to Brihannala. In simple terms, it is a male in a female character. Arjuna has to only act as a female while maintaining his male self. It is akin to Bheema becoming the character of Valala.
Shikhandi is different. She is actually Shikhandini, the daughter of king Drupada. What impose a male identity on her are her masculine thoughts. Unable to bear the rebukes and ridicule for having learnt the use of weapons like boys, Shikhandini runs away to the forest.
In the forest, Shikhandini encounters a Yaksha lord who is just the opposite of what Shikhandini is. The Yaksha behaves like a woman while having the mind of a man. They exchange their masculine and feminine attributes. Shikhandini becomes Shikhandi from thereon and takes up the assignment of charioting for Arjuna in the Mahabharat war, thereby setting the stage for killing Bheeshma.
In the dance, I have tried to bring forth the contradictions and conflicts of the male attributes in the female body of Shikhandi.
The politics of dance
Shikhandi is also my political statement on the contemporary debate on the third gender. Humans have evolved into males and females. The 25 minutes long dance presentation discusses what the next stage of evolution will be. Will both genders fuse into one or is this the final stage of evolution?
Don't the gurus get miffed when traditional dance formats are used for presenting current affairs and politics?
The gurus will not be miffed at such experiments. If the self-proclaimed experts oppose, let them. If tradition is a like the flow of a river, the way ahead is by carrying things on the way. We should realize that while traditions are what remains of an older order, it cannot continue to exist without picking up from the contemporary elements.
What we call tradition in the presentation of classical arts is the outer framework. The format of the dance presentation is not necessarily in that framework. For example, how many new words the modern times have contributed to the Malayalam language? In the Malayalam dictionary, these new words are listed along with the age-old words. This does not violate the tradition of the language. When new themes are presented in a Bharatnatyam format, the tradition of Bharatanatyam is not violated. I do not support such traditionalist views anyway.
What was the response to Shikandi?
Many opined after watching ‘Shikhandi’ that the internal turmoil of the transgenders as presented was heartrending. I remembered my grandfather then. My grandfather used to tell stories in an interesting manner. Through his lucid narrative style, we could visualize the characters sitting and walking. As his granddaughter, I always strove to transmit the same kind of experience to the viewers while I danced. Even that could be termed as a tradition. My grandfather often left the story incomplete for me to fill in the blanks. I am also not averse to ending my dance open ended and letting the enthusiasts complete it.
If you have to present your own life on stage, what role will you take?
I will be keen to take up the character of a mother. A mother is made up of a lot of individuals and circumstances. I get the scope to emote these individuals and circumstances. There is no other role with so many varieties of emotions and moods.
You chose to ignore it even when cinema called you
I see my flaws and shortcomings like through a magnifying glass even on the small screen of the television. It will be difficult to lead a normal life if I see my flaws on the big screen. I am not suitable for the innate nature of the medium of cinema. Cinema is a collective. One has to be very accommodative to go along with that collective. I do not have the disposition to be so accommodative. I have my stances and beliefs that do not get along with the cinema environment.
I first learnt Bharatanatyam from Guru V.Maithili. After that I trained under Jayanthi Subramaniam in Chennai. I consider Balasaraswathy, Doctor Padma Subramaniam, Chithra Vishweshwaran, Dhananjayan, C.V.Chandrasekharan, Saroja, Birju Maharaj, Malavika Sarukkai, Alamer Valli etc. as my gurus. I doubt if any from the succeeding generation of dancers held so much sway on the audience’s minds. Dance is an artistic way of presenting normal movements of the human body. I feel sad when I see the kind of robotic acrobatics that are parading as Bharatanatyam these days. Many are Sofias but not dancers. Dance is not just beauty, it should also converse with the aesthetes’ minds.
I think of the famous Bharatanatyam exponent Chandralekha. She is a dancer with grey hair. But she dances as if possessed. As a dancer, she spreads the kind of energy that makes her an activist.
Chandralekha never lived a duel life of a dancer and an activist. Whatever she wanted to tell the society, she told that through her dance. She only explained when someone asked her what she conveyed through her dance. She did not talk about it otherwise. Her dance was her language, her message. Her stance is not of an activist. It is of a dancer.
Chandralekha lived her life through her dance and the avenues of self-expression it afforded. When we watch from the outside, we might tend to call it activism. For her, dancing was not just the enactment of a role.
Dance is not just about bedecking oneself into a beauty for appeasing the audience, says Rajasree. As far as this principle is concerned, Rajasree Warrier is a true warrior.
She is performing and researching Bharatanatyam for over 20 years now. She is chief among the first lot of anchors of Malayalam television programmes. She presented Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the d'Urbervilles’ in a Bharatanatyam format. For this, western musical instruments were also used. She is living with her family in Thiruvananthapuram. Her husband Anil is a government employee. Her only daughter Lavanya is a Chartered Accountant. Her parents are Rajasekhara Warrier and Sreedevi.