'It's important for us to question our stories'

Updated: May 08, 2019, 07:32 IST | Snigdha Hasan |

Ahead of a concert, Revanta Sarabhai discusses how he addresses long-distance love and the caste hangover in his reinterpreted dance routine

Revanta Sarabhai
Revanta Sarabhai

In 1942, when Mrinalini Sarabhai moved to Gujarat after she got married to renowned physicist Vikram Sarabhai, the Bharatanatyam exponent and choreographer found herself in a world vastly different from her own. "She was from Kerala, and coming from a matriarchal society, she was horrified to learn about dowry deaths in Gujarat. So, she created a piece in response to it. She would always say that when she didn't know what to say about it, she would dance it," says Revanta Sarabhai about his illustrious grandmother. In her centenary year, the third-generation practitioner of Bharatanatyam has been touring India with a performance that's his homage to the lady, who not only inspired his aesthetic style but also his approach to the classical dance form.

"What better way to celebrate the occasion than to continue her legacy of using Bharatanatyam to talk about contemporary issues and to reflect on modern society," says the dancer-choreographer, ahead of his performance, In the Shadows of the Gods, in Mumbai, which includes five pieces, each talking about themes ranging from casteism to climate change. "It is a classical Bharatanatyam performance, but unlike your typical pieces which are spiritual in nature, or tell stories from mythology, I am using the classical language to tell modern-day stories," he explains. While some of them have been written by him and his mother and acclaimed dancer-activist Mallika Sarabhai, others are reinterpretations of
traditional narratives.

The piece on casteism, for instance, is based on a Tamil song called Varughalamo, which in its original rendition, praises a devotee of Shiva who despite being forbidden from entering the temple because of being an "untouchable" is unrelenting in his love for the lord. "The narrative conveniently glosses over the basic premise of exploitation based on someone's birth. And it's important for us to question our stories," says Sarabhai. Another facet that he will highlight is that of long-distance relationships. "In our traditional stories, it is always the woman who pines for the man, who is out on an adventure. Why can't it be the other way round? Our dance forms must be made relevant to the 21st century," he adds.
In his bid to do that and make Bharatanatyam more accessible, Sarabhai includes English translations of the Tamil songs to which most pieces are set. The 34-year-old also makes it a point to stitch together the diverse pieces by speaking to the audience before each one to provide them with context.

With his contemporaries also taking a relook at lesser-known mythological characters like Shurpanakha and Draupadi, does Sarabhai think enough is being done to keep the classical art forms relevant? "This has more to do with reinterpretation [within the framework] of our myths, and I welcome it. There is so much more that remains to be done."

On: May 9, 7 pm (Royal Opera House, Girgaum, performance)
Log on to: insider.in
Entry: Rs 300 ON May 11, 5 pm (Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Byculla; talk on innovations in Bharatanatyam; entry free)

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