As we celebrate the global success of South Asian culture at the Oscars, let’s bring our attention more locally — to a special group of young artists who bought to life an idea concocted over a lunch date. It was a joy to see five young Bharatanatyam dancers present a professional, accomplished and nuanced performance on 11 March at Sydney’s Bryan Brown Theatre.
Iksha (Sanskrit ‘to see’) tells the tale of five prominent women in Indian literature – Ahalya, Shikhandi, Andal, Soorpanagai and Draupadi — through a contemporary lens, challenging the traditional narrative surrounding these characters. Care was taken to honour and respect the inherent values originally depicted in the scriptures.
Led by creative directors Sharanya Thiyagarajah and Divassini Ramesh, under the banner of Madeira Productions (Creator: Rishi Suresh), Iksha showcased crisp dancing, captivating abhinaya, and thought-provoking choreography.
Five lamps hung from the ceiling, lit one at a time as each dancer took the central spotlight to bring their character to life.
Ahalya, portrayed by Jessica Vaishnavi Jayakumar, compares the injustice of her own punishment (and redemption) for infidelity with that of Sita’s fate. Disgusted by the double standards that exist, she wilfully turns back into a stone and takes her fate back into her control.
Shikhandi, performed by Sharanga Satchidanandam highlights the fluidity of gender expression – Shikhandi is a warrior, a non-binary reincarnation of Amba, seeking justice for the shame they experienced at the hands of Bhishma.
Andal is bought to life by Aniita Vytheeswaran. Through Andal, we see the depiction of divine love, uncommonly seen on the dance stage, in its most sensual form.
Divassani embodied Soorpanagai, who after being mutilated at the hands of Lakshmana, cannot reconcile how she perceives her own beauty to that of the men who mock her.
Lastly, Sharanya takes Draupadi from helpless pawn to vengeful reincarnation of Kali, exploring her mental health and response to unbelievable trauma.
Each dancer transformed into their character with ease and grace, and it was refreshing to see relatable yet complex themes depicted on the dance stage.
Dreams. Duty. Defiance. These were themes of womanhood that resonated, jointly and individually, from the stories that played out on stage. Coming so close to International Women’s Day, Iksha laid bare for us all to see, the struggles – and indeed, the ensuing strengths – that deserve to be understood and celebrated in women’s lives.
Special mention must be made of the choreography, especially the depiction of the combination of feminine and masculine energy through the way each adavu was performed for Shikhandi. The silambam display at the end was a powerful finale for Shikhandi’s story.
Also visually striking and thematically bold was the use of mirrors to reflect back to the audience the complex state of mind and emotions for Soorpanagai.
The dancers were supported by an equally accomplished cohort of live musicians, with vocalist Keshika Amir, Ranjeev Kirupairajah on nattuvangam, veena artist Saumya Sritharan, Peraveenan Jeyarasa on mridangam, flautist Jathushan Jeyarasa and Athithan Thirunanthakumar on octopad. Traditional compositions were woven with musical interludes specifically created by the musicians to fit with the themes represented.
Off stage, the show was executed to a high level of professionalism – from the marketing and social media presence, to the beautifully designed programs and sweets distributed at the exit. The costumes had colours complementing each character, whilst still presenting unity in cut and style. The narration preceding each item was clear and ensured that those in the audience unfamiliar with these stories could easily follow along.
As the five dancers took the stage at the end for the Mangalam, the five lamps blazed powerfully together and matched the energy of the finale.
Sharanya and Divassini are keen to bring more dance shows to the stage which lend a fresh perspective to our rich Indian culture, and we certainly look forward to seeing more of their work.