Contemporary Mythology – Menakaa, Shakuntala and Ahalya retold

Three legendary women whose stories have filled our mythological learnings have their stories retold, to convey how their struggles as women are still relevant in India today.


Three legendary women whose stories have filled our mythological learnings have their stories retold, to convey how their struggles as women are still relevant in India today. Srinidhi Raghavan talks us through their tales.

It was different as all truths are/

from the tales that get told/

who tells the truth and who it is told to/

oft shape the truth.

The stories of numerous women in our mythologies and culture play a role in reinforcing and legitimising the patriarchal norms rampant in society. In times like the present with increasing violence against women, a two-day cultural campaign was organised by Asmita Resource Centre for Women where the stories of female mythological characters like Menakaa and Ahalya were retold from a feminist perspective through Bharatanatyam dance ballets.

The ballets were conceived, written and directed by Vasanth Kannabiran, a feminist writer and founder of Asmita Resource Centre. These mythological stories that are filled with notions of purity and pollution, peace and violence, seduction and desertion form a part of our collective consciousness. They throw light on a culture of violence that is pervasive and one we have become accustomed to. Though the ballets focus on the mythologies of the past, the realities of the present subtly sneak up on the audience. The music and the dance lure the audience into submission as the lyrics take over to open the eyes of the viewer.

On day one, the audience was witness to the tale of Menakaa. A celestial dancer, her story portrays the culture of violence and desertion that marks the tales of numerous women of this country. Not focussing merely on the violence around these women, the ballet revisits the story of Menakaa and depicts her as a single, strong, talented and beautiful woman. Menakaa was sent to seduce Sage Vishwamitra to break his penance, later rejected and cursed by him; Shakuntala, their love child, was deserted in the forest by Dushyanta who left to fulfil his destiny and only revisited to reclaim his son, Bharata, an heir to his throne. These stories speak of the cycles of love and marriage, anger and contempt that women get trapped in.

The Bharatanatyam ballet with cogent English lyrics was choreographed by Rajeswari Sainath. The ballets transform not just the audience but those who are part of the production. Rajeswari felt, “A lot of dance performances have mythology as a base. But these stories are very different. In terms of both Menakaa and Ahalya, the lyrics bring out the intensity of the stories and with the rhythmic music, composed by B.V Balasai, the choreography fell into place. It had the ideal foundation for excellent dance productions but good choreography is essential to attract a large audience and keep them engaged. As a woman and as a female artist, I felt it was important for me to work with these retellings to reach out and touch the men and women of this country.” She also praised her students for opening their minds to these stories being told from a new perspective and supporting her in delivering the dance performances.

The ballet traces back to a culture of silence that encircles the women of this country which is mirrored in the many mythological stories. But the ballet, with its soothing music, had the innate ability to draw out the differences in the way these women have been described to bring to the fore the acts of violence that have stained the paths of history. However, Menakaa moved swiftly to address the transformation of the women affected by the violence.

If action is suffering and suffering action/

From my suffering brings forth change

The ballet ended on a hopeful note with Menakaa speaking to the audience as a woman who suffered violence; she vowed to rise from her suffering to bring peace, harmony and justice to a world torn by violent actions.

Ahalya, on the other hand, foremost of the five virgins and a flawless beauty sculpted by the great Brahma, has another important story to tell. In this story Ahalya broke her silence and spoke of her stony prison where she was forced to remain unheard and unseen. Ahalya, for a fleeting second, recognised Indra who approached her disguised as Gautama; she paid for her act of betrayal when Gautama unleashed his anger and turned her to stone, while Indra, also punished for his digression, was later rescued and rewarded by the gods. The tale of this beautiful woman, thus, touched upon the impunity enjoyed by men even in today’s world.

The ballet threw light on the problems plaguing women of being stoned, hunted and burnt alive – all in the name of virtue. These problems flow out of the life of Ahalya to open the eyes of the women in the audience to the violence being perpetrated on them. Nenita Praveen, an architect by profession and a dancer by passion, played Ahalya in the ballet. She said, “With both these ballets, it was a moral learning; stories seen from the other side of the coin. It was an eye opener more than anything. I can say more about Ahalya out of personal experience and it is the current spite of our country and of many women.”

Ahalya embodied and even today symbolises the ideal qualities demanded of mortal women; she is worshipped and revered as a maha pativrata and a symbol of wifely devotion. The ballet subverted the story in the mythological text to dwell upon the pain and suffering of women like Ahalya and to ask questions that linger; questions pertinent in a thriving environment of violence and contempt:

What is the price of penance if anger mars its grace?

What merit a power that fails to protect the weak?

To what purpose a pride that flaws austerity?

What virtue does asceticism bear marred by envy?

What price dharma not tempered by mercy?

The ballets, staged as a campaign, saw a packed hall on both days with praise flooding in from the three guests of honour. The audience, overwhelmed by the beauty of the music and the virtuosity of movements, were suddenly forced to deal with the truths and contradictions revealed in the lyrics. Vyshnavie Sainath, a professional dancer who played Shakuntala in Menakaa, spoke of the need to perform ballets with stories like these: “The stories portray not just the violence borne by women but the immense strength we possess. I am filled with pride to play these roles. I am reminded that I should lead my life as a strong and independent woman.” She also stressed the need to perform dance ballets with a message as the dance and emotions together leave a lasting impact on the audience.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The writer is a 23-year-old who works on women and child rights at Asmita Resource Centre for Women. She writes to make sense of the complicated world. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The writer is a 23-year-old who works on women and child rights at Asmita Resource Centre for Women. She writes to make sense of the complicated world. more

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