Creative fusion of South Asian classical dance

‘Sati: Shiva’s Beloved’ is a dancer’s take on the love story of Sati and Shiva, and seeks to meld the classical dance forms of Kathak and Bharata

Sati is one of the human manifestations of Mahadevi – the supreme feminine, also known as the divine mother, Adishakti (or colloquially known as Shakti). Often conflated with Adishakti’s third human manifestation Parvati, Sati was the first of Shiva’s partners to play the role of energy activator for the deity’s detached asceticism.

Anusha Pillay and Reshma Chhiba of Sarvavidya Natyaalaya dance school and their creative dance collaborator on the project, Manesh Maharaj, conceptualised and performed the show. They certainly did their research on the little-known aspects of Sati’s and Shiva’s story, and by using Sukumari Bhattachaji’s Legends of Devi as one of their source works, created a captivating story that stayed true to their self-proclaimed aim of humanising the love story.

Sarvavidya is a Gauteng-based Bharata Natyam dance school, and Maharaj, a respected Kathak dancer who has performed globally, is the founder of Kala Darshan Institute of Classical Music and Dance. He hails from Chatsworth, Durban.

Pillay, Chhiba and Maharaj turned an elevated and obscure romance into a story that deals with lust, grief and rebellion – all relatable emotions. To clarify the story and performance further, there were small zines on our seats. Made in collaboration with Keleketla! Library’s Rangoato Hlasane, these were beautifully designed, and added a different dimension to the embodied storytelling. In the zines, the tale of Shiva and Sati follows that of the dance scenes, which goes a long way in making the story and the performance more accessible to non-Hindu people.

The story of Mahadevi is complex and ongoing. She takes on different forms – some fierce like Kali Ma, some nurturing like Parvati, but throughout Sati: Shiva’s Beloved, the focus was on Sati, and her personality, family and union with Shiva.

One hint we get of Mahadevi’s evolution is in the very last moment of the performance, where the dancers tease Adishakti’s reincarnation into Parvati. Another nod to Adishakti’s multi-faceted appearances was that the role of Sati shifted between the Sarvavidya Dance Ensemble dancers.

Sarvavidya, which consists of seven dancers including Pillay and Chhiba, have all completed their Bharata Natyam arangetram. Although colloquially known as a dancer’s graduation, arangetram more accurately means the dancer’s debut on stage, after years of training to increase technical skill, as well as demonstrate emotional maturity to perform.

Different Sarvavidya dancers performed the role of Sati at various parts, and Maharaj gave vibrance to the role of Shiva throughout. Sati was signalled by the flower garland she wore, but this was a slight challenge for the audience to pick out immediately in the dimly lit theatre.

The second self-proclaimed goal of Sati: Shiva’s Beloved was to show how two schools of dance can co-exist on stage in a way that transcends notions of regional superiority and particular dance style. The dance forms paralleled the way that Shiva and Adishakti, through the form of Sati, coalesce into one form where masculine and feminine energies combine.

5 November 2018: The Sarvavidya dance school in conjunction with Manesh Maharaj, rehearse their performance at Wits University.
5 November 2018: The Sarvavidya dance school in conjunction with Manesh Maharaj, rehearse their performance at Wits University.

In a rehearsal, Chhiba had noted that no style is purer than the other. “When Lord Shiva dances the cosmic dance as Nataraja – who is to say which dance he performs? He just dances,” she said. Before delving into how Sati: Shiva’s Beloved accomplished this, some history into these dance forms is necessary.

There are well documented instances in Hindu scripture referring to Bharata Natyam and kathak dance forms, and others like kuchipudi and odissi. Most notable is the Natya Shastra dating from 200 BCE and 200 CE, a dramaturgy of the underlying principles of dance, music, and the like. Kathak, the dance style that Maharaj excited the crowd by performing, was developed in the Pashtun region of India, which is today known as Pakistan.

North Indian heritage is ascribed to kathakars, nomadic male storytellers in the popular imagination. Owing to factors such as the postcolonial push for a national identity in India, and policing of cultural borders, kathak is commonly referred to as a North Indian dance. This erases the contribution of the women kathakars who danced in Mughal courts, and for Hindu kings from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century. Taiwaifs, Muslim women who entertained in these courts, as well as lower income Hindu women who entertained kings, danced kathak. Not all taiwaifs were dancers, but all were trained in etiquette, and they were known as the pinnacle of refined womanhood.

Kathak is known to have become more standardised in courts, and because of the performance in Muslim courts, the Hindu religious aspects of the dance were toned down, and a more erotic dance style emerged to entertain the court’s visitors. Kathak’s Muslim roots have been deliberately suppressed by a Hindu nationalism seeking to remove such influences. Similarly, the south-east Indian influences in Muslim dance forms such as kolkali and oppana have been underrepresented, or simply gone unacknowledged.

Bharata Natyam is popularly dated back to around 300 BC and was performed by devadasi in the southern parts of India. Devadasis were mainly girls who were attached to temples, after their families offered them to for service there. Prior to being known as Bharata Natyam, the dance form was initially known as sadir and performed in the confines of the temple and courts. A common aspect of kathak and Bharata Natyam, besides strong Islamic and Sufi influences, is the damaging societal perception of women dancers, as well as their erasure from histories of classical dancing.

5 November 2018: A close up of Maharaj's feet during the rehearsal at Wits University.
5 November 2018: A close up of Maharaj’s feet during the rehearsal at Wits University.

Another fact that often overlooked in Bharata Natyam and sadir dancing is the long history of transwomen belonging to the devadasi. Before colonialism, transwomen devadasi were highly respected and revered dancers and vocalists of the temple and court, alongside ciswomen. In the latter years of British colonial rule in India, Indian nationalists and some anti-colonial figures sought to excavate Sanskritised, Brahmanical or “pure” forms of these dances, to create traditions around which Indians rallied. For example, sadir changed name to Bharata Natyam through the activism of dancers like Krishna Iyer. As with most classic Indian dance, Bharata Natyam underwent a makeover to make it palatable to patriarchy, high caste and middle-to-upper class Indians.

As Swarnamalya Ganesh, an active Bharata Natyam dancer and academic argues, “If you are somebody who believes that Bharata Natyam is exclusively Hindu and, even more exclusively, high caste, it will be difficult. If you believe that it was once with the devadasis, the ‘derogated lot’, and then you resurrected it — because that’s the word often used — you gave it its ‘respectability’, then it is very difficult for you to traverse the pathway of this corridor I am showing”.

The more standardised versions of the dance forms were on show in Sati: Shiva’s Beloved. The differences in form were noticeable, with Sarvavidya’s tight choreography and hastas playing off well against Maharaj’s use of footwork, emphasised by the melodious ghungroos. The strongest parts of the performances were the one-on-one dance pieces. During the first scene, with Reshma Chhiba as Sati, the dancing was fluid and playful between the two, and styles melded into one. Similarly, the consummation dance piece that Maharaj and Pillay shared made the audience blush and directly channelled the tawaif and devadasi roots of elegance and eroticism. The piece also used symbolism to great effect – in one section, Pillay’s hands formed a flower, and Maharaj’s formed a bee pollinating it.

It’s these slight details, and expressive faces that conveyed the sense of Sati and Shiva meeting their other half. Sati’s characterisation, and the inclusion of such an intimate scene, demonstrates the willingness to engage with the Hindu canon in celebration of sexual desire and agency, as opposed to pursuing a “purist” and prudish notion of their wedding night.

It was especially important to deconstruct Shiva’s presence through dance, as in common understandings of Saivism, he is usually aloof, detached and slightly brooding. However, through the performance, one sees other aspects of the God of Destruction. Early in the performance we see Sati and Shiva’s wedding, delicately officiated through dance by Kamenthea Naidu and Kavisha Pillay of Sarvavidya. Afterwards, Sati dances with her sakhis [friends], and Shiva shows off for them. It’s the carefreeness in his actions that adds to a sense of exuberance and happiness that Shiva is often not recognised for.

The act of widow suicide (sati) is sometimes attributed to this story of Shiva and Sati. But throughout the performance, one sees how Sati, an independent woman, was so enraged by her father’s actions that she chose to throw herself onto the ceremonial fire. (He failed to invite her or Shiva to a large fire-prayer ceremony honouring the deities.)

Adishakti warned her father that if she was slighted, she would destroy herself – a fact foreshadowed in the performance narration. Sati’s husband’s honour was secondary to her feelings of familial frustration, exclusion and disrespect, whereas patriarchal renditions of the story used to motivate for sati to remove this agency and “unwomanly” feelings of anger.

Classical dance has been ossified into essentialist forms – either to distance it from its origins, or to propel certain political agendas, but through the work of dancers like Sarvavidya and Maharaj, the form continues to growth and shift.

However, classic does not equate to Brahmanic, or even Hindu. In future, performances that explore and celebrate the multitude of influences on Bharata Natyam and Kathak can only make the stories that dancers tell more inventive and relevant to a wider audience.

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