Abhinaya’s Gandhi, Ohlone College, March 31, 2013

26 Apr

Mythili Kumar has shepherded Bharata Natyam students in San Francisco’s South Bay region since 1980.  Training her two daughters, Malaviki and Rasika, in the dance form with its deep roots in the Tamil area of South India, she has enjoyed devoted support from her husband who has handled technical needs until recently. Her company, Abhinaya, currently includes four principals of which three are the Kumars, plus Anjan Dasu, six post arengatrum dancers, and four juniors, totaling fourteen.

With the production of Gandhi at Ohlone College’s Jackson Theater, Mythili Kumar fulfilled a two decade desire that Easter Sunday afternoon. The audience was about eighty per cent Indian, the women in gossamer silk saris or salwar kameeze and many of the Indian men in the traditional kurta shirt. Indian audiences, native or imported, somehow manage a special ambiance of grace, comfort and relaxed anticipation.

Opening the program, six remarkable individuals were depicted in photographs with their assessments quoted regarding Gandhi’s  influence in the world; Jawaharlal Nehru, then Martin Luther King, Jr., followed by Caesar Chavez.  Albert Einstein was included along with Carl Sagan, Sir Thomas Attenbrough and, finally, Aun Song Su Shi.

As narrator, Malavika Kumar punctuated a straightforward narrative of Gandhi’s life with the gesture language responsible for the company’s name, abhinaya. In her simple white sari bordered in black, she carried conviction.  Her left arm, when not gesturing was held in an overly straight position.

In ten rhythmically reinforced scenes, Gandhi’s life from childhood to martyrdom passed in succession.  The ensemble movements in the Swadeshi Movement in South Africa, the Salt March and the Civil Disobedience passages were remarkable in their patterns rendered with simple brilliance by the ensemble.  While Mythili Kumar, as Gandhi, relied primarily on Bharata Natyam’s classical vocabulary, Rasika Kumar interjected colloquial and contemporary gesture for the group,  emphasizing the populist response to Gandhaji.  [Adding the “ ji ” after someone’s name in India is a mixed affection/respectful way to celebrate a well-known figure.]  Racial discrimination in South Africa was vividly characterized by a travel incident as was the use of coat hangers and jackets in the Swadeshi Movement. Such simple devices were ingeniously employed.

I did quibble, however, with the text for the Civil Disobedience section, although I know the Indian audience knew the context and filled in the broad strokes and generalization.  While a few kingdoms were lost to the British because of the lack of a male heir, many of the regal territories of India survived the ruler only surrendering  authority to insure a united independent India.   Though safeguards were written into the Indian constitution, Indira Gandhi destroyed those regal arrangements of 1947-48.  When dealing with such a momentous canvas, however, specifics often are lost in the need to generalize.

Regardless, the entire performance moved with a steady spirit, a stirring tribute with a professional production, executed with decidedly Indian charm.

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