Columbia College Dance Center, Chicago, IL; July 12, 2013
The piece opens with a tight spot on the performer’s feet which are lifted above her barely visible prone body. There are miniscule muscle contractions of the toes followed by foot contortions; the movement crescendo-ing at the ankles. The audience is drawn into a trance, focused on a minute moment in the vacuum of the theater space.
The stage brightens and the audience is introduced to a woman in bronze silk akin to the traditional yellow robes worn by women on the first day of Tamil month (Panguni). Celebrated as “Karadayan Nonbu”, they honor the day that Savitri’s purity and devotion won her husband back from Death. Vasudevan takes on all character roles throughout the performance including Yama (the god of Death). Her transformations are subtle – the simple introduction of a blood red scarf or a palpable change in the articulation of her body.
The set is stark. An abbreviated screen of course rope hangs stage right creating the “forest,” but is somewhat more evocative of a row of nooses. At times, it acts as a sheer curtain for Vasudevan’s character transformation into Yama, at others it serves as a filter through which the audience glimpses intimate moments. Similarly, the lighting controls the audience’s perspective. Sometimes it allows them to view only the tiniest twinges of the star’s toe or finger. Then, the light opens up in a monolithic rectangle across the length of the stage, only to be transformed again into a focused spot just large enough that the performance is contained within.
A quintessential dialectic, Preeti Vesudevan’s performance is not just the retelling of the epic story of Princess Savitri, but an argument between the ancient, the traditional and the contemporary. It is modern, but still antique. The story demonstrates the contradiction between two feminine images as read through the choreography and original poetry by Teddy Jefferson. Vesudevan does not leave the audience with a resolution of the real or apparent contradictions told throughout the performance, but instead leaves the question of identity open. Vesudevan’s use of demonstrative and, in many cases, iconic movement against the abstract, the provocative, and the unfamiliar ferries the audience through the argument. The story of Savitri, a character who in many ways is the “ideal” example of the devout daughter and wife, acts as a powerful counterpoint to the many other ways women today identify themselves.
Most notably, Vesudevan re-introduces the Indian classical dancer’s vocal role. As she explains it, “the seventh limb” creates new and unexpected connections for the audience. Intense qualities of presence are induced and a whole new layer of understanding and experience is added to the performance. Her use of language in conjunction with dance is a unique demonstration of an artist’s ability to employ both visual and aural forms of communication to artfully construct counterpoints of experience. The audience is taken aback, shocked, angered, saddened or brought to laughter. Vesudevan’s rich voice fills the theater:
“I wooed the room
I rue the womb
another window with a loom
is what I’d be
if I walked the ancient route.
The wedding dress is just a tourniquet
to staunch the life about to ebb.
(…) My mind is my own,
the new and the old inextricable.
(…) Horses clop among the cars;
I take a stroll among the photons and gadget shops
pick up the phone.
Call Yama or Satyavan?”
Jefferson’s text explores the paradox that Vesudevan herself embodies while performing as Savitri. Her background in classical Indian dance theater and her contemporary theories of expression are also the “new and old inextricable.”
Savitri encapsulates an almost purist form of expression. The essence is artfully drawn out of the elements presented: light, broom, bucket, scarf. Objects, yet symbols whose meaning extends far beyond the material. So too, Vasudevan’s motions are often elemental. Yet, this should not be confused with primitive; they are nuanced, controlled, essential. Their very nature is what ultimately draws the viewer through the performance’s parley. The audience is easily able to identify with the multiplicity of roles played in the story because they are undeniably at the heart of human identity. Our cultural past, our immediate past, our future and who we choose to be in the present are always seemingly at odds. Vesudevan’s performance of Savitri therefore really asks the ultimate question: “Who am I?”