A play that traces the life of a dancer

Theatre Nisha’s play Margazhi is a candid portrayal of the people and situations a Bharatanatyam artiste encounters

Theatre Nisha’s online play, Margazhi, portrays chapters from a dancer’s journey through learning, recognition, stage performances, compliments and criticism, struggles and compromise. Though the protagonist is a Bharatanatyam artiste, Margazhi could be the story of any classical dancer.

Vaidehi faces the usual dilemma. She realises that skill and hard work alone will not get her performance opportunities at major festivals in India and abroad. Should she then do the proverbial round of handshakes to get what she deserves or risk becoming one of the numerous capable also-rans relegated to being unknown and unsung?

The play’s highlight is a believable portrayal of the various types of people and situations an artiste might encounter and the industry’s fuzzy communication style and stereotypical responses. Costumes and props are realistic and understated, rightfully turning the spotlight on the incisive dialogue.

Margazhi effectively brings out subtle aspects of behaviour — Vaidehi’s feigned humility, for instance, or the NRI organiser’s understanding of Indian culture being limited to the assumption that the dancer will not eat egg — that many in the arts sphere might recognise at once. Woven in so seamlessly, they might even pass by unnoticed.

Vaidehi’s guru, the archetypal ‘Akka’ (the universal moniker for all female Bharatanatyam gurus), is temperamental and erratic (one is reminded of Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada). And by never showing akka, who controls every aspect of Vaidehi’s life, viewers are left free to imagine a variety of gurus in their minds.

Absorbing story

Several lines and situations leave the viewer feeling thoughtful, even disturbed. As when a young girl student remarks that she wishes she could be a boy during tutelage or when akka’s friendly, dance-trained husband offers to teach Vaidehi abhinaya “without akka knowing”. Then there’s the NRI organiser’s brainchild of 30-minute programmes for select small audiences “akin to salon or parlour dances.” And the sabha secretary’s comment, “Didn’t kings take care of the temple dancers? We are the new kings.”

From real life

The title and other references lead us to infer Chennai as the locale. Is the play a reflection of the world of Bharatanatyam or does it apply to all dance forms? Each artiste has individual trajectories, and one would think there are positive stories too. V. Balakrishnan, Theatre Nisha’s director (and winner of The Hindu Playwright Award, 2019) who wrote the script, explains, however, that every anecdote and incident in the play was derived from his extensive interactions with many dancers over the years and from his sister, who learned Bharatanatyam and currently teaches the art.

Each chapter of the play is announced by a compère as a piece in a dance recital and sung. A seemingly nice touch but the music is sub-par and often detracts from the dialogue. One is also left wondering why the narrator, though unobtrusive, is seated in every scene.

The play has been recorded twice with two lead characters replaced in each cast. Vaidehi is played by Shakthi Ramani and Anuradha Venkataraman. Meera Sitaraman plays two roles in both casts.

All three male characters are essayed by the same actor in each cast (Karthik Gowrisankar and Ganapathy Murugesan) which was, at times, confusing. Balakrishnan says it is inspired by Adhe Adhure, a play by the late Hindi playwright Mohan Rakesh. Perhaps the distinction among the characters would have been more apparent had the play been viewed physically.

The 85-minute English play was intended to be performed live last year but the pandemic changed it to a recording. “We thought it could reach a worldwide audience this way,” says Balakrishnan. The play is available on Eventscape till November 15. For details, visit www.theatrenisha.com

The Chennai-based reviewer writes on art and culture.

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