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Dance like a Man
- Dr. Sunil Kothari
Photos: Nitin Sawant

October 28, 2014

It was indeed with bated breath that I was looking forward to watching ‘Dance like a Man’ play at Meadowvale Theatre in Mississauga on 16th October. For the simple reason that Bharatanatyam exponent Lata Pada was to make her debut as an actor in this play directed by none else than Mahesh Dattani, who was in Mississauga for more than three weeks conducting rehearsals.

I was familiar with the story, having seen the play many years ago in which Lillette Dubey plays the role of Ratna, the mother of young Lata who she wants to push further as a classical dancer and even uses all her tricks speaking sweetly with the Minister asking him to include her daughter to be sent to Festival of India. Therefore it was interesting to see how Lata Pada was enacting her role as a senior Bharatanatyam dancer, who with her husband also a Bharatanatyam dancer, does not make a successful career with a tragedy which strikes them, under the excellent direction by Mahesh Dattani.

Jasmine Sawant and Shruti Shah, the artistic directors of the Sawitri Theatre group which invited Mahesh Dattani to direct the play have this to say in their statement: ‘The story of two Bharatanatyam dancers, Ratna and Jairaj, their dreams, hopes and ambition, their sacrifices, their love for the art form, and for each other; the eternal inter-generational conflict, gender discrimination and patriarchal manipulation; the jealousy and bitterness and imperfections of human nature, the usefulness of diversity in the society, going beyond tolerance to acceptance, compassion and respect. And in typical Dattani style, the difficult questions- what constitutes a man? What constitutes an artist? Can a prostitute be a dancer? Can one be a man and still dance?’

For more than ten years, I have known Jasmine as administrative officer working with Lata Pada for her Sampradaya Dance Creations. Since I used to attend Dance Intense workshops organized by Lapa Pada, often she used to give me a lift to the venue or drop me at the station. That she was from Mumbai, interested in arts, I knew, that she was so active in theatre was not known to me. Along with her husband, she founded Sawitri Theatre Group in 2003. Self effacing but extremely efficient she endeared herself to whoever came in contact with her for Lata Pada’s work. For past three years, I was not in touch with her. I was extremely sorry to learn of her 25year old young son Aniruddha’s demise in an air crash last November. Dignified as she is, she did not let many know of her personal tragedy and loss. Her husband and she worked tirelessly to build up Sawitri Theatre Group and have presented original, challenging and exciting works of established as well as emerging artists. Highlighting issues prevalent in the South Asian community, the group has been a three-time prestigious Martys nominee. They have produced plays in many languages including English, showcasing talents of local and professional artists.

There was still a week for the entire cast to go through rigorous rehearsal, daily from 10am till 6pm at Lata Pada’s studio with mirrored walls which help actors to see themselves while rehearsing and repeat, correct and follow what Mahesh wanted them to do. In Imphal, I have watched Ratan Thiyam’s Manipuri plays. In disciplined manner, the entire cast of 28 to 30 actors follow his instructions repeating movements, dialogues till they are as per Ratan’s expectations, marvelling at how such team work places theatre in a special category. I have also watched over many years, rigorous practice by dancers and choreographic works and have admired their complete dedication to what they want to achieve in terms of perfection and excellence.

The advantage here in a play is of understanding the language in which the dialogues are delivered. Mahesh’s play is in English. There are only four characters with flashback strategy, with main characters of Ratna (Lata Pada) and Jairaj (Anand Rajaram) being played as young Ratna and Jairaj by young actors who play role of Lata (Navneet Kaur) and her boyfriend Viswas (Sid Sawant). Lata is a successful Bharatanatyam dancer- daughter of Bharatanatyam husband-wife dancers Ratna and Jairaj. The couple has faced tragedy in their life when Ratna, as a female dancer is in more demand as a dancer than Jairaj, the male dancer, and Jairaj gets depressed at his inability to cope up with it. He takes to drinking and suffers from jealousy at Ratna’s success. Their young son Shankar is left in care of an ayah. As happens in many such cases, ayahs do not take care of a child and give opium to the child to sleep and the ayahas also sleep on the kitchen floor when busy parents are away. The busy dancing mother returns after performance, sees her frustrated, jealous husband drinking, neglecting child and quarrelling with her, ugly wordy battles ensue, and leaving drunken husband rushes to the child, who alas, with overdose of opium administered by ayah has breathed his last. The tragedy devastates the couple.

Interwoven in this plot is the refusal of father Amratlal (played by older Jairaj) to give money to Jairaj to continue learning dance. He leaves his father to live on his own. The couple make a name and Amratlal accepts them back and allows them to return home.

Their daughter Lata turns out to be a successful young dancer. Mahesh laces this part with humour and also offers critique of the Bharatanatyam dance scene in which Mylapore mamis, mothers push their daughters, approach ministers to send the daughters to festivals of India, are consumed with jealousy when other daughters of contemporary dancers find a place in a delegation, curse the rivals, praise critics, cultivate them, get good reviews, reassuring the demanding accompaniments, making fun of critics and praise they shower in comic words. Seeing all these, Jairaj offers sarcastic comments on Ratna’s shenanigans and the old wounds are opened, fights ensue and with heart rending cry of Ratna begging Jairaj not to remind of their child Shankar’s death, the play ends in a freeze with Jairaj in one corner and Ratna in another corner. Brilliant direction by Mahesh leaves the spectators deeply moved.

The audience gave a standing ovation. It was an opening night when as is the practice, a reception is held in the foyer of the theatre. The Consul General of India at Toronto had attended the show with his wife and complimented the director and the artists for such an excellent professional presentation.

Had I not seen the rehearsals, not visited the warehouse where Nitin Sawant, the producer of the play was working with initial wooden structure for setting of the mansion and inner room in consultation with Mahesh Dattani, I would not have known how Sawitri Theatre group works as a team preparing from scratch to the final settings. The back stage workers, Namita Dandekar as coordinator for costumes selected by Lata Pada and designed by Shruti Shah, Deepak Sant for music and sound design, Joseph Pagnan for set and lighting design, Arti Nundy for choreography, co-director Christina Collins who had directed Mahesh’s play ‘Where There’s A Will’ (in 2012), Leena Deodhare taking care of props, and of course silent workers Keyoor Shah and Prakash Date (Prakash and his charming wife Medha Date, a singer and a Bharatanatyam dancer, acting in plays, were my hosts). Just by fortuitous circumstances these encounters happened. And I benefitted a lot, earning many new friends.
Of the actors, Anand Rajaram has an excellent track record. His acting as old Jairaj was so convincing that the director had to suggest only a few things. Not a trained dancer, he learnt from Lata Pada the dance movements which were executed in a flawless manner when he and Lata Pada as old Ratna danced together in forefront and in the back, Sid Sawant as young Jairaj and Navneet Kaur performed tillana.

This was for the first time that Lata Pada has acted in a play. The role seemed to be perfect for her. In particular, the humorous sequences of Mylapore mami, she regaled the audience with her delivery of dialogues. However, in agonising sequences she wore expressions which suited her. It was good to learn that she has been pushing her artistic boundaries as an actor. As an emerging artist, Navneet Kaur, known for developing her one woman show, seemed confident and acted competently. In wordy battle with Jairaj when she returns from her performance back home, she displayed her frustration, anger, disgust bringing the character alive.

Sid Sawant has completed his studies as an actor from Humber College Acting for Film and Television. This was his third role in a play by Mahesh, the other two being ‘Where There’s A Will’ and ‘Seven steps around the Fire.’ As Viswas, he acted as a young man wanting to marry Lata. Also he played successfully the role of frustrated, depressed, jealous, helpless young Jairaj as a male Bharatanatyam dancer. Arguing with Lata, he won sympathy of the audience. He also surprised some of us by dancing with Navneet Kaur in perfect sync in tillana. Janak Khendry, the renowned choreographer, was so impressed and wanted to invite him for his next choreographic work. He is a talented young actor, well versed in photography and doubtless has a bright future with complete support from his parents Jasmine and Nitin Sawant, founders of Sawitri Theatre group.

Mahesh was very pleased with the success of the play and warm response from the appreciative audience. He said: “My association with Sawitri Theatre Group began four years ago when I met Jasmine and Nitin Sawant during my visit to Canada for a literary seminar. I was hugely impressed by their vision to bring South Asian theatre to the Mississauga community. What I find commendable about their vision is that it includes theatre that cuts across artificial boundaries of culture and yet at the same time seeks a definition of South Asian values. Self definition begins with self awareness and this is precisely where Sawitri comes in. My plays rooted in Indian values, hold mirror to our own society reflecting its strengths and challenges. They have found a home in Canada through Sawitri’s productions.”

Dr. Sunil Kothari
Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and a renowned dance critic. He is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. He is honored by the President of India with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC. He is a regular contributor to, the roving critic for monthly magazine Sruti and is a contributing editor of Nartanam for the past 12 years.

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