Sandra's work was in four parts, each exploring subtle shades of female sexuality through a very informed use of her body that has trained in more than one Indian classical idiom, and modern and post-modern movement techniques. I write this entirely from memory. The desire to write about the performance presented itself much later. The nice chat that I had with Sandra the next day had also been intended to be an end in itself! But some specific aspects of her work engaged my attention and I share them here with you.
What had been conceived very brilliantly and used with amazing consistency, and sustained throughout the different parts of the work, was the play with repressive discourses of respectability and sexuality surrounding women's legs. Some strains of regulatory thinking, especially in India, consider a woman's ways of positioning her legs in public to be suggestive of her degree of submission and virtuousness. Standing or sitting with her legs spread apart, for instance, is still considered "masculine" and hence unacceptable in a woman. Sandra used these lines of thought cleverly and subverted them consciously, as she glided over samapadam (feet together), tribhangam (three bends in the body) and tradition-disallowed feet and leg positions.
Another interesting aspect was the use of facial expressions. In the work of many contemporary performers, especially those trained in the Indian classical dances, one used to find until not very long ago (and still do, to some degree), a reactionary attitude to Mukhabhinaya (facial expressions). Many of them felt (and perhaps, still feel) that in a style like Bharatanatyam, the use of the face seems to be at the cost of the use of the rest of the body. Some have felt the current ways of doing abhinaya to be deeply influenced by the celluloid, especially the technique of close-up shots that single out the face. Hence, there has been a sort of rejection of mukhabhinaya in the early works of some of our contemporary performers. A process of reclaiming is happening now. I was intrigued by the very evocative yet subtle use of facial expressions in Sandra’s work. She tells me that she never went through the kind of reactionary phase I just talked about. It was heartening to see her facial work nicely integrated with her body work.
Also, the way Sandra altered between a direct, distant gaze that we often find in solo Bharatanatyam, to sweeping glances registering momentarily singled-out members of the audience, was only seemingly innocuous. For, the glances spoke of seduction, shyness, shame and even mock-dismissal. In the ekaharya format, while taking more than one subject position, it is a known technique for a dancer to position the imagined addressee at an angle to the front. When Sandra used this technique, a subtle subversion happened - her glances were very sharp, quick and fleeting and simply refused to let you imagine a disembodied addressee.
The use of
stills (photographs by Anjali Bhargava) - of the feet, legs, face and the
back – and videoed movements (videography by Post Natyam member Sangita
Shreshtova) as projections on the back screen seemed to make one think
of notions of whole and parts, direct gaze, gaze through the camera, etc.
I need to watch the work again to concentrate on that and also the soundscape
by Gurpreet and Jugular, Lal, and Oliver Rajamani that Sandra used.
Vasudevan is a performer-researcher-activist based in Chennai.