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Nirbhayam: A voice against domestic violence and rape
- Bhavanvitha Venkat

November 9, 2018

Swathi Atluri, Kuchipudi exponent and Artistic Director of Siddhendra Kuchipudi Art Academy, New Jersey, presented 'Nirbhayam,' a social drama on the 23rd October 2018 (Visakhapatnam- FinTech 2018). Nirbhayam is about gender-based violence to raise awareness of this menace in an entertaining and educating manner. Social drama requires studying the psychological aspects of the problem besides the behavioral issues of people involved. It requires creative skills in storytelling to effectively address the issue through dance drama. After seeing the reaction and looking at the feedback, I should say that this objective is met with distinction. Just recently, the dance drama premiered to appreciation in New Jersey. Coming from a classical dancer close on the heels of #Timesup and #Metoo wave, this is a welcome initiative. How interesting it is to note the currently not so much voiced concern in art to be so presented as to make it through with music alone. Creative it is.

Nirbhayam starts with four dancers representing young friends dancing to joyful music after a brief introduction from the anchor. In the next scene families of the girls select grooms for their daughters as more characters enter the stage and festivities are played out. Everything is shown going in a happy manner as the girls enjoy their marital bliss. The narrative takes the familiar path of domestic violence and child abuse we read every day in news that keep arising in places and manner we least expect. The dance drama thus connects the audience to the evil. We witness the serious harm and violence inflicted on the women and tensions reach a tipping point.

Hope is revived when victims recount their experiences about other friends who survived the ordeal be it of an acid attack or child molestation and rape and in the process get support from friends. They fight back the injustice and the performance concludes with all the victims taking to task men who committed violence and presenting them to the society. The nirbhayam young ladies stood victorious having conquered their fears and lift their hands in success as men who are left to hang their heads in shame in front of them surrender kneeling with heads down.

It's a presentation that synergized on careful selection of ragas, musical narrative, intuitive graphics, choreography and expressions measured to communicate and focus on the powerful message. Just as it seemed to make you feel the situation of the victims is hopeless, Swathi conveys the 'Nirbhayam.' This, her message, happens by way of positive energies summoned from society, friends and family. The background screens placed behind a few feet above the height of the dancers, with that of scenes that look like gardens, homes etc., make for experience a la that of a movie. This technique looked appealing. Even the mental states were projected behind on the screen to reflect the dancer's expressions. Explanatory notes were read out at each change of phase urging audience to think about the social evil of domestic violence and on creating dialogue about gender-based violence so as to break the society's silence. The notes about the story at each phase made it easy to follow the following scenes.

The dance drama made it possible for the audience to have a first-hand experience of a victim of domestic violence, of a child abused and facing molestation. It's here a connect was established and through this proposition in presentation that the audience developed a bond with the characters. The artistic director preferred to present the performance through an all-female team. On stage using "anga vastram" the characters represented male roles, and a black overall worn around the neck of a child was to convey her broken spirit of the victim and so on. The music was classical and yet not complex so that the average audience is kept attached to the proceedings.

In this production, the challenge for the artistic director was to present the story in an aesthetic sense on one hand and yet ensure its intensity and uncompromising focus on social issue on the other. This was successfully met letting the audience follow the performance in rapt attention. Being a Kuchipudi dancer, Swathi's understanding of natyadharmi and lokadharmi came in handy. She could get right expressions from various characters as per their roles, be it of loving parents, young couples, victims suffering from low self-esteem, violent men, effect of vices, false and broken promises, disbelief and breakdown of psyche. As a dancer too, Swathi got into the skin of her role of a young lady to newly married woman with dreams, and later on as a victim subjected to a drunken husband's vicious mood changes as abusive at one time and making promises to break his habits at another. The all-round talent that she displayed came out in all departments of the production.

The key takeaways are in the choreography drawing inspiration from Kuchipudi which is a dance drama tradition. Body language employed in the dance, in youthful expressions to the defeated walk and moving expressions find their mark, good artistic direction to go musical without lyrics (in turn meant that the abhinayam must convey and be self-explanatory and universal), gradual and consistent building of the narrative, attention to details in the costumes and ornamentation, the synchronization of dancers and their chemistry. The highlight was how all the drama turns into real as shocked audience was left to comprehend as a victim in black cloth walks downs the stage and aimlessly sees walking towards the audience! This proved to have huge impact on the audience as the hall wondered in pin-drop silence!! The consciousness to the victim's plight hit the gathering as the real dimension of the problem was felt in those moments of total disbelief. 'Nirbhayam' stole the hearts at this moment.

'Nirbhayam' turned out to be a universal perspective beyond barriers of geography, language and religion as the delegates in Hotel Novotel could easily understand the goings on as there were no lyrics and dialogue. Swathi cleared the doubts of those left wondering if this was entertainment by announcing to the gathering how she meant entertainment to be educating and directed everyone's thinking towards addressing the issues faced by the society. Mission accomplished.
That the Andhra Pradesh Government provided opportunity to perform about the social cause at an international event like FinTech 2018 where delegates arrived from different nations and regions is to be appreciated. Information Technology minister Nara Lokesh certainly looked impressed as entertainment and education both made the evening well worth after two days of technical and business meetings. Thereafter, he presented mementoes to the members of the team.

It's certainly one of those programs where the attention must go only to the social cause and comments if at all may have to be limited to encourage other classical dancers to come out with such highly effective social endeavors that prove to be both aesthetic and message oriented. Nirbhayam is on its tour for performing in Vizag, Vijayawada and Hyderabad. The dancers were Swathi Atluri, Sunitha Naidu Yerramsetty, Sandhya Gande, Sai Sruthi Retti, Meena Sai Pendli, Priyanka Natesh, Ananya Amaravadhi, Deepthi Surabhi, Datta Vasavi Bandlamudi, Naga Lakshmi Konduri. The music is by DSV Sastry.

Bhavanvitha Venkat is a Kuchipudi dancer, writer and finance advisor for corporates.