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Sreedevi Unni's new avatar
- G. Ulaganathan

January 19, 2019

Does a classical dancer have to always remain a dancer? No, says eminent Mohiniattam exponent Sreedevi Unni, who has charmed audiences all over the world with her soft steps, multiple display of emotions through her face, eyes and limbs for many years now. She has also groomed a brilliant team of dancers who are carrying on her legacy. Now, well into her middle age, Sreedevi has done something unique. She has become a stage actor and brings to life a character of a middle aged, forlorn housewife in Thatatmyam, and the one-woman play in Malayalam successfully premiered before an invited audience at the East Cultural Association in Bengaluru last week.

Thatatmyam tells a simple tale of Subhadra, a middle aged housewife from Kerala who goes to the United States with a twin agenda - to spend some time with her daughter who has settled down there with her husband and child. And secondly, to get treatment for a nagging eye problem. Once she is there, her daughter and son-in-law take off on a holiday and leave her alone at home. It comes as a major let down to this traditional Keralite woman who is forced to eat bread and burgers from the fridge. And to make things worse, she is alone and has no one to talk to.

A play that is dedicated to the elderly and written by Jayaprakash Kulur and directed by Prakash Bare, Thatatmyam means attaining moksha, being one with the divine. Subhadra, who is thousands of miles away from her dear husband Madhavan, finds solace only in the company of her dear Krishna. There is a brilliant use of flashback technique on the screen behind as to how the young girl Subhadra got to buy this pretty idol from a street seller. She does not have sufficient money, but on seeing her attachment towards Krishna, Chettiyar, the seller gives it away to her at less than its market price. Prakash has very imaginatively used this technique on stage.

All goes well until twin tragedy strikes. First when her daughter calls to say that an American has come forward to donate her eye to replace Subhadra's eye, Sreedevi brilliantly shows how she is totally heartbroken by this news. For a conservative woman like her, it is totally unacceptable to see the world through a foreigner's eye. Soon after come the major tragedy in the form of the natural disaster that struck her motherland - the recent Kerala floods. One day she gets the devastating news that her dear Madhavan, around whom her whole world revolved, is no more and he was one of the many victims to this natural disaster. This was the last straw and Subhadra has no meaning in living anymore - even with borrowed sight. The play has a tragic end which moved the audience to tears.

Sreedevi says she had been thinking about this story for the last five years and working with a select team including the writer and director. On stage, she was totally in control - just as how she used to be as a dancer - and literally lived the role. She has plans to stage it in other cities as well.

Will dance world's loss be theatre world's gain? Or will she be able to ride two boats together? Only she knows the answer.

Ulaganathan is a senior dance critic based in Bengaluru.